BUKOM: THE SUBURB WHERE WARRIOR KINGS ARE MADE
By Chris Akers
In 1975 a Ghanaian featherweight named David Kotei, who had competed a handful of times in Australia but had predominantly fought most of his bouts in Africa, travelled to the Forum in Inglewood, California in an attempt to win his first belt. In the opposite corner was none other than Ruben Olivares. At this stage of his Hall of Fame career, Olivares had become world bantamweight champion and had defeated the likes of Lionel Rose and Bobby Chacon.
Kotei had not been in the ring with anyone close to the stature of Rose and Chacon, let alone Olivares, yet eked out a split decision victory over the Mexican. With that victory, Kotei, or D.K Poison as he was to become more commonly known, became the first boxer from his country to win a world belt. He defended his belt twice before losing it on points to Danny Lopez just over a year later.
Fast forward to 1982 and another relatively unknown featherweight from Ghana fought a Mexican fighter for their belt. This time the challenger was Azumah Nelson and his opponent was Salvador Sanchez. Taking the fight at short notice, Nelson gave a good account of himself before he was stopped in the fifteenth round.
Since the days of D.K Poison and Azumah Nelson, world-class boxers such as Ike Quartey, Joshua Clottey and Richard Commey have highlighted the high level of boxing talent to have come from this West African nation. Teak tough, relentless and highly skillful in the ring, each of these boxers have truly exemplified the etymology of the name Ghana, which means ‘strong warrior king.’ What is even more remarkable is that these boxers come from one particular area of Ghana called Bukom.
This suburb of the capital city of Accra has produced seven of Ghana’s ten world belt holders and has a history of pugilistic fighting with a martial art called Asafo Atwele, which roughly translates to group fighting. It was through this form of combat that certain disputes were settled within communities and, during the British colonization of what was then known as the Gold Coast, that it intertwined with the tactics and technique of Western boxing.
It is this place that is the focus of Executive Producer and Director Scilla Owusu’s new documentary, City of Bukom: The Unassuming Slum Raising World Boxing Champions. City of Bukom is a manifestation of the evolution of boxing in Ghana, addressing aspects of post colonialism which we face presently and how it’s managed to spawn world class boxers, despite not having facilities at the level of those in the US and UK.
Owusu’s inspiration for this documentary was from a photography exhibition she attended back in 2020 called ‘This Is Ghana.’ by photographer Danny Wonders.
“There was a photograph in particular which caught my eye of a young boy wearing boxing gloves.” says Owusu via Zoom. “As I looked at this photo I found myself wondering who he was, where he got the gloves from and why he had them. The photo was the catalyst.
”During the lockdown in April 2020, going back to her film roots Owusu began researching the boxing industry in Ghana and was amazed to find the hidden history the country had.
“I was equally amazed as to why it was not something commonly spoken about or embraced in a non-documentary form. During the four month lockdown this is what encouraged me to put pen to paper and write ‘City Of Bukom’ as a short film.”
Initially, she wrote the script for City Of Bukom and launched a Kickstarter to raise £25,000 in 30 days. While trying to raise awareness for the project she began to interview boxers in Ghana, starting with former IBF welterweight champion Joshua Clottey, which eventually sparked the idea for her to make a documentary in addition to the film. After unsuccessfully reaching her film target, the campaign had a positive sequence when it inspired Owusu to continue interviewing those who made their name inside the ring, as well as the suits who influenced the sport outside of it, to make City of Bukom into an official documentary.
“When I put out the Kickstarter, people were sharing it, posting it on social media. Through that, a few people reached out to me via the City of Bukom Instagram page. An artist called KFT donated a treadmill, and my friend Nii donated boxing clothes. The majority of people who donated to the Kickstarter were people I knew personally, so I asked them that although we did not reach its goal, if they wanted to support the boxing gym we are partnering with in any way they can.”
The boxing gym in question is called the Akotoku Boxing Academy, which is based in Accra. For nearly 50 years, Akotoku has produced some of the world’s greatest boxers. Founded in 1974 by the late Francis Attuquaye Clottey, Akotoku is where legends such as Azumah Nelson, Ike Quartey, David “Poison” Kotey and Alfred Kotey honed their craft. The gym was affiliated with the Kickstarter campaign, to donate 10% of the £25,000 the campaign had aimed to raise to the gym for development. When the campaign was unsuccessful, Owusu asked the contributors if they were still keen to support the gym directly.
