My older brother John Otieno aka Oti was shipped off to university in India in 1978. He was only 18, on his maiden plane ride to the jarringly chaotic Asian sub-continent. His port of arrival was Panjab University in Chandigarh, one of the oldest institutions in India.
It was a reputable university that was affordable for Kenyans seeking overseas education and a financial breather from the prohibitive costs of British and American universities.
Chandigarh attracted a large contingent of African students, mainly drawn from Nigeria and East Africa. My parents had 5 other children and an extended family to support in different stages of schooling. Money was tight.
Beyond the college fees, there was little in way of survival dough coming out of Nairobi. The hardship in India jaded one’s soul he recalled. Racism was a constant reality and only the tough survived here. Getting good grades was not half as important as not losing one’s sanity.
Stories were abound of African students who had lost the plot, fallen off the rails and gone bonkers. He would learn to rely on his wits and fists.
Otieno had a background in martial arts. He picked up the rudimentary skills from my uncle Olando who was one of those pioneer bodybuilders of the 70s, out of the Mickey Ragos school of toughs. Uncle Olando knew a little karate and my father, ever the practical one, urged his sons, to learn some karate.
We became a family where the commitment to fitness was a rite of passage and my three older brothers would all grow up to be competent fighters by their teenage years.
… the crowd went hoarse. “Kill the black devil! Kill the black devil!” they shouted.
I would discover decades later that father had a short stint as an amateur boxer inspired by Nelson Mandela, his role model in the art of pugilism.
Proficiency in martial arts requires dedication and discipline and John would take to it like a fish to water. He soon graduated to Shotokan style of karate but boxing became his true love.
This valuable skill set in a land where fighting arts were acknowledged put food in his belly and kept his dignity intact. Three years later, as a player-coach, he moved southwards to Baranas Hindu University in Varanasi, India’s holy city by the banks of sacred river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh. Within the amateur boxing circles, Oti started to attract attention having out boxed everyone on his level.
Another of my older brothers and Oti’s second follower, Proff joined him in India around this time at the height of his form. Proff was soon recruited into Oti’s corner as a water boy cum sparring partner or more accurately as a human punching bag.
The build-up was the fight of Oti’s life. The African underdog had dared to challenge the Varanasi district champ. Some mean brute with ‘serious attitude who was drawn from the army ranks is how they described him. I have heard two versions of this story told over family dinners all my life. The version I prefer was Proff’s, through the eyes of a witness.
Proff was the corner man on the day in a hall stuffed with humanity. The massive gathering had come to watch the carnage about to be visit one insolent Kenyan boy. Proff had a very unsettling feeling. The opponent was intimidating and the fans scarier.
Oti was prancing in his corner, mimicking the foot shuffle of his hero, Bruce Lee. Around him, thousands taunted him and hurled insults. As the champion strutted into the ring, the crowd went hoarse.
“Kill the black devil! Kill the black devil!” they shouted.
He had witnessed the impossible!
The bell went off and the district champ came out swinging wildly. He had a long reach but was not quick enough. Oti ducked and landed a body shot. The champ swung again and missed as another body shot combination landed. That set him off. His bloodshot eyes bulged focused solely on a knock out and underestimated his smaller opponent.
When he came around again, Oti ducked low and landed a solid right hook under his solar plexus. The man dropped like a log as the hall went hush. The ref dragged himself through the countdown.
Oneeeeee……! (with a long pause checking for life),
Proff swore that it was slowest count ever witnessed in boxing history. But there was no recovering from that punch and Proff turned delirious. He felt like he owned the world and could take on a 100 men right there and then. He had witnessed the impossible!
All harassment and insults in the streets ceased immediately. Oti became John ‘Bhai’, the district champion and who had won clean. A local hero in Banaras.
During Oti’s funeral in 2014, we told this story to his children to remind them that we did not honor their father merely for that great fight. He had earned our respect long before we understood that in the boxing ring as in life, defeat was only declared when we refuse to stand up again.
My lasting lesson from Oti’s boxing honors is this…
In the end, we only regret the chances we did not take.