Boxing as a sport is a combination of attack and defense techniques with the fists. With roots in Ancient Greece and Rome and more modern forms of the sport originating in England, boxing has been a very widespread phenomenon for a long time. In the United States, the most skilled and best known boxing athletes are from Black and Latino communities.
I recently had the opportunity to visit a photo exhibition called “Africa with Bare Fists” contrasting the cultures around boxing in different parts of Africa at the European House of Photography in Paris. It was the photos that first caught my eye, but then the content drew me in.
I was struck by two very different boxing traditions from two regions of Africa. Photos from slums in Nairobi, Kenya, where boxing was most likely introduced by white missionaries, showed a school classroom converted into a boxing gym. This contained, indoor boxing style resembles how the sport is played in the United States and emphasizes a specific winner. It is also largely a spectator sport. The point of the converted school house we see through these images is to be an alternative to the crime that goes on outside in the slums these athletes all live in. The series on Kenya ends with photos of two Nairobi boxers who ended up competing in the Olympics, escaping from the slums, and moving to the U.S. For these boxers, those who eventually left the slums and for those who were only able to get away while inside the school house as well, their sport was an escape whether temporary or permanent.