An age-related question draws blank stares from Ramla Ali. Not because it is considered inappropriate, but because she doesn’t know the answer herself.
“I don’t know when I was born. My parents don’t remember either,” says Ali, the sole Somali representative at Friday’s sparring session at the Indira Gandhi Stadium ahead of next week’s AIBA women world championships. “I was born during the Civil War, so there wasn’t a lot of focus on records and documents as such.”
Ali remembers being “very young” when her family fled Somalia’s capital Mogadishu after her eldest brother was killed by a grenade while playing outside the house. After escaping to Kenya on an overcrowded boat and surviving on UN handouts, the family made its way to London where they started over as refugees.
Adapting to a whole new world began with slight ribbing from schoolmates for being overweight, and Ali joined a gym to ‘boxercise’ the calories off. It was love at first fight, but Ali had to keep the boxing exploits, and the occasional black eye, hidden from her family.
“It was tough initially, sort of like what Sania Mirza had to face here,” says Ali, the daughter of an Imam. “Boxing was a man’s sport. My family was worried that as a Muslim I was showing a lot of skin.”
Ali, however, continued to compete secretly. Then two years ago, she told her family that she was “going out for a run” and won the 54kg national final to become the first Muslim boxer to win the English title. One of the highlights made it to prime time news, and the gig was up. Ali decided to quit boxing to appease her parents but partner-turned-coach Richard Moore talked her back into it.
“With him, I started enjoying the sport again. I felt that he understood me as a boxer and as a person. But when I asked him to coach, he declined because he reckoned that I was too sassy, and backtalked a lot. We had to come to an agreement that I will do what he wants me to do as a coach. We’ve stuck to that agreement,” Ali laughs.
Then came what has been a remarkably tough decision. While she boxed for England at the European Women’s Boxing Championships and won the second English title in December 2016, Ali decided to represent Somalia internationally. There was but one big problem.
“Somalia didn’t have a boxing federation. Richard and I thus decided to help put together a body and get it recognised,” says Ali. “It has been a difficult two years. Mentally, emotionally and financially draining.”
“Before Nike came aboard as a sponsor, we knew that it was going to be a tough year travelling. I had to sell my flat in London and spend all our life savings to come here. Ramla is a qualified lawyer. I changed my career,” says Moore, now the national coach of Somalia. “At the end of the day, you need to realise that possessions can be regained. That shouldn’t stop you from working for your dreams.”
It is Moore who now finds himself adjusting to a whole new world. A former journalist with sporting pedigree — he is the grandson of former Manchester United and Chelsea manager Dave Sexton — Moore understands that the new job comes with a fresh set of responsibilities and challenges.
“I have started speaking Somali this year. I spend a lot of time talking to Somali ministers, officials. If you look at my BBC, my newsfeed… my news topics are not London, or England. As bad as it sounds, I am not interested,” says Moore. “I want to know what’s happening day-to-day in Mogadishu. Things like, is the One Person One Vote democratic party going to win? You have to immerse yourself completely if you want to do anything.”
Barely minutes after the interaction on Friday, news broke out of suicide bombers killing at least 20 people in Mogadishu. Ali is disheartened by the violence in her war-wracked native land, and frustrated because she can’t be out helping on the ground.
“I haven’t gone back. My mum’s been back a few times, but she doesn’t want me to go there. I have been in media lately, and that makes me a target of sorts,” says Ali. “But this is my way of putting up a fight. The mean messages are nothing compared to the love I have gotten from young girls and their parents. My parents are happy and proud of my achievements now.”
“Like the World Championships, I want to be the first Somali to take part at the Olympics too. But it going to be tough. Even today in sparring, I was with Indian girls who are really good. But that for me means a lot too. My coach thinks I have already won.”
Moore concurs. “You see amazing women like Mary Kom and so many others, who act as role models for their people,” says Moore. “But Africa doesn’t have a lot of female sporting role models. So to me and many more, she is already a champion.”