SKY IS THE LIMIT

A mother at 12, Ongare still punches her way up

Though she is slight of build, Ongare possesses a steely determination to succeed

In Summary

•The 26-year-old boxer rose from the setback of having a baby at the age of 12 to reach the pinnacle of sports when she clinched a berth for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

•After leaving Box Girls to join the Eddy Mussi’s boxing Club in Kariobangi, Ongare found it difficult to settle in the sport dominated by men.

Christine Ongare in during a training session at Nanyuki social Hall.
Christine Ongare in during a training session at Nanyuki social Hall.
Image: ERICK BARASA

For many girls, growing up as a pre-teen mother in the impoverished neighbourhood of Kariobangi North is a condemnation to a life of penury but this is not so for Christine ‘Mammy’ Ongare.

The 26-year-old boxer rose from the setback of having a baby at the age of 12 to reach the pinnacle of sports when she clinched a berth for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“Many girls give up after they get themselves in a similar situation but my experience should tell them that this should never be the case when such an unfortunate thing happens to them,” Ongare said.

“I want other girls to know that you can rise up in life. You should not let your past limit you because you can’t change it. I accepted my situation and went back to school and pursued my dreams —something that others should strive to do when they find themselves in a similar situation,” she advised.

The last born in a family of four—two brothers and a sister—Ongare knew from an early age that she wanted to be a sportswoman. She started off playing football, then doubled in acrobatics but ultimately she settled on boxing which in hindsight was not a bad decision at all.

“I had a passion for sports. I was initially a footballer but I felt I did not have the opportunity of making it as a career. I later joined an acrobatics team but it needed you to be seven to make a good team and we were just a few; so boxing was my last resort,” she said. The diminutive fighter began her school education at Valley Bridge Primary School in Kiamaiko, Mathare constituency.

After her primary education, she proceeded to Khwisero Girls for her High School studies. At the age of 19 with the then-popular Box Girls team founded and coached by Priest Analo, Ongare began honing her skills in the discipline.

“It was not an easy undertaking. My mother always thought it was a high-risk sport and did not like it much until the day she saw me board a plane. Her preference was for me to look for a job and fend for myself,” Ongare says.

After leaving Box Girls to join the Eddy Mussi’s boxing Club in Kariobangi, Ongare found it difficult to settle in the sport dominated by men.

“I used to peep through the window grills and whenever I saw there was no girl, I would sneak back home. However, Elizabeth Andiego and Evelyn Adero encouraged me and gave me more confidence. I slowly started feeling more comfortable and with the guidance of coach Maurice Asman Ombunga, I became more self-assured,” she recalled with a laugh.

Ongare began featuring in novice tournaments and scaled up the ladder to become a feared amateur fighter.

“I began featuring for the Nairobi team under coach Benjamin Musa (National boxing team head coach) because back then in 2014,  girls did not take part in the league. Later on, I joined Kentrack boxing team in Ngong, where I stayed from 2016-2018 before moving to the Police team where I am currently stationed,” she added.

After missing out in qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Ongare’s fighting career took a turn for the better when she won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia in 2018.

“I was confident going into the Commonwealth Games even though I became a little jittery when my compatriots lost in early rounds. I believed that this was my natural progression path after losing in the preliminaries in the 2014 Commonwealth Games and also in the 2016 Olympic Qualifiers. I always kept faith in what God has in store for me,” she narrated.

The flyweight boxer having seen close friend Andiego become the first female boxer from Kenya to feature in the Olympics, finally achieved her dreams when she beat Ugandan Catherine Nanziri to claim the final slot in the women flyweight division at the African Olympic qualifiers in Dakar, Senegal last month.

“I was so happy. It was a dream come true. I had achieved a lifetimes goal and enjoyed it with my coaches, teammates and later on my family.”

Though she is slight of build, Ongare possesses a steely determination to succeed—something that inspired her to beat Nanziri in difficult conditions.

“We had to make a one and half hour drive to get to the venue and the conditions were not what we were used to back at Nanyuki and we had to adapt swiftly,” she said

“Our preparation for the qualifiers was on point because even before the government came on board, we had started training early and when we went to Nanyuki, it was just heightening on what to expect in Dakar,” she added.

Despite her success and the fame that has come with being an Olympic qualifier with her face splashed across newspaper pages and television, Ongare still lives her normal life. Every day after her training session, she relaxes for a few hours then proceeds to open her small grocery store where she sells fruits and vegetables.

“Many people think that when I appear on television or in newspapers or boarded a plane, I have a lot of money but that is hardly the case. Amateur fighters only ever get allowances when they represent their country and you must eke out a living like everybody else when out of action. That is something very few understand,” she sighed.

With an avenue for employment rare for girls including those of national repute, Ongare advised upcoming boxers to try and concentrate on being the best they can be and not necessarily pursue boxing as a means of gaining jobs in the forces.

“Most of the girls we started off with fell on the wayside because they lacked patience. Andiego, Lorna Kusa and I are an example of perseverance and remain optimistic that through boxing, we will make a living,” she observed.

With a new regime headed by Anthony ‘Jamal’ Ombok at the helm of the sport, Ongare is optimistic that many more girls will take up game.

“Girls are different from boys and that is why they need support to join and stay in the sport. The federation, with the support of sponsors, can do this by helping them out with their family issues. Others may have passion for the sport but have children who they need to cater for hence they opt-out to go seek a way of getting their daily bread. However, with support, I believe the sport will grow among girls and I will be the first to help in mentoring them,”  she said.

Ongare, who is born again and worships at the Body of Christ Fellowship in Kariobangi, attributes her success so far to her faith in the power of God. Ongare was coy about her future particularly the possibility of her joining the professional ranks.

“I always take things one step at a time and right now, I have the Olympics to look forward to, now that I have qualified. I am also hoping that many more of our fighters will be able to join us in Tokyo when they participate in the playoffs in France,” she added.

The orthodox fighter takes her time off from her training regime when not very busy to coach upcoming youngsters and also acts as a referee during boxing matches organised by the Eddi Mussi Club at the Kariobangi Social Hall.

“We are not going to be in this sport forever. We have to leave a lasting mark for the next generation to follow, that is the only way the spot will grow,” she concluded.

Her coach at Eddy Mussi Boxing Club, where she trains every Saturday, said they were elated by her achievement which they believed would come sooner rather than later.

“Mammy is a hardworking girl and she is very respectful. Despite all her achievement with Team Kenya, she is still humble when she comes to train here. We are proud that her and Elizabeth have represented us well after honing their skills here with us. We encourage the BFK leadership led by Jamal to continue supporting boxing clubs at the grassroots because this is where the next Nick (Okoth), Ongare or Andiego will come from,” said Asman.