His father was a pugilist. He also dabbled in some martial arts. But nobody knew him. He never stepped into a boxing ring. His ring was the ghetto. He came from the village in Western Kenya without education and lifted weights in Kibera, seldom engaged in some masonry as men with his brawn did, and later married a feisty uneducated Ugandan woman who sometimes brewed alcohol or sold vegetables or just sat at home. He drank a lot, as did his wife. When you sit at home with your wife day in day out, in a house the size of a pantry in Muthaiga, with no TV or radio, a book or a pet to distract you, great friction will erupt. And so he would physically fight the wife when he wasn’t engaging in scraps with other drunken men in shebeens. Generally, he had the physique for fights and the bitterness to see them through. He was strong, ripped and prone to violence after drinking. He had no regular job. No regular dreams and no regular hope. Days spread before him like a page of Chinese writing – incomprehensible, strange – and he poured alcohol all over them and when the ink ran, they dripped with blood. He lived in squalor – one roomed shack – amidst other men with withered hope. When they weren’t dueling they were making babies and they made four of them, little kids brought into this bed of mayhem.
He’s the second born in this tale of woe. Born in Kibera in 1999 as the world seemed to be turning a corner.
This is not another jaded, cliché story about Kibera and we can’t make it one. Because what haven’t you heard or read? Kibera is romanticised, taken advantage of, mythed and feared. It’s a complicated and highly layered maze of life; you are born of a man who earns 200 bob a day, he marries a woman who makes 100 bob a day, he gets children, mostly many children who he can’t school. Their daughter falls in love with that teenage cobbler apprentice with a thin moustache and a wolfish smile. The one who gets her pregnant and they move into a smaller shack in the next valley of rot and she gives birth to a baby born into already snowballing doom. Since she married early and with no education she does nothing the whole day but raise this baby under these dicey and desperate circumstances as she waits for her husband to fix shoes but nobody cares about torn shoes in the neighbourhood, not when they need to eat. And so he never makes much of his life and their son grows up without education. Maybe at 13 he joins a gang and eventually he’s shot behind a sewage treatment plant and his body hauled into the back of the police van, blood on his teeth. A neighbour tells the mother that she thinks she saw her dead son in the back of the police van and she collapses because even in poverty she still feels the pain a mother feels.
He grew up in an area called 42 in Kibera but there was also Kachokera, Kianda, Makina, Karanja, Lindi, Fort Jesus, Olympic, Mashimoni, Laini Saba, DC, Soweto, Kisumu Ndogo and Bypass. A small country with its own rules, it’s own code and economy and its own official language; sheng. But this is not the kind of machine-washed sheng you know, this is the raw one. It’s a sheng that locks out anybody who doesn’t understand their circumstances. If you have ever ordered a latte in your life or heard someone order a latte then you wouldn’t understand that sheng. And it keeps morphing fast, locking out outsiders and some insiders who go out and come back in.
It’s in this sheng that he narrates his childhood, which was a “normal” childhood for any child in Kibera. What he remembers is the hunger and the domestic violence. His father and mother coming home drunk and locking horns, turning the house upside down in this melee and often his mother running away into the dead of night, her leso flying into the darkness and then gone for months. He remembers his father turning on his siblings and him in anger and confusion after his drinking sprees. He was only six and he would use a pipe with a nut at the end of it. When he was done pummeling him, he would lie in the house for a month, his small body damaged, unable to rise from the mat where he slept on the floor. And when he finally did, by dragging himself and laying outside in the sunlight, nobody would ask. Nobody stopped domestic flights in Kibera, he says, because strife was normal. People fought. Actually, it’s a source of glee for the neighbours. Eventually he started running away from home at night when his father came home raging drunk and he’d sleep in vibandas, dry tunnels or sewers. He remembers the nights as being dark and final. At night, he’d witness machete bearing thugs slashing people, stabbings, deaths, rapes and shootings. When it rained they leaned against the walls of the sewers and slept on their feet “like bats.”
