Changing lives and moulding Olympians

The grassroots boxing project providing new opportunities to vulnerable young people in Nairobi
Christine Ongare has a flag. It is the Kenyan flag handed to her in 2012 by Elizabeth Andiego, just as Andiego was leaving Nairobi to box for her country in the London Olympics. Ongare was 18 and training in the same community boxing programme that, four years after its inception, was sending one of its coaches, Andiego, to the Games. Ongare held on to the flag as she boxed a path to her own Olympics, in Tokyo.
In the sports movie version of this story, Ongare would have returned from Japan and passed the flag on again, to any one of the more than 3000 members of BoxGirls Kenya, and that athlete would blaze a trail to Paris in 2024, or Los Angeles four years later. But the flag is not the point. The true success of this transformative project, supported by Laureus Sport for Good, is not these breakthroughs at elite level. It is in the life-changing impact it has had on the hundreds of young people who have participated in it. 
When asked about where she would have been had she not found BoxGirls at the age of 15, Ongare said: “Maybe I could have been a drunkard woman, maybe married having many kids. I thought many times about giving up, but I continued the journey because I believed where I came from was more difficult than where I was going.”
BoxGirls Kenya offers a pathway out of the most challenging circumstances imaginable for the young women and, more recently, men, who walk through its doors. The programme’s founder, Alfred Analo Anjere, can tell you all about the dangers his young athletes face in their own communities: “Physical, mental and sexual violence; rape; dropping out of school due to poverty, pregnancy, early marriage; cultural and religious stereotypes.” 
They call Anjere ‘Priest’. He is from the same Kariobangi district of Nairobi as many of his boxers and he founded BoxGirls in 2007. Two years later, Ongare put on gloves for the first time. She was 15 years old and even smaller than the 1.57 metres (5ft 2ins) and 51 kilograms (112 pounds) athlete who boarded a plane for Tokyo to compete in the featherweight category. And she was already a mother to a three-year-old son, Maxwell. 
Ongare remembers a childhood full of the dangers Anjere describes, but his vision for BoxGirls Kenya was to provide the young women of Nairobi with the tools to increase their opportunities: “Confidence and self-esteem, resilience, the importance of setting goals and striving to achieve them.”
However, while Ongare followed Andiego’s trail to the Olympics, the BoxGirls model is not aimed at elite competition, instead focusing on helping its participants achieve their potential, wherever that may take them. Its mission is to prepare these women “to face the outside world in all its aspects," explains Anjere. 
BoxGirls, which was shortlisted for the Sport For Good Award at the Laureus World Sports Awards in 2021, conducts workshops on entrepreneurship, rights awareness, sexuality and reproduction, and child protection. The aim is to produce citizens, not Olympians. 
Florence has been a boxer and a coach with the programme and first met Ongare when they were both still in their teenage years. When she discusses the programme, Florence celebrates not just her friend the Olympian, but a boxer who has enrolled in university to study political science; another who is now an accountant; another who is learning bakery in college. 
However, she does see the benefit of having a Tokyo Olympian on the roster when it comes to recruitment. 
“Yes, it will be impactful for the girls who are joining,” said Florence. “We gave her the wings to fly and become who she is and she is a motivation to the girls. She was just like the many of the girls that we are reaching; many who also grew up in the areas that we're working in, who undergo the same situations. This gives them encouragement. They see that nothing is impossible.”

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