One on One with Kassim 'The Dream' Ouma - Uganda's Celebrity Boxer
"If I wasn't boxing and was in Uganda, I'd probably still be a soldier. However, in America, if I were not boxing, I would be in the movies. The big screen. Action, drama, I got it all." - Kassim Ouma
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First published: October 15, 2007
Following in the footsteps of one of his idols, Ayub Kalule (the former junior middleweight champion from Uganda), Kassim Ouma became a boxer. What was extraordinary about him though, was that he turned from a child soldier into an international boxing sensation. USA-based, Ugandan-born Kassim, who is universally respected and admired by everyone in the boxing industry, was born in 1978.
Once he escaped from the military, Ouma found comfort in boxing. He was recruited by the Ugandan national boxing team and qualified to fight at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia but was not able to compete due to financial constraints faced by the team. In 1998, after a solid amateur career (60-3) in Uganda, "The Dream" finally had his chance to progress further into the boxing world. The 19-year-old defected to the United States during a national team tour, where he was granted political asylum. He promptly decided to pursue professional boxing. Ouma settled in Florida, where he made his professional debut on July 10, 1998 with a first round knockout of Napoleon Middlebrooks. Next, he won the International Boxing Federation (IBF) Junior Middleweight world title and the rest is history.
Former Child Soldier Kassim 'The Dream' Ouma.
Gulu Walk this weekend Oct 20th: Find a GuluWalk near you...
Ouma also spent time at the US Congress working with both Republicans and Democrats to address the problems in northern Uganda where Joseph Kony - head of the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group that is at war with the government of Uganda, has held the Acholi population of northern Uganda hostage for more than two decades. Ouma runs a small charity called Natabonic, set up to fund the education of members of his extended family and other people from the village where he was born. Currently, Natabonic is providing boreholes and pumps to bring clean water to villages, and he hopes to ship donations of used clothes from the US to refugee camps in northern Uganda. He is effectively using his position and profile to lobby for change in Africa.
Kassim Ouma has been featured in magazines and newspapers around the world, and was the subject of an interesting segment on HBO's Real Sports in the Bryant Gumbel series. In Uganda, he gained extra attention with rumours that he was dating one of the country's most popular female musicians and Toro princess, Juliana Kanyomozi. When I interviewed him over the phone, we discussed several issues. Ouma is surprisingly a guy with both feet on the ground, despite his fame.
Kassim Ouma post fight interview
Kasim Ouma in NYC
Jane: What made you choose boxing?
Kassim: Well, there were many types of sports activities I could have gotten involved with, but boxing intrigued me. All I knew to play were games like tae-kwon-do and such like. I chose boxing because I wanted to join the Ugandan team. Before I joined, Ugandan boxers were going abroad to fight and coming back heroes. They were going to Denmark and places like that, and I wanted that too. Boxing was also an escape route for me to a new life.
Is it how you make your living?
Yes, for now it is how I make my living. Boxing is what I do. You know what I mean?
Now, Uganda has a reputation for having good boxers. Why do you think that is the case?
I do not know, but in Africa, we have the manpower to compete in the world championships. With better management of the sport, Africans can join the league of champions big time. In many African countries... If you look at the record of Uganda, we have good boxers. We have very high standards. We get medals...
OK, is it because of the training? Does Uganda have good trainers? Because, wherever I ask about boxing, Uganda seems to have a very good reputation. So, would you say it is because of the trainers or is it the raw, natural talent? Is it both?
I'd say it's the talent. Maybe God blessed Uganda, because there are many good boxers, including professionals. You know, they are now looking for champions. Hopefully, some will come from Uganda. You know, when one makes it, a lot of other Ugandans will work harder to be given a chance too. I believe that there are many young upcoming boxers in Uganda who want to be like me. You know what I mean?
What do you think of the Cuban boxers?
They are the kings of course. They are very talented.
Kassim 'The Dream' Ouma.
Would you suggest to the Ugandan government to send some Ugandan boxers to Cuba for training? This is an idea that my father, who was a diplomat in Cuba, tried to endorse.
Now, that would be a very good idea. Ugandans would definitely benefit from that because the Cubans are dangerous in the ring. Ugandan boxers need more support from the Ugandan government. Every time they compete, they are the nation's flag bearers. There is a lot of potential in Uganda, a lot of talent. However, they need help. They are not competing for themselves only, but for their country too.
What does your mother think of your boxing?
Well, she does not really care. She is happy that I am making a living.
She does not worry that you are likely to get injured or anything like that?
She has been to one of my bouts, but she does not want to see any others. She came here in America to watch a championship. I won that one, so it was good. Nevertheless, she told me that she does not want to see any others. She told me she was scared of seeing me being beaten.
So what are the challenges of your career?
Being overlooked as an African and not being given enough gigs. I want to fight more but it's a struggle to find fights. The fights often go to other people. This is my livelihood. I mean, if you look at music, they feel that they already have one African guy - Akon. Therefore, they do not give other Africans opportunities.
I see what you mean. Yet Africa has a lot of talented musicians of all genres...
