The Untold Story of Conje

Yesterday was not an ordinary day for me. A phone call at 5.30am startled me from dreamland, I guessed. But nah! On picking the call, the voice from the other end is like:

“Morning, have you left the house already?”

In my mind I asked myself, what? Where am I needed at this hour?

Then it hits me, we are heading to Yala for a visit to the home of one of Kenya’s unsung heroine and boxing champ.

Off I left in a huff after a short grooming of myself. I had to be at the bus station at 6am to enable us catch the the first bus to Busia., and which will drop us at Yala.

The journey was all fine, with a chilly morning weather, all the way to Yala. We alight at the St Mary’s School Yala stage, and start tracing the direction to our destination. We get lost at first, and head to a wrong direction, then we ask a couple of men we met also going about their morning errands by the road, where the home of the Unsung Heroine – Conjestina Achieng is.

Conje and her Mum holds one of the belts she won
Conje and her Mum holds one of the belts she won

They tell us, head straight, and just past the last line of that maize plantation (they point it to us), you will find a footpath that will lead you straight into her home.

Let me tell you something

Conjestina Achieng (born 20 October 1977 in Umiru village, Yala Division, Gem Sub County in Siaya County. Conje (famously called so) was a Kenyan female boxer nicknamed “Hands of Stone” and is ranked number five in the world. She is the first African woman to hold an international title when she beat Ugandan Fiona Tugume to take the vacant WIBF Middleweight title. She also lost out in controversial title fight circumstances to then WBC, and WBA Super middleweight Natascha Ragosina.

These are her boxing records:

Total fights 27
Wins 17
Wins by Knock Outs 8
Losses 6
Draws 4
No contests 0

Conje is a good example of the kind of life our sports men and women go through after their hey days in their fields of sport. The government and the sports fraternity disregards them and their achievements, once they start losing the luster they brought to the nation or institution.

Being otherwise unemployed, Conje, normally earned about KShs 25,000 a fight. Thus, she relied on boxing to pay for her inexpensive one-room rented apartment in a Nairobi estate.

Her greatest challenge was financing her training and maintaining a well-balanced diet.

Government support for training facilities and equipment is limited, nonexistent, and reliable boxing promoters are rare, so prize money is hard to come by.

“I earn a living the hard way”, she said in an interview with Women Boxing Archive Network.

“I can’t afford the right foods and sometimes I don’t even have the bus fare to go for training. When I look at other boxers like Mike Tyson and Laila Ali, my soul bleeds. They are rich and the kind of life they lead is not comparable to ours. But us, we lead a dog’s life. Things don’t fall on a silver plate. Every individual has to reap where he or she has sown and I am no exception.”

This tells you that she never earned much from the many titles she won. There were manager fees, training fees, and bills to be paid to keep her in top-notch shape. This however was not to be.

Turning Tides?

Things have gone from bad to worse for this champ. When we visited her, she told of her supposed dreams and visions and what she does, which sounded to us like she wants to tell the world her story. But who will listen! Her life currently is of squalor, she hardly eats, she is abrasive, sometimes violent, and sometimes talks out of context.

Conje is in pain, mental pain and depression, she gets emotional and looses herself in her visions, speaking of herself as a god, a pilot, a leader and all, and you feel the emotion all around it.

In her one roomed house, still in her mother’s compound, you’ll find it well arranged and neat, with shields strategically placed for the world to see. She has her belts safely stored in her mother’s closet, and she knows where each of them are placed, and what happened to another one which got tone and destroyed.

“I have a son and younger sisters who are still in school, and all of them depend on me. My aging parents can no longer afford to cater for these people and I’m left in charge,” she added.

She has a son, who is sitting his KCSE exams in a local boarding school 30 minutes away from her home.

L-R: Nancy (Conje's younger sister), Charlton(Conje's son) and Winnie
L-R: Nancy (Conje’s younger sister), Charlton (Conje’s son) and Winnie Augo

The boy – Charlton, is one happy and handsome young man. He is all smiles when we visited him. My companion had met him before, therefore he easily recognized her when we bulged our entry into his school.

Charlton talks to us about his exams – he had just come out of a Chemistry paper when we met him. He tells us of his dream and targets in passing the upcoming national exams. The school administration knows of his plight, and that he is the son to an unsung heroine, and therefore supports him as much as they can. He rarely is expelled from school due to nonpayment of school fees.

What can we do?

This is not the time to sing “The government should take care of her”, or verse two “What is the governor or Raila or the area MP or the Luo Community doing about her”. But should turn to “what are we doing us a people to attend to people like her, who are in such dire situations of mutilation”.

I will start from Charlton’s place. He needs mental support. Him going home and finding his mum beaten and sometimes senseless is not a good environment to have him concentrate in his studies. A friend has offered to house him for two weeks when the schools are taking a break this August holiday. He needs a mentor to support him, guide him, and attend to his school needs. Next year after the results have been released, Charlton will be required to join college. He will need a lot of financial support to see him through school. It is upon you to do this. It’s upon us to honor Conje for the last time, by supporting his son get skills and be a productive member of the society. It is upon us to make sure Charlton gets the mental strength he needs to understand that there’s a glimpse of light at the tunnel’s end.

And to Conje, she isn’t mad, she is depressed. Speaking to her you realize that she’s not a nutcase as the world is meant to believe. She gets angry and violent, and dangerous when annoyed. This can be attributed to the drugs which have now become her way of life, since she wants to escape the realities of her current situation. Conje has fought people while in this state. When she’s sober, she’s such a darling to her family members, and goes about her business in the market center without interfering with anyone.

I remember when we were there, she went about the compound looking for some herbs to make a concoction for massaging her injured and swollen legs. Can a mad woman do this? Can a mad woman keep her house neat, clean and well arranged? Can a mad woman be telling stories of her life vividly? Yes, I agree, she may be on the way to losing her mind, but before she gets there we can all play a role in rehabilitating her, and supporting her to get through this mental state she is currently in. Let’s join hands and restore the glory in Conje and bring a smile back to her face.

This story wouldn’t have been possible without the friendly support of one Winnie. Conje refers to you as a sister, and if I remember her words right, she told you that it’s only sisters who check on each other. Please continue being her keeper. Don’t give up on the good works you’ve been doing to the society. Blessings your way.

PS: All those spreading rumours about Conje’s death should be ashamed of themselves. She is very much alive, but slightly unwell. She’ll be fine 🙂

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