Entering from the brand new gate, the small slope of rocks and dust falls not too gently to the house of Hassan Khalil, the head coach, “baaba” (father in Luganda) in the slum of Naguru, north-west of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Attached to the house, modest, there is the gym, old, small too, but full of energy.
Feel the rope faster and faster whipping the old parquet, where wood sometimes falls under the feet of the athlete. Nassir, among the champions at the National Open Boxing (prelude to the Olympics) jumps faster in front of the broken mirror that covers one of the walls of the gym.
Sweat leaves a brilliant track on Mohammed’s muscles, while coaching the “bazungu” (white people) mad about this sport. Meanwhile Miro – who is grandson to Hassan’s twin brother, Hussein – crashes his punches against one of the consumed boxing bags, which hangs from the beam fixed with rusty screws at the gym’s entrance.
At the same time, Hakim teaches the basic movements to the many foreigners in Kampala, lovers of the freedom and flexibility of this sport (there are around 40 non-Ugandans who train regularly every week).
Albert and Charles are sparring with other kids from the slum, while Farouk and Timo alternate with Shadir, who dodges and hits fast while preparing for the next fight. Kassim, down the hall, with its slender, incredibly strong and firm arms, keeps his pads high, while a Canadian girl and a Ugandan one exchange their positions among jebs and rights.
Founded fourteen years ago, the gym serves as a reference point for the Naguru slum, where Hassan trains youth and adults. The youngest is 7 years old and the oldest is 60. Hassan himself is almost 60 years old and has more than 170 fights “I’ve never been afraid in a fight – even if they tell me to face the world’s champion, I’ll jump in with no fear”.
On the rickety wooden benches, where the athletes rest after each round, under a dreamy and focused young Muhammad Ali’s poster, the coach remembers old times when it was extremely dangerous to walk around at night in the neighborhood.
The East Coast Naguru Boxing Club is now more than an institution in the slum (if you ask to Naguru boda (motorcycles) drivers: “do you know where the East Coast Boxing Club gym is?” – you will get it right away, “of course, right in front of the mosque”). It is an anchor and a lighthouse of hope. Hassan lists the improvements he has planned to bring: with 4 million Ugandan shillings (approximately 1000 euro) he can enlarge the gym, build a new entrance and have a larger space for the ring where every two months amateur fights are organized, to convey passion among boys and girls in the slum and also to raise funds for the activities of the gym.
Hassan looks at his athletes as to his children. Between a workout and another, he teaches little ones (and especially the older kids) how to behave, to channel their energies in boxing gloves instead of in street violence and especially teaches a job to those who have finished studying (or that cannot afford to study).
Indeed Hassan started a few years ago to involve professionals in various fields (such as carpentry) and added to the gym also a sort of vocational school, where young people can learn a job. The only obstacle is finding enough teachers who can support the project. But “baaba” is a volcano of initiatives: many professional boxing schools pick among his best athletes. However, Hassan does not want to simply be a basic school, he also wants his medals. Hence, the idea of building a gym for very young professionals, and Hassan will start the construction of a new boxing club at Namboole area, close to the national football stadium.
Between prayers and gloves, Hassan’s life revolves around Naguru: “Why are you doing this, coach?”, Hassan does not hesitate for a second: “There’s too much poverty. I’ve always lived here, where my father’s mission was to give hope to the children of the slum. For everyone, his name was “baaba”. Now “baaba” is me, it is my mission to these guys.”
And the guys respond with heads full of dreams. Miro, Charles and Farouk (who are all less than 23 years old) are staring at the future and dreaming of becoming professionals in ten years
Albert, among the oldest and more expert athletes (28 years old) champs at the bit and cannot wait to jump to a higher rank. Hakim, among the youngest, dreams of returning to school. But everyone agrees on one thing: “The lessons of these teachers are invaluable. The freedom and the love for the sport that this gym expresses are invaluable.”
And everyone knows at least one person who managed to get out of the degradation and delinquency thanks to the teachings of the Khalil brothers. And some have even regained confidence in life after a tragedy: the story of Bashir Ramathan, the blind boxer, has been reported by the New York Times a few years ago.
Prayers and gloves. Hassan, in the morning, calls the prayer from the mosque in front of his house. After that, he calls everyone to the gym, ready to teach how to fight among rocks and dust.