Starehe recalls the greatest Ali’s visit with pride
The fallen boxing great Mohammed Ali left an impression on every corner of the globe he landed and Kenya was no exception.
It was in 1980, when Ali visited on behalf of US President, Jimmy Carter in a bid to convince the country to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia, following the former Soviet power’s invasion of Afghanistan.
He met with retired President Daniel arap Moi at State House Nairobi, and later fought an exhibition bout with Kenyan Muhammed Abdullah Kent as the crowd kept chanting ‘Ali! Ali! Ali!’
On Friday, February 6, academic giant Starehe Boys Center experienced an afternoon like no other.
The bastion of academic excellence nestled in the sprawling Eastleigh area had the privilege to host a VIP like no other, a guest who had three world heavyweight boxing titles in his haul, a man whose personality was larger than life.
He had adjusted his itinerary to visit Starehe soon after meeting President Moi.
That day, Frederick Makokha, now 69 years-old, reported to work earlier than usual.
He was the school carpenter and knew a special visitor was coming to the school.
Starehe had hosted high profile guests before but none had prompted the erection of a boxing ring, at the quadrangle where students used to conduct their assemblies.
Makokha was part of the team that made the makeshift boxing ring on which Ali would display his trademark moves to the eager students.
He remembers the tall gentleman surrounded by school officials led by the late Dr Geoffrey Griffin, the then director, who had a distinct walking style.
“I was with Mohammed; he was a strong guy whose strength could be felt even when walking. We were elated when he did a mock boxing, we had not seen such a person before,” he told.
Shadrack Orowe works as a clerical officer at Starehe. He was quite young when Ali visited the institution.
Orowe’s father worked at the insititution and the family lived within the school compound.
Back then he struggled to understand his father’s excitement, but when he saw Ali trading mock blows with members of the Starehe Boxing Club he knew a sports star was in town.
“That time I can remember him sparring with the boys, it was amazing.”
The memory of that famous visit has a special corner at one of the school’s administration block; snapshots of a global sporting icon who travelled all the way from the United States of America to mingle with young Kenyan boys.
It is during this visit that many more memories were written, and makes Kenya indentify with the demise of Ali, the greatest boxer to ever live who breathed last on Friday night.
Kenyan veteran journalist Mohammed Juma Njuguna remembers the late Ali as a highly sociable and smart brain character.
“I was with him one on one at the Hilton Hotel when he visited Kenya. He mingled with us freely his fame notwithstanding. I will never forget one him telling us boxing can make you a very rich person or very poor.
“His eloquence was splendid, resilience in pushing what he believed in was amazing, not surprising the U.S government entrusted him with very sensitive matters like selling their agenda in Africa during the cold war,” reminisced the renowned sports journalist.
Former Prime Minister and CORD leader Raila Odinga joined the Kenyan mourners, remembering him for defending freedom of Africans under colonialism.
In a press statement Raila said, “In his own small way, which turned out to be a big boost for the struggle for racial equality in the US, Muhammad Ali fought for the emancipation of the black race not only in the US but also in many African nations then under the yoke of colonialism.”
When he refused to join the battle front in Vietnam on grounds that the values America was pursuing in that South Asian nation were equally being denied blacks in the US, he put the cause of the black race on a higher plane and laid bare the contradictions in US policies. Ali will be remembered for his stance and other open pronouncements on racism, because he was not only a boxer but also a fighter for freedom and justice.”
The poet, the diplomat, the activist, the boxer, and the philosopher, honored by American hip hop artist R. Kelly in his The World’s Greatest song, succumbed to Parkinson’s disease after battling with it for 32, at age of 74.
-Additional reporting by Bernard Ndong