Yes. But it's the same here with boxing.
I heard a baby crying in the background. Do you have kids?
Yes, I do.
How many of them?
I have four kids.
Ok any of them boys?
Two girls and two boys.
Now, if any of them came up to you and told you they wanted to be boxers, would you encourage them?
Not like that. I can be like; no, they cannot be like me. This is the land of opportunities. They can try all kinds of possibilities. One of them, when he was still in Uganda, wanted be like me. However, I feel that he can be something else. They can go for professions like lawyers, doctors or something like that. I don't really care. They can be whatever they want to be but right now, it is all about education.
Kasim Ouma One on One with Jose OnFire Aguirre
Who is the one boxer you have not fought that you would like to fight?
There are many guys I'd like to fight, but if you were to ask me for one specific name I'd say Oscar de la Hoya. I would love to fight him. You know what I mean? Ever since I came to this country, I have wanted to fight him.
What do you think of Muhammad Ali?
Well... he is the greatest. You cannot say anything about him other than that, he is great.
What do you think of your celebrity status? You know, you are a celebrity in Uganda and internationally too. A lot of people know who you are, so what do you think about that?
I am a down to earth person. Most people would be surprised, but I am a people's person. Many people know me, but I do not know all of them. Even the town where I live, I am known because of the boxing. I get many people greeting me and saying; "Hey you are Kassim Ouma, the boxer!" However, I am not the type to give myself airs because I am a celebrity. I keep it real and I live a regular life. I am a very approachable, friendly guy. I even joke with people who stop me on the street and tell them that I am my twin. They respond; "You look a lot like Kassim Ouma!" (Laughs)
That is really funny. Now, I am going to go into a serious topic because you are from Gulu and we will soon have Gulu Walk. You are some kind of a spokesperson for Gulu, originally from there. Therefore, it is only natural that I would ask you about the situation there.
(Soberly) Ok, go ahead.
My first question is this. Is the war really over?
Well, when I was in Uganda in April this year, there were peace talks going on. Now, whether or not the peace talks were honoured and successful, I am not quite sure. I am originally from the affected area but have been out of the country for a long time. Therefore, I cannot tell you accurately what is happening there. Nevertheless, I would like to think the war is done and it is just a matter of rehabilitation now.
If the war on the battlefields is really over and the abductions are history, what should our roles be to help?
There is a lot of work. Schools, homes and hospitals have to be rebuilt. You know, you asked me about my celebrity status. I used it in Uganda and here too, to raise awareness about what is going on there. I am using my fame and position to lobby for change in Uganda and to help. I visited three camps and what struck me was the desperate need for clean water (although the clean water problem is endemic to the whole country and not just Gulu). They desperately needed clean water. The kids also need to be educated as they have missed out on that for all these years.
Talking about children, can you please tell us about your experience as a child soldier?
That's in the past and I prefer to leave it there. There is nothing nice about being a child soldier.
What gave you the strength to leave the army and follow your dreams?
The boxing. It gave me hope. I am glad that I had that because I never dreamt that I would come this far.
Who were your role models as a child?
Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali.
How did you become a child soldier? Were you abducted?
Yes... I was abducted. We were in school one day and the next day I was kidnapped, being trained to be a soldier. I am not sure why. I did not see my family for years and I was scared. But it is all in the past. Today I am doing well as a boxer and I focus on that. That was another life.
If you have watched the Blood Diamond, are the scenes with the children in the film familiar to you at all?
Actually, I have heard a lot about the movie but I have not watched it yet.
(Surprised) Really? You should go watch it, very insightful.
Well, I know that they are telling true stories about Africa... I heard that these are true stories.
Well then, perhaps they will do a movie on Gulu.
(Lost in thought) Perhaps. It would be nice to get our stories out there so that Gulu is not forgotten.
Right. Now I have to switch topics again. What about Juliana Kanyomozi? What is up with her? Is it all rumours or are you guys an item?
Well when you are in the limelight, which we both are, people always want to know what is going on. They always have questions. It is what it is.
Well, I am sure you knew I would ask you that. Are you guys together?
It is what it is...
So I take that as a yes?
Like I said, it is what it is.
How do you feel about her music career? You must be proud of her...
(Happily) I am very proud of her. She is doing very well. People love her musical style and I can see why.
So you must be her number one fan of course
Planning any kids together?
You never know with these things...
Ok, I am going to get you off the hook. I have grilled you enough about the lovely Juliana Kanyomozi and I'll change the topic.
Kassim 'The Dream' Ouma.
What music do you listen to?
I listen to all kinds of music. I am a fan of Ugandan music. I also listen to hip hop and R&B. I do not listen to music like heavy metal, but I listen to everything else.
Any messages to your fans?
Yes. I want to thank them for all their letters and support. I want them to know that I love them and read their letters. I want to let them know that I have a boxing match next month (November). Therefore, they can come, watch and cheer me on. I also want to say that I am part of a documentary that comes out early next year.
Kassim Ouma on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel
For more information on Kassim Ouma, please go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kassim_Ouma
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First published: October 15, 2007
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.