August 25, 2013
ACCRA, GHANA – During Ghana’s Independence Day celebrations on March 6, 2011, 28-year-old boxer, martial artist and former international lightweight boxing champion Issaka Issah walked home after purchasing a new pair of boxing gloves.
He walked along Lutterodt Street, a road that leads toward the slums of Salaga, a poor fishing community in Ghana’s capital of Accra, he says. As he made his way home, he came across two boys arguing about who could beat the other in a fight.
The boys, each about 10 years old, shouted and threatened each other, he says. After a long debate, they approached Issah, a well-known local resident, and asked to use his new pair of gloves to fight.
“I was very surprised,” he says. “But I decided to give it to them, then went home to bring the other pair of gloves.”
The match began, and a crowd of people paused their Independence Day celebrations to watch, Issah says. He did not realize it at the time, but he had started a trend.
“A week later, another set of boys came to me for my gloves, wanting to challenge each other to a fight,” he says. “This is how it started.”
These were the first matches of the Juvenile Street Boxing Foundation, the name Issah gave to the group of local children who meet each week to box under his instruction.
“The boys in this community don’t fear fights,” he says. “As a professional boxer, I realized that we have to take them from the streets, teach them how to box because they have the potential, and teach them how to be disciplined as per the principles of boxing and also through education.”
Now, crowds form on Lutterodt Street every Sunday, he says. Boys first sweep the street and use white chalk to sketch an artificial ring. Spectators begin arriving at 3:30 p.m., and there is a crowd ready to watch by 4:30 p.m.
Two volunteers challenge each other to the first fight, and the crowd cheers or scorns the contenders as they progress, Issah says. He serves as both coach and referee and occasionally extends an orange bowl to the crowd of people, who fill it with donations.
Each week, he collects between 6 Ghanaian cedis ($3) and 10 cedis ($5), he says. He sometimes distributes this money to the children, or he uses it to buy a small bag of rice, which he then cooks for the young boxers.
“I want to let the children develop their talent and become professionals and champions,” he says.
Even if they do not become professionals, they still benefit from the sport, he says.
“Boxing is a game of discipline,” he says. “Even if they do not become boxers, they will be disciplined and won’t fight anyhow in their houses.”
Boxing benefits Accra’s urban children who would otherwise engage in violence. Many of the children in the Juvenile Street Boxing Foundation come from poor households and find support and structure in the Sunday matches. Issah acts as a boxing coach and mentor, and he stresses the importance of academics to the children. In the future, he says he hopes to establish a boxing academy that highlights the dual importance of schooling and boxing.
Unemployment rates are high in Accra’s fishing communities, according to a 2009 report by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme in 2009. Further, less than 37 percent of the city’s eligible children are enrolled in primary school.
Without adult counsel or a place to channel their energy, children in poor neighborhoods become aggressive and undisciplined, says Juliana Brown, a counselor at the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana, in a phone interview. Organized boxing provides a productive outlet for their energy.
“When young people with such huge amounts of energy grow up in such communities – where they learn to be aggressive, get into fights and so on – they need platforms such as this to channel their energies into,” she says.
Boxing is the best platform for these children, says Gabriel Peters, secretary-general of the Ghana Amateur Boxing Federation, in a phone interview.
“There are kids who are hyperactive,” Peters says. “They have a lot of energy and don’t know what to use it for.”
When they box, they learn discipline and control, he says.
“As a boxer, you can’t go and beat anyone outside of the ring,” he says. “You’ll be banned from the sport.”
Discipline and sports are linked, Issah says. Boxing teaches the children in the community to control themselves.
“We let them know professional boxers don’t go around fighting because they know they are strong,” he says.
Napoleon Tagoe, who manages a large boxing gym in Accra, sees benefits for both the boxers and the community. Young people who otherwise would have become thieves, he says, are gaining some financial assistance through what they know how to do best: fighting.
