M’lady and I were in Zambia waiting, waiting, waiting for the first Instruments For Africa shipment to arrive. We had made the rounds from one crummy hostel to another and had spent countless hours on the phone or in some government office or another being told to wait, the shipment would be cleared soon. Lusaka isn’t the most tourist-friendly place – you can easily take in it’s few sights and entertainments in just a few days – so several weeks in to our waiting vacation we found ourselves pretty starved for entertainment.
I was flipping through the local paper one morning (as is my habit when I travel) and found an article in the sports section about an upcoming bout between a Ghanaian fighter named Isaac Sowah and a Zimbabwean named Charles Manyuchi. The fight was for the African Boxing Union welterweight title, it was sanctioned by the WBA and it was scheduled to take place a week hence at the Mulungushi Conference Centre smack dab in the middle of boring old Lusaka.
The first challenge was to get tickets. I called and enquired, probed and searched, I think I even called the newspaper to speak with the reporter. I finally found out that the tickets were for sale at the Manda Hill Mall. I took a minibus to the mall and started looking around. I asked at the CD store and both sports stores; no luck. One of the employees decided to make it his mission to help me (Zambians are like that) and he spent about forty-five minutes calling people and asking employees at other stores until finally the answer was delivered to us.
The tickets were available at a restaurant on the second floor. I walked in, “table for one, sir?”
“No thanks, I’m looking for tickets to the upcoming boxing match?”
“Please sir, follow me.”
And there, near the bar inside the restaurant was stand-alone sign that read “Tickets for upcoming boxing match available here.” I stood next to the sign and bought two tickets to the bout. I rarely opt for VIP tickets, but given that they were so cheap (I think regular tickets were around $5, VIP’s were perhaps $7 or so) I shelled out the extra clams.
“You know,” I said to the hostess, “I’ve been looking around the mall for over an hour trying to find out where I could buy these tickets.
“Maybe you should put this sign downstairs in the lobby?”
She ruffled her brow in confusion at this obviously absurd suggestion. I could see there was no way this sign was going anywhere. In retrospect it’s amazing that I believed her when she told me the pre-card fights were starting at noon.
I found out, accurately, that there were to be ten fights in all, with the main bout being preceded by another highly anticipated match as local up-and-comer Catherine Phiri was set to battle Toma-Hawa Babirye for the African Boxing Union woman’s bantamweight title. I did some math and figured if we showed up around 3:30 we would easily catch the last two fights on the card. While I’ve always been a fan of the Sweet Science (the influence of my father) and briefly took boxing lessons myself (again, my father’s influence) this would be m’lady’s first experience with boxing – live or otherwise – so I wasn’t sure how much she’d want to endure.
So we show up on September 28th, 2013 right on schedule at 3:30 and take our seats, only to discover that the first fight won’t begin until 4pm. I ask m’lady if she wants to leave and return and she says no, so we grab a bite to eat and a couple of beers and wait.
The ring is in the middle of a ballroom, with perhaps ten rows of folding chairs set up on all four sides. This is the VIP section. We were literally among the first to arrive so we had our choice of seats. We took a pair of chairs about four rows back and settled in for the spectacle.
The first half-dozen fights were pretty uneventful, though I was pleased to see that m’lady seemed to be enjoying herself. As the day wore on the cheap seats started to fill up and things started getting more and more entertaining.
If you weren’t holding a VIP ticket you were relegated to the balcony, where the party was of course. People up there brought noisemakers and musical instruments, they sat in groups sharing whole cooked chickens and nshima and singing songs with raucous abandon. It was a wonderful spectacle that grew in volume and intensity with every fight.
By the time Catherine Phiri faced her opponent the place was packed. When local girl Phiri was introduced the crowds in the balcony cheered by singing tribal songs, clapping, and playing musical instruments wildly while all the women did that crazy hi-pitched “woo-woo-woo-woo-woo-woo-woo” thing they always do when they get excited. It’s a sound much akin to a clichéd Indian war cry from some cheesy old Western movie and it really packs a spine-tingling punch.
There had been two other fights featuring women on the card, and frankly they had all fought like girls, rushing forward with a flurry of palm-forward punches and their heads turned away. Catherine Phiri, on the other hand, looked like a young, hungry, well-trained fighter and she landed one professional, well-placed punch after another, easily knocking out her cat-fighting opponent in the eighth round of a very one-sided fight.
The cheap seats sang out with song after song of ear-piercing jubilee. After this decisive defeat, Toma-Hawa never fought again.
The main bout was another rout, as the Zambian-trained (and local favourite) Charles Manyuchi delivered a TKO in the third round. Even after a half-dozen hours at the fights it was so exciting that m’lady and I were both on our feet as the last flurry of punches rained down on poor Isaac Sowah.
All around us the place went nuts.
As of this writing, Catherine Phiri is currently the World Boxing Council bantamweight champion and Manyuchi is the current WBC welterweight champ, so clearly we saw some quality fighters for $7 a ticket.
And then for us it was back to waiting, waiting, waiting for our instruments to arrive.