“With Kickstarter, if you do not reach your goal within your time frame you do not get to keep any of the money contributors donate. A few individuals agreed to donate the money they initially wanted to contribute to the film. With that money I used it to go to Decathlon Ghana and purchased a punching bag, boxing gloves, sparring gloves, skipping ropes, water bottles, head guards, mouth guards and so on.
“Even though we did not reach our goal in terms of the money for the film, I did not want to let down the academy. I thought ‘Let us try to do something for the academy’s sake.’ I am so passionate about giving back, true happiness does not result from what we get but rather what we give.”
One challenge Owusu was worried she would face while directing this documentary with her team was criticism from the boxing community.
“I would be lying if I said I was a die hard boxing fan before I directed City Of Bukom,” she admits. “I had basic knowledge of boxing, so in order to ensure this documentary was worthy to an audience I made sure I did as much thorough research as possible. Learning through every channel I could find, boxing books on Ghanaian history, Facebook boxing pages, watching old boxing fights, YouTube, google, people within the Bukom vicinity and more. Just so I could ask the right questions to get the stories the audience would potentially like to hear. I was learning a lot before pre-production and even during production. Now I love boxing a lot. I knew any vital information that was not mentioned or was incorrect would potentially be criticized and it would take away from the entire purpose of the documentary. Based on the feedback thus far, it is evident that I did my homework well.
“Boxing is a heavily male dominated field and I knew as a woman coming into this industry I could potentially be criticized. Sometimes I had doubts if I should pursue telling this story to be honest. However, the story is just so staggeringly rich not to tell. I wanted to do my part to preserve such history that might be non-existent because of oral storytelling. It was my motive to bridge gaps in our history and merge it into a video for the big screen and the global audience.”
The research started in April 2020 and continued while Owusu was interviewing various people for the documentary till August 2021. As for how the interviews with the boxers came about, those are tales in their own right.
“Joshua Clottey was the first person that we interviewed. I was trying to interview boxers to bring awareness to Kickstarter. I imagined that if people see their favourite boxers co-signing our film they will donate. I told members of the academy, ‘I want to interview a boxer. Can we please get Joshua Clottey? I see he is quite active in Ghana.’ They said ‘Cool, we will get his manager for you.’ They put me in contact with his manager, I explained the vision behind the project and a few days later Mr Clottey agreed to the interview.
“We visited Attoh Quarshie Boxing Gym in Bukom and interviewed him and the rest was history. He also assisted in pointing me in the right direction of other boxers and enthusiasts who should be included in the documentary including the likes of former WBA welterweight champion Ike Quartey.”
Attempts to interview Ike Quartey and Azumah Nelson initially proved to be difficult. With Quartey, a distrust of journalists and the media in general due to past misinterpretation of his words meant that there was a reticence on his part to be interviewed for the documentary. Yet Owusu persisted and eventually was able to book an interview with the man known as ‘Bazooka’ during his boxing career. Despite heavy traffic on the day of the interview which meant she arrived late, Owusu managed to reach the agreed location and the interview went smoothly.
Trying to get the chance to speak with Azumah Nelson was, Owusu describes ‘the toughest of the toughest.’ Owusu tried numerous times to reach Nelson through various ancillary people who tried to no avail. As with Quartey, her determination paid dividends and she was granted an interview with Nelson at his friend’s office, Mr Alhaji Inusah Sally who arranged the interview.
“He was so lovely,” beams Owusu, the happiness she felt while interviewing Nelson clear in her voice as she describes what happened on the day. “He just feels like the grandad everybody wishes that they had. I am sure if you search for the definition of humble in the dictionary Azumah Nelson’s name comes up. The interview was so impromptu, he had been waiting for four hours. When we showed up, he did not complain once, he was not being impatient. It just felt so unreal. In fact he was just trying to reassure me to stay calm because I thought I was messing up the pinnacle of my documentary. It was such a great experience. I am so grateful, so overwhelmed, especially for someone like me who does not work for a TV station or has a big corporate body behind them, this is not an opportunity that comes by every second.”
That happiness she felt when doing the interviews was something that she felt about Bukom when she first set foot in the suburb.
“The air was so cheerful. There are a lot of young kids there. They were playing football and games in the street. It was just so interesting that in an area that is supposed to be poverty stricken everybody seemed happy. It really made me realise that you may think you are having a bad day or bad week or bad year, but when you look at these individuals within this community, they still find the little things to keep them going and be happy. You just have to be grateful for everything in life.
