How COVID Knocked Out a Boxing Gym That Took People From Poverty to the Olympics – VICE UK

KAMPALA, Uganda — Inside the bare, sweltering room, a dozen young men drop down and give 20 push-ups. Behind them, a coach spars with a younger boxer, fraying gloves catching the morning light. In the far corner, three lads pump rusty iron on makeshift benches by a ragged punchbag held together with tape.
Outside, Naguru’s hillside slum in Kampala is waking up. Women set up stalls selling chargrilled corn and chapati-wrapped omelettes while children in school uniforms walk to classes. Motorcycle taxis weave among them along potholed backstreets to join the growing tailbacks on the highway below.
Back inside the East Coast Boxing Club, the bell sounds and the sweat-drenched fighters take a rest. It is February 2020 and this brotherhood of refugees and boxers look to the club as a way out of their struggles. Far from here, or so it seems, a new disease has begun to spread, with thousands of confirmed cases growing across continents. But in Naguru, for now at least, there are more pressing concerns.
East Coast boxers train at the gym.
Among the boxers is Jackson Muhiyi, a wiry, lightning-fast 25-year-old who fled war in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to pursue his dream of becoming a prize-fighter. His flyweight friend, Miiro Juma, was born in a Naguru shanty, overcoming privation and a brutal gang attack to represent his country at the Commonwealth Games. And 58-year-old Hassan Khalil, who founded the club with his twin brother after years in exile, is on a mission to help the community, keeping young boxers off the streets.
“I just want to push the boys towards a good future,” said Khalil.
The bell rings again and the men get up, surrounded by posters on peeling walls — one emblazoned with the face of Muhammad Ali, another with the words: “Pain is temporary. Pride is forever.”
Yet, over the coming 18 months, the pain of the pandemic will be far from temporary for this community as they struggle to deflect the cruel impact of the disease and its accompanying lockdowns. While the first wave left Uganda relatively unscathed, as was the case with most African countries, a steep surge in infections from the highly-transmissible Delta variant triggered oxygen shortages and brought hospitals to breaking point, all while crippling businesses and exacerbating hunger among a population facing widespread poverty and unemployment.
It also landed a sucker punch on this boxing club, leaving its fighters on the ropes.
A British expat, Marcus Warry, rests during an intense training session at the club.
The club’s co-owner is no stranger to adversity. In the turmoil that followed the 1979 ouster of the Ugandan despot, Idi Amin, Khalil’s family fled to neighbouring Kenya, albeit without his older brother who had been killed by rampaging soldiers.
After a stint in a refugee camp, the family wound up in Nairobi. There, Khalil found work as an electrician, boxing in his spare time whenever he could, while his twin brother went on to win gold at Brisbane’s Commonwealth Games in 1982.
But after more than a decade in exile, the pair were ready to return home and moved back to Kampala’s Naguru slum in the early 1990s. A short walk from Naguru’s affluent upper reaches, they found a community in dire need.
Hassan Khalil, the co-founder of East Coast Boxing Club.
“Back then, like today, there were no employment opportunities,” said Khalil. “The houses are small and poor quality. Fathers die and leave their kids alone. There are people with nothing to eat.”
He and his brother saw an opportunity to help. Promoting discipline, they created a boxing haven for local youth and raised funds by charging wealthy expats to train at the gym, encouraging them to sponsor teenagers through school. “Most of our boys come from the street,” he added. “They don’t have to pay. They can’t afford it.”
Despite its limited resources and lack of air-con in the equatorial heat, the club began turning out title-winners, winning national championships and landing fighters on the national team — including welterweight Shadir Bwogi who competed at this year’s Tokyo Olympics after training under Khalil. The wider Naguru slum gained a reputation for producing top athletes, not just in boxing but also football, rugby, and tennis.
Hundreds of youngsters have gone through the gym, using the club’s poor stock of torn gloves and tattered punch bags falling apart at the seams.
“I’m just an old man,” said Khalil last February. “I’ve lived my life. But these boys are the future. I want to raise the community up and make this a better place.”
But then COVID-19 struck, pulling no punches and threatening his mission.
A British expat, Marcus Warry, trains with club co-founder Hassan Khalil.
In mid-March 2020, a few days after the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a pandemic, Uganda’s government started introducing a raft of measures to combat the spread of the virus, banning public gatherings and enforcing quarantine measures for travellers from high-risk countries.
The East African country’s first case was detected a few days later when a 36-year-old Ugandan man flew in from a Dubai business trip with a fever. Soon afterwards, the government shut all schools and universities, suspended public transport and brought in a nationwide, nighttime curfew, as reports emerged of security personnel beating Ugandan journalists covering the developments.
Boxers exercise during a high-intensity work-out at the gym in Naguru.
The lockdown hit Khalil’s gym hard. Travel bans stopped his fighters from competing at Olympic qualifiers in France while rich expats fled the country in droves to see out the pandemic with families in Europe and elsewhere, denying the club a key source of income and depleting its coffers. Training sessions reduced dramatically and were forced to take place outside with just a handful of boxers each time.
Among the fighters most affected was Miiro Juma. Softly-spoken with an explosive right hook, this 26-year-old had joined when he was only ten before being called for national trials just five years later. He was close to competing in Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games in 2014 but had been hospitalised by a gang a few months earlier by the city's shores on Lake Victoria.
“They came from behind me with a baseball bat and hit me in the face,” said Juma last year. “As I tried to get up, they beat my legs with it.”
East Coast members watch their fellow boxers train at the gym.
