Nairobi, Kenya – Suleiman Wanjau Bilali, one of Kenya’s top boxers with medals at international events, has been in and out of rehab centers three times due to his alcohol addiction and depression since he was fired from his job in 2012.
Bilali is neglected, desperate, and cannot coordinate his mind well while speaking. He speaks in Sheng (Swahili-English slang) while chewing miraa – a stimulant, also known as khat. It takes a lot of investigation and patience to be able to understand what he is saying.
Dressed in an old black T-shirt and oversized khakis, Bilali looks pale and slim. You can smell alcohol on his breath. His hands are shaking as he sits up.
Bilali’s situation is widely documented. Many Kenyans have been protesting on social networks and local media since 2012, calling on the government and sports organizations to help the former boxing star of whom Kenya was once proud.
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 in a rehabilitation center using their own funds.
“Sonko took me to a rehabilitation center and also took care of my treatment,” Bilali told Al Jazeera.
“When I left the center at the end of last year after spending three months there, I returned to alcohol and miraa. I do not have a home and I am struggling for food. Friends help me with food and a place to sleep. Some of my good friends give me little money that I use to buy alcohol and miraa. “
In addition to medals and representing Kenya at the 2000 and 2008 Olympics, Bilai is also the recipient of the Head of State Commendation.
But two accidents – in 1998 and 2004 – triggered the start of his fall.
“In the first accident, I was hit by a car driving at high speed while training along the road and I had a broken leg. In the second, I had head injuries and a broken shoulder.
“I lost my job in 2012 and my life has been full of misery ever since. I was depressed and my life took a whole different turn. I lost all my investments and my wife left me. Because of the illness, making ends meet is my biggest challenge.
Bilali occasionally visits the Muthurwa Community Center, located on the outskirts of Nairobi’s business district. He says many boxing stars are struggling with mental health issues and although he is ready to coach young people interested in the sport without help he is unable to come out of depression and fight against it. craving alcohol.
Another former national boxing star is Stephen Muchoki, 65. He now lives alone in a small concession at Dandora Estate in Nairobi.
His life is now full of struggles despite having hoisted the Kenyan boxing flag on the international stages.
“I retired from amateur boxing in 1978 after winning the world title at the World Amateur Boxing Championships in Yugoslavia. That same year, I won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Canada, ”Muchoki told Al Jazeera.
For five years, Muchoki practiced professional boxing in Denmark but returned to Kenya in 1983.
“My heart was in Kenya. I wanted to serve Kenya and represent my country. Unfortunately, my life has never been the same. There were no proper structures to facilitate and take care of former boxers like me. I was myself. The little I had invested was over and I was back to zero.
“No one bothered to give me a pension after I made Kenya famous.”
Muchoki is now volunteering as a coach at the Kariokor Boxing Club in Nairobi. He says he lived in poverty with no income after his retirement.
“Smoking makes me feel good. It’s not easy as a former star to live in poverty. I don’t have a pension or anything that makes me money, it’s slowly killing me.
David Munyasia is another bantamweight boxer (54kg) who is only up to the hope that one day his legacy will be remembered and appreciated.
Munyasia started her career in the early 1990s when she competed in junior championships. He then represented the Kenya Defense Forces and the country at international events.
Now Munyasia has no job and is addicted to chewing khat.
“I feel depressed because I don’t have a job despite being a boxing legend in Kenya,” Munyasia said.
Kenya’s Ministry of Culture and Sports did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Dancun Kuria, communications director at the Kenya Boxing Federation, agrees that there are many former boxing stars who are now living in deplorable conditions.
“We have been accused of neglecting former boxers,” Kuria told Al Jazeera. “Some of them did well at the amateur level, but things changed when they turned pro. We cannot intervene in the case of professionals because it is not part of our mandate.
“In professional boxing, players face a boxing commission where agents and promoters organize matches.”
Kuria said he was aware of the situation Bilali, Muchoki and Munyasia find themselves in.
“Our hands are tied. We don’t have enough sponsors and some of these cases are difficult to manage without financial support. “
Kuria also said that some of the boxers affected must themselves be blamed for the situation they found themselves in.
“A lot of these boxers didn’t have a plan for their life after boxing. They were taken to fame and after boxing their lives changed and many are now depressed and suffering from other social issues.
“We encourage new boxers to take education seriously through our current workouts so that they have an extra skill. We also integrate financial management trainers, therapists and psychologists. “
Given the treatment some of the former boxers have received, Charles Mukula, coach of the Dallas Boxing Club, is worried about the future of a sport which he believes can take Kenya far.
“I am a volunteer coach. I have children as young as five who come here for training, ”Mukula told Al Jazeera.
“I don’t have proper boxing equipment for training. It hurts me when I see the zeal for youth boxing but nobody cares. I sometimes get old boxing clothes from former boxers who trained at this club.