Nairobi, Kenya – Suleiman Wanjau Bilali, one of Kenya’s best boxers with medals at international events, has been in and out of rehabilitation centers three times because of alcoholism and depression since her fall. discharged in 2012.
Bilali was sleazy, desperate and could not coordinate his mind well while speaking. He spoke in sheng (Swahili-English slang) while chewing miraa – a stimulant, also known as khat. It takes a lot of exploration and patience to understand what he’s saying.
Wearing an old black T-shirt and oversized pants, Bilali looked pale and thin. You can smell alcohol on his breath. His hands trembled as he sat down.
Bilali’s situation was widely recognized. Many Kenyans have protested on social media and local media since 2012, calling on governments and sports agencies to help out the former boxing star that Kenya was once proud of.
Despite this outcry, the government never came up with a plan to help Bilali.
After intense public pressure last year, former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko was the last person to pay for treatment at a rehabilitation center with his own money.
“Sonko took me to a rehabilitation center and also serves my treatment,” Bilali told Al Jazeera.
“When I left the center late last year after three months there, I went back to alcohol and miraa. I am not at home and I struggle to find food. Friends help me with food and a place to sleep. Some of my good friends give me some cash that I use to buy wine and miraa. “
In addition to the medals and representations for Kenya at the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, Bilai is also the recipient of the Head of State’s Commendation.
But two crashes – in 1998 and 2004 – started his downfall.
“In the first accident, I was knocked over by a speeding car while practicing on the road and broke my leg. On the second, I injured my head and broke my shoulder.
“I lost my job in 2012 and my life has been in trouble ever since. I was depressed and my life took a completely different direction. I lost all of my investment and my wife left me. Because of my illness, living a living is my biggest challenge ”.
Bilali sometimes visits the Muthurwa Community Center, located on the edge of the Nairobi business district. He says many boxing stars are grappling with mental health issues and while he is willing to coach young players interested in the sport, without help, he he was unable to escape depression and resisted the urge to alcohol.
Stephen Muchoki, 65, is another former national boxing star. He lives alone in a small estate at the Dandora estate in Nairobi.
His life now is fraught with difficulties even though he has raised the Kenyan boxing flag on international arenas.
“I retired from amateur boxing in 1978 after winning the world championship at the World Amateur Boxing Championship in Yugoslavia. That same year, I won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Canada, ”Muchoki told Al Jazeera.
For five years, Muchoki entered professional boxing in Denmark but returned to Kenya in 1983.
“My heart was in Kenya. I want to serve Kenya and represent my country. Sadly, my life has never been like that. There is no proper structure to facilitate and care for old boxers like me. I was alone. My investment is done and I’m back to zero.
“Nobody bothered even giving me a pension after I brought Kenya’s fame.”
Muchoki is currently volunteering as a coach at the Kariokor Boxing Club in Nairobi. He said that he lived in poverty with no income after he retired.
“Smoking makes me feel good. It is not easy being a former star to live in poverty. I don’t have a pension or anything that will bring me money, which kills me slowly ”.
David Munyasia is another bantamweight (54kg) fighter who only hopes that one day, his legacy will be remembered and appreciated.
Munyasia started his career in the early 1990s when he joined the youth championship. He then represented the Defense Forces of Kenya and the country at international events.
Now, Munyasia has no job and is addicted to chewing.
“I feel depressed because I don’t have a job despite being a boxing legend in Kenya,” says Munyasia.
Kenya’s Ministry of Culture and Sports did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Dancun Kuria, a communications director for the Kenyan Boxing Federation, agrees that many former boxing stars are living in poor conditions.
“We were accused of neglecting the old boxers,” Kuria told Al Jazeera. “Some of them did well on the amateur level but things changed when they went pro. We cannot intervene in the expert’s case as it is not within our mandate.
“In professional boxing, players deal with a boxing commission where the dealers and promoters make arrangements for the games.”
Kuria said he knew the situation of Bilali, Muchoki and Munyasia.
“Our hands are tied. We do not have enough sponsors and some of these cases are very difficult to handle without financial assistance ”.
Kuria also said that some of the affected boxers had to blame themselves for the situation they encountered.
“Many of these boxers have no plans for their afterlife. They are swept away by fame and after playing boxing, their lives change and many people are currently depressed and have other social problems.
“We are encouraging new boxers to take serious learning through our current training sessions so that they have one more skill. We also bring in financial management faculty, therapists, and psychologists. “
With the treatment some former boxers have received, Charles Mukula, a coach at the Dallas Boxing Club, worries about the future of a sport he believes could take Kenya far.
“I am a volunteer coach. I have kids around the age of five who come here to be trained, ”Mukula told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t have the right boxing equipment to practice. It hurts me to see that the passion for boxing from a young age has not been cared for by anyone. Sometimes I get old boxing suits from the former boxers who trained through this club.