In Zambia, woman boxer emerges as a new role model

African Esther Phiri beat a US fighter to defend her world title this past weekend, increasing her status in the country.

The surge of young Zambian girls chanting "Esth-ah, Esth-ah, Esth-ah!" told the story Saturday night as Esther Phiri waved triumphantly to the crowd at Woodlands Stadium in the Zambian capital of Lusaka.

Moments earlier, Ms. Phiri had successfully defended her Global Boxing Union super featherweight world title, winning against Belinda Laracuente, a more experienced and polished American fighter, and adding another victory to her improbable run as the first female boxing champion from this southern African nation.

To many observers, Phiri – a single mother and former street vendor with little education who is now a household name – could strike a large blow for women in a country where major gender inequalities remain in everything from sports to politics to HIV/AIDS.

That's a tall order for a young woman who only recently emerged from Mutendere – the impoverished area that many of Lusaka's urban poor call home – and who is now grappling with the confusion of newfound fame. But with encouragement from her corporate sponsor, the National Milling Corporation Ltd., the soft-spoken Phiri is beginning to use her celebrity to set an example for Zambian children.

Phiri says she sees herself as a role model for Africans. "It's not good to be staying idle," she says, explaining that young girls in Zambia's hardscrabble neighborhoods often fall prey to drinking and prostitution. "I just give them encouragement.

"Everything has changed because of boxing," Phiri adds. Before, "I lacked something to do with my life. God blesses me through boxing."

After her father died when she was in sixth grade, Phiri – one of eight children – was forced to leave school and sell vegetables on the street. Then, at the age of 16, she became pregnant.

How Phiri got her start as a boxer

But after taking up boxing as part of a local initiative promoting HIV-awareness and participation in sports, Phiri was introduced in 2003 to Anthony "Preacher Man" Mwamba, a retired Zambian boxer who advanced to the quarterfinals of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and now works as a trainer.

"When we met that time she was just a novice, but she had heart," says Mr. Mwamba, who took Phiri under his wing. "She didn't even know she could be someone."

By July of 2005, Mwamba had Phiri in the ring. Her early fights included a draw and a series of losses, and there were no frills – they traveled long distances by bus.

Male boxers didn't make things easy. "They used to insult me," says Phiri with a laugh, recalling how they said she just came to the ring because she wanted to be near the men.

But in late 2006, Phiri stepped into an unscheduled fight in Nairobi, Kenya, with the the reigning Women's International Boxing Federation (WIBF) Intercontinental Junior Lightweight titleholder, Kelli Cofer of Ohio, and won an eight-round decision.

The win and the resulting publicity made Phiri a household name. Billboards with her picture line streets and the government television broadcaster carries her fights live.

Newly rich by Zambian standards, Phiri, her daughter, and her mother now live in a bigger house in a middle-class Lusaka neighborhood. National Milling is paying for Phiri, who was previously illiterate, to complete her education and to learn to drive her new car.

The champ gives back

Phiri has donated money and clothes to a local orphanage and visits with players in a youth soccer league. In talks with kids, Phiri stresses the importance of sports as a way to boost confidence for young Zambian women and help them avoid the pitfalls of sexually transmitted infections and early pregnancy.

"She's ventured into ground that was a domain for men," says Mwiika Malindima, chairman of the Gender and Media Southern Africa Network in Zambia. "I think she's a role model for many women." But Mr. Malindima and others would like to see her do more community work with women.

And Zarina Geloo, a local newspaper owner, says that the largely uneducated Phiri, surrounded by men in the world of boxing, is still not fully aware of just how influential she could be in her new role as a prominent female citizen.

Navigating the challenges of fame has not been easy, Phiri says.

She's receiving advice from all corners, including Zambia's president, Levy Mwanawasa, who met with Phiri and counseled her to be wary of men and not to squander her newfound fame and fortune.

Aside from boxing, Phiri wants to finish school and says she has a "business mind." Phiri's next fight is in March, and her promoters are dreaming of securing a bout in Las Vegas.

Still, while Phiri now holds two world titles, finding other sponsors for a female boxer in the region remains a challenge.

But many Zambians, including males, are just happy to have a champion.

As one young Zambian man shouted with a smile upon seeing an American leave Phiri's Saturday night victory – "Zambia is strong!"

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