The Juvenile Street Boxing Foundation provides stability to children who lack stability at home.
About 14 children box consistently with the group, and others participate when they have the chance, Issah says. The youngest is 3, and the oldest is 15. There are four orphans, and many participants come from poor families.
Michael Nelson, 10, is in third grade and began boxing with the group in April, he says. The Sunday matches have helped him to earn money. He buys food with the money that Issah sometimes distributes after matches.
“My father is a fisherman, but I don’t know where he is,” he says. “He lives somewhere else. My mother is a trader. She sell[s] fish. She uses the money she gets to buy some books for me, but she is never able to buy all my books. But I know she doesn’t get too much money.”
He aspires to be like the professional U.S. boxer Floyd Mayweather, he says. He trains immediately after school every day.
Michael Abban, 11, says that the matches have helped him to control his temper. The fourth-grader lives with his mother and younger sister, although his mother is rarely at home. She leaves money on a chair before she leaves the house, and his sister uses the money to buy food to cook for the two of them.
In the past, Michael Abban was angry and often picked fights with others, Issah says.
But the fourth-grader says that Issah told him that boxers did not behave that way.
“I still sometimes fight with my colleagues, but I think I am better now,” he says, staring at the ground and giggling. “It was worse.”
Boys are not the only ones who benefit from the boxing matches, Issah says. Adjoa, one of the few female fighters in the foundation, has never lost a match.
Adjoa, who declined to give her last name, knows what fighting looks like, she says. Her mother beats her father at home. But boxing is different.
“I know I like fighting, but I realized after joining the boys here that I was hurting people for nothing,” she says. “When I fight a boxing match, at the end of the matches, I get some money for food. When I fight with people, I get nothing. I just waste my energy.”
She wants to be a professional boxer, but she does not have a role model, she says. She wants to learn more about existing female boxers.
Education inside and outside the boxing ring is essential, says Issah, who advocates for the combination of sports and formal education. He and Abdul Samiru, his partner in organizing the Juvenile Street Boxing Foundation, provide school fees for the orphans in the group.
“Some of them are already in school,” he says. “But some do not have parents, so we put them in school.”
To encourage and support these children, Issah acts as guardian and stays informed of their academic progress.
“We visit them every Friday to check their attendance in school,” he says. “Sometimes we even attend PTA meetings for them. We don’t have sponsors now, so I fund them myself, at least to junior high school level.”
He tries his best to teach the young boxers the importance of academics by sharing the experiences of some of his colleagues, he says.
“There have been numerous cases where local boxers who get the opportunity to go international sign contracts that do not benefit them,” he says. “They cheat them, because they can’t read or write.”
Michael Abban wants to become a professional boxer, he says. To do this, he not only trains every day after school but also plans to attend a university.
“Issah told us that without school, we cannot become champions,” he says. “We could be cheated. I want to go to the university, but if there is no money, I will just focus on the boxing.”
Adjoa, too, wants to continue her schooling and says she hopes that her mother continues to earn enough money to support her education.
“I want to speak big-big English when they interview me when I become a professional boxer,” she says happily.
The sport has given many of the children something to fight for.
“When I become a professional boxer, my mother will not go hungry again,” says 9-year-old Francis, whose last name was not obtained.
The Ghana Amateur Boxing Federation is interested in encouraging vulnerable children, especially girls, to take up the sport, Peters says. He hopes to meet with Issah and the foundation to discuss ways to involve the Juvenile Street Boxing Foundation in the federation.
After more than two years of gathering collections from onlookers, Issah has saved enough money to buy some equipment: three pairs of gloves, two head guards that already look a bit worn, and the left leg of a boxing boot. But he has bigger plans for the Juvenile Street Boxing Foundation, he says.
“My dream – though it is very hard to think about it becoming true because I am hardly able to save towards it – is to one day set up a boxing academy, which will combine schooling and boxing,” Issah says. “I will then be able to take care of both education and boxing needs.”