“As young as five years you learn to fend for yourself,” he says. “We would go three days without a meal.” Food was a luxury. School was far. And you had to walk there, hungry. To get there, you’d walk along the railway line in order not to get lost but this came with its own peril. First, the train would often run children over when they didn’t get off the tracks first enough. There were isolated sections of the railway where they’d run into discarded body parts; severed heads, arms, aborted fetuses dumped by the tracks. There were gangs who’d rob, kill or sodomise you. He’d see women being raped. Men being disemboweled. They’d run. And finally when they got to school without being robbed, killed or sodomised they’d spend the day listening to the hunger in their stomachs, remember the head of a woman they saw on the railway and spend the whole time wondering how they’d survive the journey back home after school.
Eventually, the risk and the distance wasn’t just worth the trouble. Besides, he never saw anyone go to school and become something. The people they looked up to were not lawyers, doctors or engineers, because they were not there in the slums. They looked up to thugs, gang leaders who dressed well and smoked cigarettes. They are called Mangwangi, in sheng. So he quit. But nobody noticed that he was no longer going to school and if they did they didn’t care.
As early as 8-years he would spend time rummaging through trash to pick plastics for sale and the money he earned would buy him food and maybe entry to a kiosk that showed movies. It’s like a movie hall but one that doesn’t play the national anthem before a movie. A big clean shaven man who sat shirtless on a stool at the door ran the movie kiosk. They mostly watched Commando or Drunken Master movies or anything where men punched, kicked, killed other men and rescued damsels from bad men with scars on their cheeks. It was always hot inside those kiosks. Stuffy and crammed with people squealing and taunting at the violence on the screen. Violence was a life skill for survival. The weak got beat up by their fathers. The weak got their plastics stolen by the older boys. The weak got robbed and stabbed and raped. The weak slept hungry. You had to be strong to survive. For the two or so hours, the movies inspired them to be strong and violent and manly. They escaped their predicament but when they left the darkness of the kiosk, blinking at the waiting reality, they picked up their shredded lives once again.
You don’t survive alone in Kibera, he says. You need to be part of a crew. A gang. The sheng word is mbogi, your crew. These are your brothers. You roll with them. You hustle with them. Safety in numbers because if you are alone, you stand out and when you stand out you are vulnerable. He joined a mbogi of his peers when he was around 13 years old, at the inception of his teenage years. He remembers one notorious gang leader who he admired. He went about with two Beretta pistols. He was feared and admired. He was king. He would sit down with his mbogi (that’s crew again, if you just joined us from Limuru Road) and smoke weed or eat miraa while stepping on the back of one of his men. He had money and influence. His word was law. He was a big man, a strong man, towering at 6’4’’ and commanding a small army of ruffians.
One day as he was rummaging through trash (dhora, is the sheng word), he suddenly witnessed cops from the Flying Squad engage this bad guy in a shootout. They eventually ran him into a mud house, and when he was out of bullets, they dragged him out, got him on his knees and shot him in the head. They called the act of cops killing someone, “kutuma mtu shamba.” Send you to the farm. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He was shocked that the man he admired could die. It made him fearful and confused that there was a great force that could take a man like him down.
With his mbogi they’d meet at their base and smoke weed and drugs they got from Mathare Mental Hospital. Drugs filled their days, drugs and movies and rummaging for food. The cocktail of drugs from Mathare would make one feel invisible, numb you. He avoided them, only dealt in weed, because he saw how after taking them his friends did crazy careless things; like try and steal a motorbike parked outside a shop as people watched. The drugs also made them not feel pain. You could get stoned by a mob and not feel pain and if they didn’t kill you, you’d wake up in a morgue. From the onset his heart was never in thug activities, he had seen his hero get shot. There were lawmen to fear. The men in blue, which are like APs. They would come in the ghetto hunting down thugs, often shooting them. They are called “gava” or “njege.” Cops kicking in doors, dragging men out and hauling them in the back of their car was normal. If you lived by the gun, they widely accepted, sooner or later, the gava would come calling. You made peace with that. But the men to be feared the most, he says, were Flying Squad guys. They called them Mabuda. They were cold men.
