Monday, August 18, 2008

NY Times profiles blind boxer from Uganda

A profile in the NY Times August 15:

KAMPALA, Uganda -- Talk about shadowboxing.

In the center of a flyblown gym, where the musk runs strong and the weak are not welcome, Bashir Ramathan (pictured left) bobs and weaves, his tattered gloves punching furiously, trying to find their target. Blows rain down on his arms, his chest, his sweat-beaded face. But his fists keep flying — all completely in the dark.

“You better watch my hook!” he warns. “It’s fast! It’s sharp! Watch out!”

Mr. Ramathan is completely blind, and he is a middleweight boxer. It sounds improbable, and dangerous, but it is his way of dealing with his disability.

This husky, bearded bricklayer from the Ugandan slums is fearless, calling out all the other boxers in the gym to go toe-to-toe with him — as long as they wear a blindfold.

On a recent day, another fighter, and a quite chiseled one at that, tied a sweaty T-shirt over his face, and he and Mr. Ramathan duked it out for several rounds, trading some serious head-snappers.

There were some wild whiffs, too, and at one point, the two boxers were back to back, punching like crazy in the absolute wrong direction.

Mr. Ramathan said he tried to home in on smells and sounds, like the squeak of the shoes and the huff of his opponent’s breathing.

“Bashir fights with his brain,” explained his coach, Hassan Khalil.

“He has the talent,” said Monica Abey, a young female contender who has trained with him.

BUT this Ugandan Rocky story is not about boxing, really. It is about how a man who unexpectedly lost his sight 12 years ago has gone from a sullen figure sitting in a one-room shack waiting for some orphans to boil his next bowl of gruel to an inspiration across his country.

Whenever he goes for his morning run, with his shorts pulled over his sweatpants in the old-school style and a 12-year-old jogging alongside him, holding his wrist as a guide, people pop out from their vegetable stands and telephone kiosks and whistle and shout happily at him.

There are no ramps here or guide dogs. The ground is uneven and strewn with rocks, muddy in some places, gravelly in others. Even for those with perfect vision, it is difficult to walk without tripping. But somehow Mr. Ramathan does it, navigating the gullies and the slimy sewage ditches, the Pepsi trucks parked like boulders in the middle of alleyways and the maniacal bicycle taxis that zoom across the road without a moment’s notice. He was clipped by a car a few years ago. His right knee still hurts. But he keeps going.

Officials in Uganda’s blind community say Mr. Ramathan has become a hero to the estimated 500,000 Ugandans who are blind.

“Here is a man who is showing that blindness is not the end of the world,” said Francis Kinubi, chairman of the Uganda Blind Sports Association.