Kenya's Two-Fisted Fatuma Zarika and the Fight of Her Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The fact that Fatuma Zarika, 33, got to fight for the WBC bantamweight belt is not nearly as amazing as how she won it.
By Viviane Feldman, Will Swanson, Fatuma Zarika and Julia Steers
The way I grew up, it was rough. It was in Satellite, part of Kawangware, a Nairobi slum. My mom was a single mom, and it was me, her and my brother. I went to school but dropped out at 16 to help my mom pay my brother’s school fees. Work was hard to find and I had no skills, so my life was not good.
So I said to myself, “If I don’t do something, my life is going to be a waste.”
That’s when I started boxing. But soon after dropping out of school, I had my first daughter. Now I would be a single mom, like my own mother. After my second daughter was born, though, I began to train. At 19, with two little daughters, Sofia and Halima, I decided I wanted to give them a better life, a life that I didn’t have. And I needed money.
I started as an amateur, and it didn’t pay well. So I turned professional in 2000, but for my first pro fight, I still didn’t earn anything. It was frustrating, but I didn’t give up. I kept telling myself, “One day life is going to be perfect, and I will get good management.”
On fight night, I had no coach, no cutman, no one in my corner. I told myself and I told God: “This is my last fight. Enough.”
Back then, promoters picked up boxers and brought them to fight internationally. But the boxers usually didn’t get paid. Boxing is corrupt here in Kenya, and all over. I faced deception from promoters and managers who used me to help themselves. I wanted to give it all up because it wasn’t benefiting me at all.
Finally, I got a promoter. He was based in the U.S. He contacted me and said I could stay with him. He would manage my career, he said. I believed him. I was excited, of course — I thought my life was about to change drastically. I went to stay with him in the U.S., but he made me do housework and refused to train me.
I could go for fights still, but I never got paid. He told me that because I stayed in his house, ate his food and used his electricity he would deduct that money from what I made in fights. I never saw any money from training or fighting.
I was a mess, very worn down. After doing housework, I couldn’t concentrate on training. All I thought about was my family back home — I imagined they had no money for food. They were depending on me, and I couldn’t send them anything. Nine months of this until he called me into his office and said, “I’m sending you back home.”
I couldn’t believe it. Nine months and not one penny? I was so frustrated that I threatened to call the police if he did not organize at least one real, paid fight for me, even if it was the only one I fought in the U.S. Well, he got me a fight for the World Boxing Council championship. I didn’t have any option but to agree to it, of course. I knew beforehand I wouldn’t be paid, but I still went for it. I was angry, but I was also proud.
I was training myself because he wasn’t willing, but I still had fight in me. I traveled to Mexico for the WBC match with another boxer, but she didn’t speak English. On fight night, I had no coach, no cutman, no one in my corner. I told myself, and I told God: “This is my last fight. Enough.” I fought that night thinking of everything I had gone through. And I won; I was declared the winner. I couldn’t believe it. I had never won an international fight.
Winning the WBC belt changed my life. I was at a point where I was at my lowest mentally. To me, winning was God’s way of telling me not to give up.
I grew up seeing the president and fans go to the airport to welcome our champion runners home from international competitions. I was the WBC bantamweight champion. I had the same belt as Muhammad Ali’s daughter Laila Ali. I expected to be welcomed back to my country with lots of people or a notice from the sports minister, but it was just my daughters at the airport.
I tried not to be disappointed about the money or about coming home. But sometimes I don’t feel proud to be a Kenyan because they don’t believe I’m someone. Nobody has this belt here in Kenya, or in Africa — only me. But they don’t care. A few months later, I got another manager, thinking maybe this would be the big turn. It wasn’t.
I decided no more managers, no more promoters, and I got my family involved. My cousin Sue and daughter Sofia come with me everywhere — meetings with my sponsors and to my daily training. They join meetings with my clients. I am a champion, but I still don’t make money off boxing alone, so I have to train people. Mostly expats, those who can afford a trainer.
My life is OK now. I don’t live like a rich athlete. That idea makes me laugh. But I live OK and support my family, so things are good.
Sometimes people still say, “Hey you are not a woman, you’re a man.” What I do — this is not a job for women. People think I’m a man because of the way I look and maybe the way I do things. In public, I usually just go into the men’s room so women don’t start screaming at me in the ladies’ room. It’s difficult but I handle it. And I think people are beginning to understand. I chose to be like this. It’s my life, this is me.
I have a sponsor now too — that’s a big change. SportPesa will sponsor me for a big fight in Nairobi in September. They named me a brand ambassador in April 2017, and since then, life has been different. So now I have this fight, and I’ll train in the U.K. for a month. I hope sports in Kenya can help move the country ahead after the past year of election problems — I think sports are going to help people come together. You have a boxing match and people from all over will come: Kikuyu, Kamba, Luo, whatever tribe, they are coming together.
We’re going to meet there at the match, we’re going to enjoy each other, we’re going to talk. I still worry about money, and my girls need to finish school, but I know they’re proud of me. For my part, I just need their lives to be better than mine has been.