“They went about in old Peugeot cars,” he says. They mostly had sour looks. Red eyes. They looked at you and you felt your blood curdle. And they were fearless. It was widely speculated that they had a list. He says he doesn’t know how one got onto The List, because there were known thugs who went about and were not touched for a while until they got onto The List before anything happened to them. If you got on The List, you were a dead man. One hundred percent. “And these men didn’t kill innocent people,” he says. “You didn’t end up on The List by mistake. They made no mistakes.” The big burly ones were known to be sharp shooters. They never pointed a gun at you but if they pointed a gun at you, they were going to shoot and when they did they’d not miss. They were like shadows; they had amazing intel on what was going on, who did what, who was planning what and suddenly they’d appear where a group of suspects were. Amazingly, he remembers their compassion, if you could call it that.
“They would often visit someone’s mother.” He says, “Many times, they would go to your parents and tell them you were a thug and that they should send you away to the village never to come back and if they didn’t, they’d tell your parents, they’d kill you in a few days.” He says that some would even give you fare to leave immediately – no clothes, nothing – just leave as you are now and never come back and they’d drive around and come back after three hours and if they found you they’d put “copper” in your head. (Utakula “copper,” a bullet). He saw many boys die.
He remembers sitting with his mbogi outside a shop smoking weed and one of them showing up and sitting next to one of his friends, a known thug. And him, the arm of the law, having a very casual conversation with this guy as he shared his cigarette. “He was telling him casually of all his crimes, one by one, dates, times, locations, while they took turns smoking this one cigarette.” Then the cop asked the guy if his account was correct and he said yeah, it was. Then he crushed the cigarette under his boot and said, well, then, it’s time. “He told him, ‘I hate to do this but your name is on my list so please follow me.’” Later his body was discovered with copper.
“We feared them,” he says, “If you heard they were coming for you, you were finished.”
Then he heard of a boxer called Mike London who lived in Kibera. He met him by pure chance. His friend got a gig to deliver water to his house and he was looking for an extra hand. So he went along and was taken aback by his house. It was plush. He had a TV and carpet and many rooms. There were bedrooms and a sink and above the sink was a mirror. He realised that he’d never stopped to look at himself in a mirror before. When you are poor, you don’t see a need to look at your shame.
Mike London was also the first person he ever met who lived well and wasn’t a gangster. He had good clothes. He was curious about him and asked him many questions about boxing. London told him if he wanted he could come train in exchange for free lunch. Bout for free lunch? Was that a trick? It seemed too good to be true. Lured by the promise of free lunch he found himself at Colosseum gym at Adam’s Arcade, for the first time. It looked like a different world, he says. He was in tattered clothes. He stank. Colosseum gym isn’t a gym for people who want to take selfies and do Insta-stories. It’s hardcore. It’s sweat and blood. The founder, Coach Andre (a Muay Thai enthusiast), left Holland 20 years ago, leaving behind their family cheese making business and came down here to open the gym.
On the walls were pictures of fighters. “I knew I wanted to fight and be on a wall,” he says. “Down here where are seated (we are in Java) was my dream. I wanted to sit here one day and drink tea from a white cup.” He quit chewing miraa, smoking weed and hanging with his mbogi. Now he had a dream.
Training was brutal. It required discipline. He was from the streets, he knew a thing or two about opponents and how they thought and he knew about aggression and the heart of men who dispensed it. Fighting, he discovered, wasn’t just about throwing punches in anger. It was about the mind. It was about intelligence. But training was everything so he trained daily. Suddenly he wasn’t exposed to only gangsters and thugs as role models. Now he was meeting men who didn’t steal and shoot to get respect. Men who spoke English, drove cars and ordered latte. He wanted to be them. There were legends who passed through the gym.
There was a particular fighter called Kevin Miruka who was a legend in the gym. He was a fighter, a Muay Thai Fighter. He was out there, getting on planes and fighting white men in rings. And he was from Kibera. It was surreal, that this guy grew up in the same rough desperate streets but was now being photographed and pinned on walls and people looked at him, like royalty.
“I remember the days he’d come to the gym, it was like Jesus walking into a room.” He laughs. “I desperately wanted to train with him, to be like him.” Soon, he caught Kevin’s eye. The first time Kevin talked to him he doesn’t remember a word he said because, well, awe, admiration. Kevin sent him to a gym in Langata where he met the owner and Muay Thai coach Maurice Odera (now representative of the World Muay Thai Boxing Council) who took him under his wing. He started proving himself, working hard, punching up, listening, saying little, learning, running, skipping rope, eating whatever he could, sleeping. He started spending less and less time mtaani, his friends wondered what became of him since he no longer smoked weed with them. Finally his chance came.
