Eyes shut, head tilted towards the sky, she took in the first couple of lines to the anthem. She could feel her chest tightening from the riot of emotions stirring underneath the red jumpsuit she was wearing. Willing the tears to not flow, she bit, albeit gently, on her lower lip and clenched her right fist around the corner of the flag draped over her back.
The anthem went a note higher as it transitioned to the second stanza; and everything came at her in one go. What a journey it had been from the first day she walked into that gym in Wandegeya, Katanga. She was now at the podium in Tokyo. Silver medalist.
First ever woman to win an Olympics medal for Uganda. Her name would be eternally etched in folklore.
She couldn’t hold the tears back anymore. The attention would be on the gold medal winner anyway, for whom the stadium currently roared. She remembered the days when she had trained on an empty stomach. The derision from neighbours who called her names and wondered what she was up to. The relatives who had long given up on her.
Her mind raced to the rest of her teammates and everything they go through in pursuit of this dream. To all the times they had to take turns at using gloves and mouth guards. To the times they waited on government promises to get unfulfilled before the next ones are made. They must be smiling and clapping and jumping for joy. For this this was their win too.
Oh! Her two children, for whom she did all this; for whom she would lay down her life. Had someone, anyone in the neighborhood with a television set, thought to invite them over to witness this once in a lifetime moment? Mostly, she thought about the betrayal of a country that had given her so little, yet would stop at nothing to claim her and this feat.
The music started to fade and the stadium was erupting in thunderous applause. Then she broke. She reached for the flag and started to tear it in anger.
And then she woke up in a startle. Woke up from the dream, to bouts of blinding lightning and roaring thunder. Her children wailing from the fright, their bed and entire one room flooded. Hellen Baleke. I have, if you haven’t figured out by now, taken imaginative and fictional liberties with bits of that story, but not without reason.
Here is her story though. Baleke grew up in Kampala’s sprawling Katanga slum and had everything that poverty throws at you. One night, a man had approached and touched her without her consent. No surprises there, as the inability to seek consent is something that binds men– uptown or ghetto – together, especially where women’s bodies are concerned.
When Baleke remonstrated, she instead got a severe thumping from the offender. That night, she decided that she was going to learn and teach other girls self-defence. That way she would stay off the streets but also serve errant men what they deserve. That is how she ended up in boxing, eventually earning the prestigious honor of being the first Ugandan woman to win a boxing medal in boxing at the 2019 All African Games in Rabat, Morocco.
If you are reading this and have never heard this name or story before, perhaps you might remember the woman who made social media rounds sometime last year, when her one-room house got flooded. In the photo, she is on a bed surrounded by water, baby on her back, looking dejected and helpless. I remember musing then how this was no way for anyone to live. It is certainly no way for anyone that has so gallantly worn the flag to live.
The tragedy is that Baleke is not the first, and as day follows night, will not be the last athlete to get a raw deal from a country whose honor they defend. Worse, that they get talked down by suited fat cats who aren’t fit to lace their boots.
Julius Sekitoleko hadn’t worked for more than a year because he doubled as a muscleman at concerts and those weren’t spared by the lockdown. His wife is pregnant and they are behind on rent. Yet the boxer was in Japan, ostensibly, to carry Uganda’s flag. Imagine that! Why wouldn’t anyone in his position not try to escape this life?
Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. [email protected]