•He remains the only Kenyan boxer to win medals in two different weight categories, flyweight (silver medal at Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010) and bantamweight (bronze, Glasgow,2014).
•“It was a total hardship for us. I found myself joining groups that led me astray as we fought for survival in the gritty streets of Mukuru. I was constantly on the wrong side of the law and I was always taken to the area chief for one misdemeanour or another,” he revealed.
For someone who was used to leaving splutters of blood and sweat on many a ring canvas, boxer Benson Gicharu’s transition to unleashing creative paintings on canvas has been undeniably smooth sailing.
Sitting across him on one of the unfinished floors of a one storey residential building opposite South ‘B’ Hospital which acts as their workshop, where they display their finished work of arts as well as process new ones, it’s hard to imagine this diminutive Kenya Police corporal is the one who used to leave many an opponent waving the white flag in the ring with punishing body shots and countless knockdowns.
Every statement he makes is punctuated by invocations of the name of God. It’s little wonder because ‘Mabeli’ as Gicharu is fondly known is born again. “I have every reason to thank God because when I look back where I came from and where I am now, It’s God,” said the retired pugilist.
He remains the only Kenyan boxer to win medals in two different weight categories, flyweight (silver medal at Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010) and bantamweight (bronze, Glasgow,2014).
Born and raised as the firstborn in a family of three siblings (one brother and sister) in the sprawling Mukuru Fuata Nyayo slums in the current Nairobi South ward, Gicharu’s early life was hard. It became more intolerable when his father, the sole breadwinner passed on in 1998.
“It was a total hardship for us. I found myself joining groups that led me astray as we fought for survival in the gritty streets of Mukuru. I was constantly on the wrong side of the law and I was always taken to the area chief for one misdemeanour or another,” he revealed.
“But what changed my life was when I was taken to juvenile jail at Industrial Area Prison after we were caught red-handed gambling,” he continued.
“This broke my mother’s heart and I promised myself that I had to turn my life around for the sake of my mother. Boxing became the outlet for my frustrations rather than engaging in lawlessness,” he said.
Indeed, one of the paintings displayed proudly at their makeshift Mukuru Arts Club gallery is that of Gicharu. According to him, the painting captures how boxing became his saving grace from a life of penury.
“Without boxing, I could have probably been dead or in jail by now as most of my peers,” he says as a matter of fact.
Gicharu took up boxing to ‘ward off what life had thrown his way’. According to the 34-year-old, it was not until 2003 that he realised that he could carve out a good life out of the ‘sweet science’.
“One morning, I came home and found my mum crying. I immediately knew there was no breakfast for us. There and then, I showed my mother my fists and told her, it’s through them that I was going to get them from the life of poverty. Little did I know that I was asking God for blessings as I pursued a career in boxing,” Gicharu reminisces.
“I have been caught by a couple of hard shot punches but looking back into my life, I have realised that there is nothing that hits harder than life itself,” Gicharu philosophises.
“It can leave you down after the count of ten if you let it. With this kind of thought, I have sailed through so many things. Giving up has never been my option. With this kind of mentality, I make sure I don’t settle until what I am focusing on comes to pass,” he opines.
Gicharu’s first big break as a boxer came in 2004 when he was selected in a group of eight fighters to fight for Qatar. He stayed there for seven months and when he returned home, he used part of the money he had saved in his Middle East sojourn to take his siblings through secondary school.
He also used the money to pay off his own fee balances and got his KCSE certificate. This would come in handy when after a year of representing Kenya Police in the National Boxing League, he was enlisted as a policeman with subsequent training at the Police Training College, Kiganjo.
“Finally my ability in the ring was paying off. I could comfortably take care of my family while doing what I loved: boxing,” he states. Gicharu was first called into the national boxing team in 2009. His first assignment was the world boxing championships in Italy where he lost in the first round.
His first medal was to come a year later at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India where he won a silver medal in the flyweight division. Gicharu would follow that up by qualifying for his first-ever Olympics at the London games in 2012. There he was beaten in the first round.
The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 would be his next port of call, this time as a bantamweight fighter. He was to make history as the first boxer to win medals in different weight categories when he clinched a bronze medal in the Scottish city.
A year later Gicharu was once again a pioneer for Kenyan boxing when he and then welterweight boxer Rayton Okwiri were chosen to take part in the inaugural Amateur Professional Boxing (APB) competitions. Here, they would earn money competing for trophies unlike in the pure amateur bouts where only subsistence allowances were paid.
His most memorable experience was to come in 2016 as he sought a ticket to the Olympics in Rio. In what many would describe as a monumental oversight by immigration officials but which Gicharu himself terms the ‘Miracle of Venezuela’, the Kenyan fighter managed to travel to the South American country without a visa.
“As an amateur pro. Our qualifications for the Olympics were in Venezuela. But I was unsure of whether I will make it because there was no money for plane tickets. So acquiring a visa was something far away from my mind. Luckily, we got the tickets at the last minute. I only had the letter of invitation from Venezuela with me as I proceeded to the airport and by the grace of God, I was allowed to board,” Gicharu fondly recounted.
“ I had no coach but still managed to qualify for Rio where again I lost in the first round. By then, I had a serious hand fracture. I started considering retirement from boxing. Something, however, told me to stay put and I did until after the Gold Coast games last year when I called it quits,” Gicharu aid.
Since hanging up his gloves, Gicharu is a man who wears many hats. His day is as busy as that of any working man. Leaving his home in Umoja, he proceeds to train his former Kenya Police boxing colleagues at the Depot Club in Mathare between 8 am and 11 am. From there, he proceeded to South ‘B’ where he will reach for his painting brush to bring a new idea into life on the canvas or put finishing touches to some already started. Here, he is among tens of youths under the guidance of Adam Masava, the chairman of Mukuru Arts Club.
“There are many youths who have the talent or the desire to become artists. We welcome them here despite the small space we currently have. But we hope to raise money soon to open a bigger Art classroom here in order to accommodate many more people,” Gicharu disclosed. Gicharu’s passion for painting was awoken at the St. Catherine Primary School by a teacher Tabitha, a talent that lay in the back burner as he pursued his first love, boxing.
Gicharu has had his paintings displayed at the Manjano Gallery at the Village Market in Westlands as well as the Affordable Art Museum. His most expensive work so far has been a painting that fetched Sh22,000. “I believe all that I am doing now is inter-twined. My success in painting is when I manage to sell one of my works as this helps me to facilitate my other programs like training the kids and generally footing bills for them when they go for competitions,” he said
Once he has taken three hours at the Art classroom, Gicharu proceeds to his roots in Fuata Nyayo where he trains youngsters life skills through boxing. In fact with the help of former area MP Maina Kamanda, the boxer managed to convince the powers that be to construct a hall where his Mukuru Fight for Life organization trains kids between 8-16 years in boxing.
“I believe there is no greater exercise of the heart than to train children. My joy comes from seeing them succeed in life. I believe with the support of the area ward representative (Hon.Waithera Chege), we can do more for the youths of the community through such projects,” Gicharu notes.
Gicharu plans to one day to write an inspirational book. He has also become a motivational speaker travelling as far as Meru. He was the keynote speaker at Nkubu Boys High School after the school topped the secondary school exams.
The father of two girls (Olympianah and Joylenah) from his marriage to Hellen Ngugi urges sportsmen to always prepare for the end of their careers as ‘what has an entrance always has an exit’, “That is the only way that frustration and depression will not knock on your door,” he concludes.