His first fight was at Purdy Arms in 2018, an Ultra fight series organised by Maurice. His was the highlight fight, the last one and he went on at midnight to fight a Uganda opponent. (Apparently Ugandans are badass). He walked out to the ring to a song he later learnt was by Ludacris, “Move Bitch Get Out Da Way.” People cheered and chanted his name. He had never been cheered before in his life. He had never heard his name called out in admiration. Nobody outside his mbogi really knew his name. But now, all these people had gathered to watch him, a boy from the slums. It was surreal. Everything was surreal, the night was odd. He was also afraid of botching it all up, of being beaten. He could hear his own heartbeat and he was afraid his opponent could hear it too. He got into the ring and onto his red corner where he bounced on the balls of his feet. “I was afraid,” he says. “It didn’t matter how many fights I had been in inside the slums, this was different, everything rode on this fight.”
The bell rang and the Ugandan came for him, punched him in the head the first few seconds and that woke him up. “I felt alive,” he says. They punched and kicked and elbowed and the crowd roared. In the second round, he hit him on the ribs with his shin and punched him on the side of his face and the Ugandan went down like a sack. The crowd went wild. He won.
Last year four important things happened in his life. First, he got a passport. For you it’s not a big deal, for him it’s everything. He has an important government travel document. With his photo on it. In the photo he looks like a deer caught in headlights, blinded by the implications of it all, that there is a possibility he could leave the borders of Kibera, the borders of Nairobi and actually leave the country, for abroad.
Second, he got onto an airplane. A big bird. He walked into an airport with its strange announcement and everybody who seemed to know exactly where they were going, pushing expensive looking suitcases. Sponsored by Maurice, he for the first time got onto the plane to Thailand the homeland of Muay Thai boxing, a place he only dreamed of going when he trained, an unattainable dream, the mecca of the sport. He was the first one to get onto a plane in his family tree and leave the country. He sat next to a white man watching a movie and he aped everything he did right down to his food order. A white person- well, brown – served him food! In Doha, the connection, he stood in the middle of the airport, a big swirling miasma of a world on the move, and asked God, ‘why me?’ and God being God, just looked away and smiled.
Third, as he trained for a fight in Phuket, he got lost one morning while jogging and found himself in a small center full of people who couldn’t understand the little English he knew. “I was shirtless and they were excited to see a black man. Everybody was taking pictures of me. I was like a celebrity. It felt good. I felt special.” (I know this feeling only too well because it’s in Pattaya, Thailand that a hooker famously cradled my hand in both of hers and breathlessly whispered, “Chocolate Man! Chocolate Man!” That shit gets into your heart.)
He, for the first time, felt seen. During the tournament he had six fights and he broke a nose and ribs and his shin cracked. But he was in Thailand. ‘Do you know how far Thailand is from Kibera?”
About 7,000 kilometres.
The last thing that happened to him; his mother died. Alcoholism, depression. He regrets that she won’t see what he will make of his life. How God will touch him. How he will rise.
Brian Serete, or Brayo, is 20 years old and still lives in the same house in Kibera that he grew up in. His big brother just came back from jail. He’s taking care of the whole family now. Sometimes he catches his father looking at him with a look that he wants to imagine is pride. He’s not only fighting in rings, he’s fighting in life to steer a whole generation out of poverty. The destiny of his family and his life are in his hands because he’s the one who has been 7,000 kilometres away from Kibera. For now, he’s training boxing, Muay Thai and Martial arts at Ultra Fitness Gym on Kilimani Road. It’s the home of the best trainers around who are also active fighters and have also trained in Thailand’s fight camps. He’s ranked 19 in the world.
He dreams of living in a place with more than one room and a sink and a mirror, so that he can look at himself in it and see his dignity in it. If you ever go to Ultra Fitness and you need a trainer, ask for Brayo, your engagement might get him closer to that mirror.