‘I was born a fighter’: the champion boxer changing young lives in Zimbabwe
Beneath a corrugated iron roof in the Harare suburb of Mbare, a group of boys darts back and forth across a smooth concrete floor, firing a series of rapid punches into the air.
A wiry older man, dressed in low-slung tracksuit bottoms and flip-flops, watches their moves, encouraging them to “Jab! Jab! Jab!”.
It’s a long way from a glamorous black-tie occasion in Glasgow in January 1998, when Arifonso Zvenyika beat Scotland’s Paul Weir to take the Commonwealth flyweight title for Zimbabwe.
Nicknamed “Mosquito” – reflecting his 50kg fighting weight and his deadly skills – Zvenyika is one of the country’s most successful boxers.
However, there is little to show for those early triumphs. Now 45, Zvenyika lives hand to mouth, like so many others in a country where up to 90% of working-age adults are not formally employed.
When he’s not struggling to put food on the table for his own family, he trains young people for nothing at the Mosquito Boxing School of Excellence.
“I grew up without anything – even now I don’t have anything, but I can share boxing with less privileged children,” says Zvenyika, who is proud to have been born and raised in Mbare.
“The champions always come from the ghetto,” he says.
Three times a week, up to 20 young people – aged from eight to their early 20s – gather for fitness training and to develop their technical skills.
Zvenyika says that he particularly focuses on boys and young men who struggle to remain in school and spend time on the streets.
“Some of the kids are totally poor and not even going to school. Some draw back from training as they don’t have shoes,” says Zvenyika.
One of the boys, 16-year-old Noel Sunday, says: “Both my parents are unemployed. I only did four years of school. I haven’t done my O-levels.”
A chalkboard in the gym reminds the young boxers to “Go hard or go home” and lists 10 rules. Eating, smoking and even laughing and jokes during sessions are prohibited.
“Boxing not only teaches discipline, but also positive values. It’s a low-cost, high-impact sport,” says David Mutambara, a former chair of Zimbabwe’s Sports and Recreation Commission.
“But there is a scarcity of resources in this country. We get people who have natural, raw talent. The skills development needed to polish that raw talent is lacking.”
Zvenyika is reliant on others to provide training space, and is constantly on the hunt for more equipment. The school is short of gloves, pads, punchbags and headgear.
The rest of the time he spends looking for work.
“I’m shy to say it, but I can’t afford to feed my family properly,” he says. “We eat bread without butter, we drink tea without milk.”
A few miles from the centre of Harare, Mbare is chaotic and densely populated. It’s a first stop for arrivals to the capital who come looking for work.
“My family makes money running around the marketplace and helping to carry people’s luggage,” says Tatenda Kachepa, 22, who has trained with Zvenyika for five years and is one of the club’s star boxers.
The pandemic pushed many people already struggling to earn a living into desperation.
“We are now 15 people living together at my father’s place,” says Kachepa, who is still trying to complete his schooling. “During Covid, we haven’t made any money. It’s been a dog-eat-dog situation.”
Substance abuse has become endemic in Harare’s low income areas. Illicit alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine – better known as crystal meth or by its street name mutoriro – are all popular among young people.
“I’ve been there myself,” says Zvenyika. “It hurts me to see these young kids doping. I’m trying to find ways to stop them.”
Zvenyika’s story is a familiar one – from rags to riches, followed by a slide into bad choices and prison.
“My mother tried her best, but she didn’t have money to send me to school,” says Zvenyika, who turned professional at 17. “I took up boxing as something to resolve my pain and calm me down.”
After his talent took him to Zambia and Australia, as well as to Scotland, Zvenyika crashed back down to a very different reality.
Accused by a neighbour of stealing a radio – Zvenyika insists he was framed – in 2000, the boxing champion was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
Zvenyika’s imprisonment – and a stroke while in jail – effectively ended his professional career.
“I’ve been in prison, in hospital, in a hooligan’s cell. I don’t want others to fall into that pit,” says Zvenyika. “I’m trying to move them to be good people.”
And Mbare’s younger generation has sporting potential: “People paint a bad picture of Mbare, but it’s a talent hub. Young guys can get into bad things, but training keeps them busy.”
Lockdowns closed the club for much of the past 18 months, but as of last month Zvenyika has welcomed back his students.
He is determined to keep the Mosquito boxing school open, despite the challenges.
“I was born a fighter and I’ll die a fighter,” he says. “Boxing might leave me, but I’ll never leave boxing.”
Reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund For Women Journalists