KAMPALA — A man from Kampala’s slums has made a name for himself in boxing. That's not unusual, as boxing is a popular sport in Uganda. Except that Bashir Ramathan is blind. Ramathan pursues a quest to find people to fight, and his dream to create an international blind boxing association.
The East Coast Boxing Club in Naguru, one of Kampala’s chaotic slums, is filled with young men hoping to box their way out of poverty. But one of them is fighting against greater odds than most.
Seventeen years ago, Bashir Ramathan went blind. A construction worker and bricklayer, Bashir had been known as an athlete, a strong man. Now, at age 41, he is determined to show the world that nothing has changed.
“They have to learn from me that blind also can play boxing," said Ramathan. "That’s why I wanted to show them. They know we can play all games, but boxing is what is making them surprised. ‘Boxer? Blind? You are lying. How can that man play?’”
It was even difficult to convince his wife, Hajjat. At first, she says, she was worried that boxing would be dangerous for her husband.
“I was so sorry for what he’s doing because I was seeing as if it was very risky for him. But one time he advised me to go and see how he was playing this boxing. Then I started gaining energy, maybe feeling that he can do something. I was feeling proud," said Hajjat.
These days Bashir is making a name for himself, attending fundraisers and boxing demonstrations. Several years ago he found another blind boxer in Tanzania, and the two fought a match.
But most of his sparring partners are simply blindfolded. Bashir explains that he has his own strategies, and can often win such fights.
“I use my senses, you know? Mostly my ears. I hear the footmarks. And I know if I give you here, I move away. You know I’m quicker," he said.
Bashir trains at the boxing club early every morning, where he is a popular figure among the local boys. Bashir’s sparring matches are lively affairs. But coach Dick Katende admits that sometimes, there are mistakes.
“Mistakes are there, yes. This time the referee forgot to place [his] hands properly. So he walked off slowly and in the process [Bashir] sensed somebody is near, and that should be the opponent. So he went in, boom boom boom, hit the referee, and then there was a shout then it was stopped. He was told not to hit the referee," said Katende.
Nor has it been easy to drum up support. Uganda’s associations for the blind, he says, have not been encouraging, and many other blind people in the country see sports like boxing as unsuitable, or even impossible.
“They fear boxing, blinds in Uganda here. They used to discourage me very much. [They say] ‘ah, boxing is not a good sport, it’s not a good game.’ [But] if you can encourage us, we make it," said Ramathan.
Bashir insists that blindness should not hold anybody back. He dreams of bringing blind boxers together from all over the world to fight, and of training blind children as well. He also wants to learn braille, to find a job and to lift himself and his family out of the slums.
But in the meantime, says Katende, Bashir is struggling to find worthy opponents.
“There was a fight for him last year, [but] only one. Only one. There’s not many blind boxers who can take up his challenge, so he’s very courageous. He challenges anybody. He puts up a good fight," he said.
For a blind boxer in Uganda, there is not that much more he can do.