The brutal attack left him with a broken jaw and 18 months’ worth of recovery before his next fight. “It damaged my career for a long time,” he said.
But he came back strong at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018, winning bronze before taking gold a year later at a Kenyan tournament.
“East Coast is my home,” he added. “This is where I was made. I owe everything to this place.”
Last year’s travel ban, though, prevented him from attending Olympic qualifiers. Stuck at home, in a country where the line between amateur and professional boxing is often blurred, lockdown then stripped him of his coaching income. “When boxing stopped, I had no money to eat,” he said.
Even Naguru’s slum-rate rents proved too much. Juma, his wife and their two young boys had to move into a one-bedroom house further out when their landlord slapped them with a rent hike equivalent to $28 a month.
A boxer collects gloves from a the club’s ragged collection as they dry in the sun after a morning of training
Jackson Muhiyi faced a similar ordeal in Kampala. A welder by trade, he got out of the war-wracked, Congolese province of North Kivu aged 18 after AK47-wielding militants murdered his father and kidnapped his young sister, forcing his family to pay $3,000 to free her.
“Two weeks later, I just left,” he said. “I heard there was a refugee camp here in Uganda and that there was food and work so I came here with my young brother.”
For several years, he and his wife lived among more than 100,000 others in southern Uganda’s Nakivale Refugee Settlement, sending money back to his mother and occasionally travelling to Kampala to train at East Coast, crashing in a small room nearby for less than 60 cents a night.
The sport offered him some escape. “When I box, I feel something inside of me change,” said Muhiyi. “I feel free. I forget my problems. I want to tell people that once I was once from a refugee camp so I can inspire young people and show them that anything is possible.”
But COVID has crushed those dreams. The first lockdown put an end to his day job, unloading goods trucks beneath a blistering sun for less than $3 per shift. Later, as the country opened up, Muhiyi and his family left the Nakivale Refugee Settlement and moved to Kampala. To pay the bills, the aspiring boxer landed a welding job with Chinese contractors building a $1.7-billion hydroelectric dam north of Kampala, but was laid off after a month.
Out of options in a country where refugees struggle to gain employment, Muhiyi found work walking the dusty streets of the capital, hawking jewellery and cheap perfume to support his wife and kids.
That came to an end this June when the Ugandan government imposed a heavyweight lockdown — one of Africa’s strictest — that would last 42 days during a surge in coronavirus infections. Private and public vehicles were banned, while schools and businesses besides the most essential were shuttered, all battering East Africa’s third-biggest economy. Street traders like Muhiyi were forced off the street.
Boxers exercise during a high-intensity workout
Desperate to save money, he and his wife cut their meals to just two a day — usually cornmeal porridge and bony, cheap fish from the market.
“I had so many hopes but now I don’t even know how I can make the rent,” he said a few weeks into that second lockdown. “We’re really struggling here — people don’t have enough money to eat or pay hospital bills if they get the disease.”
In the absence of robust social security, the screw also tightened on fellow boxer Juma.
“Now, it is very hard,” he said. “Most of my expat clients have left. I have to take care of my grandmother, my mother, other relatives — a lot of people depend on me. I don’t even have time to focus on my career as a boxer now. I’m supposed to pay my rent soon but have no idea how I’m going to do that.”
As expats took off again, club owner Khalil saw income plummet by 80 percent.
“No one wants to come here and train,” he said. “Every time you turn on the radio, people are just dying. People are scared. Last year was tough, but nothing like this.”
A boxer enters the East Coast Boxing Club compound in Naguru
There is a glimmer of light for hard-up city dwellers like Juma, Khalil and Muhiyi who, like 40 percent of Kampala’s population, live in informal, densely-populated settlements without basic infrastructure such as water services and sewage treatment.
At the end of July, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni loosened the lockdown, allowing markets and shopping centres to re-open, although his government's vaccine programme has faced hurdles and criticism. Out of a total population of 45.7 million, only 250,000 people are reported to be fully vaccinated — just 0.5 percent of all Ugandans. 
In the world’s least vaccinated continent, where less than two percent of its 1.3-billion population has been fully immunized, Ugandan officials have blamed shortages on the slow trickle of donated doses from rich countries.
Yet the government has also come under fire for a recent spending spree that lavished lawmakers with $30 million worth of new official vehicles — the equivalent of $56,500 per politician — while failing to buy any vaccines to stop the second wave. 
Hassan Khalil speaks with young members of the gym
Elsewhere, medical staff were arrested after at least 800 people were given fake jabs, with some injected with water. On top of this, a new polio outbreak forced Uganda’s health ministry to declare a public health emergency last month, possibly fuelled by the pandemic’s disruptive impact on routine polio immunizations.
Despite a loosened lockdown, gyms, as well as bars, religious sites, and other venues have been ordered to stay shut. Muhiyi still has his gloves but feels trapped in Kampala's boxing underworld.
“When I’m stressing out, I hit that heavy bag, then I feel a little free,” he said. “I fell in love with boxing at a young age and my dream was to become a champion. I came to the city to show my talent but now that one thing has been taken away from me.”
A return to Nakivale is looming. “My business has collapsed and the rent is too tough,” Muhiyi said. “I’m going to go back to the camp.”
Boxers work out at the club’s small adjoining gym in Naguru
For Khalil, there is still hope. Next year’s Commonwealth Games in the UK offers a beacon to guide his boxers towards.
“We have youngsters coming up now who could be the next champions,” he said. “This club could produce the best, not just in Uganda but in the world. We will keep going till this sickness leaves us.”
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