Friday April 4 2014

Blind boxer dreams of punching his way out of poverty




Boxing is usually referred to as a “sweet science”. This is in acknowledgement of both the methodical and tough nature of the sport. It involves all the senses. But Ramadhan Bashir has had to fight without one of them— sight. At the East Coast Boxing Club in Naguru, you will find a blind man competing for space with other boxers on a morning workout session. Like most of the other boxers in the gym, Bashir is hoping to box his way out of Naguru’s harsh life.

Meeting the ‘steady’ boxer
You would not know he is visually impaired if it was not for his walking cane. The way he mingles with the other boxers in the gym makes you understand how popular and likeable he is. He has competed with some national boxing stars like Bashir Nasir and Shadir Musa.

“How can I lose to a blind person?’’ Nasir jokingly asks, prompting Bashir to come out of his shell and say: “I am blind but very steady. Let’s go and I show you. You cannot withstand my punching power, you are just a young boy.”
“You see, sometimes people think I am not blind because of the way that I train and how accurate my punches are,” he says.

How he became visually impaired
During his teens, Bashir was a builder. “One day, I started feeling a strong headache. The following day, I complained to my dad because I could not see in one of my eyes. On the third day, I lost my sight completely. Some good Samaritans had to guide me back home.

“That became the end of my work as a builder. I used to cry a lot. But later I realised that life had to move on,” he says, this time with in a sad tone.
However, Hassan Khalil, his uncle, thinks this [the blindness] could be genetic because Bashir’s grandfather was also blind.
Dr Simon Arunga, an ophthalmologist at Mbarara University Teaching Hospital, head trauma is one of the causes of brain and optic nerve (part of the brain) or visual cortex insult.

Arunga also rules out the genetics part of it. “The issue of the grandfather may be totally unrelated; he could have developed cataracts in his old age and gone blind. However, some genetic blinding conditions are things like glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, which do not add up with the age at which Bashir went blind,” says Arunga. He advises Bashir to visit a specialist for a proper checkup to know the exact problem.

But Khalil says the family lacks finances for such medical expenses. They tried seeking help but nothing has come into fruition.

Forging a boxing career
“In the 1990s, I was playing football and watching Football Made in Germany, a popular soccer show on Uganda Television (now UBC TV). Thomas Hassler, Lothar Matthäus and Rudi Völler (all former German national team players) were my favorites. That’s why my colleagues in Naguru nicknamed me ‘Germany’,” he says, with a grin. That was before he lost his sight.
In his football career, he featured for Avis FC, a Naguru-based club that also had the likes of Shaka Okello and Ronald Katsigazi, both former Uganda Cranes players.

“I was the main striker in the Avis team. Angelo Lonyesi (current Police FC coach) would always rely on me to lead the hunt for goals. I used to take all free kicks and penalties in our team,” boasts Bashir.
Despite the blindness, Bashir has not lost his love for football. He usually moves around KCCA grounds in Lugogo to take penalties kicks for a fee. “I am blind but nobody has ever saved my penalty kick. I always take the money they stake. Before I kick that ball, I first get to know the movements of the goalkeeper and kick it the opposite direction.

“I can also know the details of a football match if I listen to the commentaries on radio or TV. My football dream was to play for the Uganda Cranes but now it is no more.”

When he lost his sight 10 years ago, Khalil encouraged him to concentrate on boxing. Khalil is also a former boxer. Since then, he has never looked back. In 2005, Bashir started getting back in shape with help from his uncle. In 2006, he was ready for his first fight.

So how does he manage to box without seeing his opponents?
“I use all my senses. Mostly my ears. I just hear the feet on the ground and locate you. I usually fight people with normal eye sight who are usually blindfolded,” he says.

On December 26, 2006 (Boxing Day), Bashir twice defeated Pascal Bogaert, who was blindfolded. Bogaert is a die-hard boxing fan and an administrator at Kampala International School-Uganda (Kisu). The fight was aimed at raising funds for East Coast Boxing Club.

Bogaert has, alongside Khalil, tried to organise many fights with other blind boxers around the world. They have identified and contacted some in Kenya, Norway and Denmark, but nothing has panned out so far because of the scarcity of resources. Bashir also defeated Robert Ssembooze, his former sparring partner, who was blindfolded as well. But he got his match in Simon Peter Umar Makabere, a Tanzanian blind boxer. The bout ended in a draw.

He also jokes that musician Bobi Wine, a self-proclaimed boxer, cannot match him. “Bobi Wine used to come here for training but he was always avoiding me. If he thinks he is good at boxing, let him come and face me. Unlike others, I will fight him when he is not blindfolded.”

His dream
Bashir’s dream is to take part in the 2018 Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He just calls out for sponsorship from government, corporate companies and well-wishers.
“If you [journalists] keep tracing people like me, the world shall know about me and I will end up getting sponsored. It’s a war we have to fight together,” he says.

In Paralympics, visually-impaired athletes are classified by the level of blindness; from reduced visual field or visual acuity to full blindness. For now, he still trains every morning, hoping that lady luck will smile upom him someday and escape the harsh life of Naguru.

Born. In 1970 to the Late Ramadhan Suleiman and Abdallah Maimouna. However, he grew up with his grandparents in Naguru Community Centre Zone.
Family. He is married. He also has seven children, whose mothers shunned him after he became blind.
Favourite boxer. Sugar Ray Leonard, an American boxing star of the 1980s.

Prominent visually-impaired athletes
1. Chris Holmes, a Paralympic swimmer who has won multiple gold medals.
2. Cedric Jones, an American football player. He is blind in one eye.
3. Zohar Sharon, blind golfer.
4. Henry Wanyoike, a long-distance runner with 95 per cent vision loss.