“Everybody was so charitable. They were so respectful. Just by looking at me and the people I was with how we are dressed, you could tell that we did not reside in Bukom, but nobody treated me any differently. Everybody would politely greet you on the street. I felt like I was part of the community.”
A respectful place with inhabitants that are charitable Bukom may be. Yet it is somewhere that is described in the documentary as ‘a place without amenities and no substantial evidence of promise.’ If that is the case, what is it about this part of the world that produces world-class boxers, despite its facilities not equaling those of the US and UK?
“From the research I discovered and speaking to the boxers themselves, the Ga people naturally are generally strong people, especially because they live by the sea and most of them in previous times were fishermen. Many people believe that it is something that is naturally embedded in them. Bukom in particular is the suburb where the majority of the boxing gyms are, it is almost like people have no choice but to go into boxing because it is prevalent in the area.
“When you visit other parts of Ghana there are few to none boxing gyms, compared to Accra. There are over 30 boxing gyms in the Jamestown/Bukom area alone. So, you can imagine being a young child, especially if you are someone who is not currently in education. What other options do you have besides fishing, boxing or potentially football?
“Especially because the first ever world champion from the country D.K Poison came from Bukom, a lot of the youth are inspired to be like him, as boxing brings a lot of honor to the country.”
From the moment they arrive at the airport, world champion boxers and Olympic medalists are lauded by politicians and the public alike. Presidents will buy them houses, some political figures will buy them cars or give them money, some are honoured with murals and so on. The honour and the esteem that boxing brings, are a great motivation and inspiration for young people who want to become boxers themselves, despite the lack of amenities and equipment that are present.
“You see in London, even if you come from a lower class family, your lower class is nothing compared to the lower class of the people in Bukom. Even if you come from a lower-class family, there are still things that give you access to go to the gym, such as free public transport if you are under 16 to begin with. Whereas in Bukom, these young boxers are already going through their own issues, their own problems. Some of the boxers do not even have money to buy food, to even train properly as stated in the documentary by amateur boxer Abdul Baki Adams. In London, the boxers take nutrients and protein shakes, whereas in Ghana the amateur boxers do not have any of that simply because it is either inaccessible to them or they cannot afford it.
“Imagine these boxers do not have even one-tenth of the things that we have in the UK when it comes to infrastructure, facilities and resources and yet somehow they are able to cross over and be just as successful as boxers abroad. It is almost like they have nothing to lose, so they give it their absolute best. Not to say boxers in the UK and American boxers do not, but because boxers in Ghana literally have nothing, boxing is the escapism for them out of the poverty they are in.”
As determined as prospects are in Ghana are to become world champions, it could be said that they do not have the requisite knowledge to navigate the business side of the sport. This is a view that Owusu agrees with.
“I believe it is because the majority of them either do not finish education or because boxing is so time consuming, they prioritize that over their education. When you get to a position where you do not have much money, you are not thinking about your education. You are thinking about hustling, doing the things that are going to bring you money. In Ghana there is no system that takes you through training about the business side of boxing.
“If you are someone who is coming from a squalor neighborhood and somebody else wants to invest in you with their hard earned money, you are likely seeing it as your way out towards success. You are just trusting that this person has their best interest in you. It is almost like a mother or a father. You would not expect that your mother or your father would do you wrong, as they are your parents and you trust them.
“The educational side definitely is lacking because a lot of boxers do not know where to start. They do not even know where to look when it comes to trying to find that education. That is really sad as I would not necessarily say it is their fault. A lot of these boxers go into boxing as something that is fun. They are not thinking of it as a career. They are not thinking of it as a job. They are thinking of it as something that they are good at, that takes their mind of x, y, z, that brings honor to their community and to their country.”
With the lack of education in mind, Owusu has decided not to stop at just the documentary. She wants to go beyond this and look at other ways to directly tackle the issues the documentary addresses.
“I completed the first phase of my long term vision of championing boxers in Bukom which was bringing awareness through the documentary. Oftentimes we do not push further to implement action to provide solutions. Phase 2 is an event I am organizing this year. I do not want to say too much right now but what I can briefly say is it is an inaugural exhibition of film, educational workshops, entertainment, interactive experiences and activities which champion the hybrid sport and its boxing maestros within the Ga-Mashie community. It is something I truly believe will help boxing resume back to the level it used to be at and develop worthy boxers for the next generation to bring more laurels to Ghana and continue our legacy.”
City Of Bukom: The Unassuming Slum Raising World Boxing Champions is free to watch on YouTube now.