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Boxing saved Jama Hoday's life: With a new youth program, he's returning the favour

Monday August 27, 2018
By Jonny Wakefield

Jama Gaiye Hoday takes a break from training at the South Side Legion Boxing Club on Aug. 21, 2018. Originally from Somalia, Hoday became a boxer in Kenya as a young man. It's since become his "passport," eventually landing him in Edmonton where he runs a boxing program for youth. Jason Franson / 00085358A

Growing up, Jama Gaiye Hoday was not a happy kid.

He was raised largely away from his parents, who out of concern for his safety sent him from his home in Somalia to live with an aunt in Kenya. He spent a few weeks in the Kakuma refugee camp, where people would remove light-coloured clothing after dark because it made them targets for gunmen.

By his early teens, he was a “wild kid,” hanging out with older boys who were mixed up with drugs and violence. He tried playing soccer and basketball, but neither clicked — he got in a fight during his first soccer practice. He found himself alone with his dark thoughts.

Then one day, when he was 13, he walked into a boxing gym in Nairobi.

“I went there and ended up telling the coach there that I wanted to be a boxer,” said Hoday, 28. “He asked, ‘Have you ever thrown a punch?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can fight.’ He let me hit the bag and somehow, the bag was hanging up, and when I punched it it fell down.

“I think that was the last day I ever put my hand on somebody in the streets, did something bad,” he said. “All I worried about was my fitness and how to improve my boxing, how to create an image for myself, and earn respect without fighting in the street.”

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Fourteen years and seven countries later, Hoday is in Edmonton, where he’s become an evangelist for the power of boxing.

Since 2016, Hoday has helped organize a free youth boxing program, largely for kids in the African-Canadian community. About 30 kids — boys and girls aged six to 18 — train with Hoday after school at the South Side Legion Boxing Club

Hoday’s 12 years in Kenya shaped — and likely saved — his life. After starting work with a local trainer, David Olulu, he became more disciplined. He’d go to sleep at 8 p.m. on a Saturday evening to be up in time for a long pre-training run at five the next morning.

He eventually moved to Zambia, where he fought for the army’s amateur boxing team despite not being a soldier. He then moved to Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, where he turned pro. He also lived in Tanzania and elsewhere in Canada before coming to Canada.

Hoday settled in Edmonton in 2013, the same year he arrived in Canada on a family sponsorship. He started to explore the city by LRT looking for a boxing gym. He now works as a fireproofer on oilfield projects.

Rick Jamerson is president of the South Side Legion Boxing Club, one of the city’s oldest boxing groups. He first heard of Hoday from a west-end boxing coach who said they had a fighter from Africa who showed promise but didn’t fit with their program.

The two had coffee and Jamerson learned his story. “To understand where he came from and to know a little bit about what’s going on in that country, it was amazing he’s actually where he is,” he said.

Edmonton boxer Jama Hoday fights Emanuel Simbeye, left, during a 2012 match in Zambia. Hoday now lives in Edmonton, where he trains young people to box. Edmonton

Jamerson said once he got to know Hoday, he “saw bigger” for him.

“I said ‘Come train with us — we’ll definitely help you to get ready to compete. But also, who knows, you could have your own club on the north side, for your community.’”

Hoday quickly emerged as a hungry fighter with good speed and footwork, Jamerson said.

A one-time president of Black Pioneer Descendants’ Society of Western Canada, he was also struck by Hoday’s interest in Alberta’s early black communities. Jamerson is descended from African-Americans who moved to the West in the early 20th century.

“He’s interested in going out there and learning … about our culture,” he said. “Which is interesting, because a lot of the immigrant population doesn’t know anything about us, and are quite surprised (to learn about Alberta’s black community in the early 1900s).”

Jama Hoday and members of his Jambo youth boxing program. Edmonton

Hoday fought his first match in Edmonton the winter he arrived, which he now acknowledges was a mistake. Long runs were a big part of his training regimen, but he couldn’t run in snow. He didn’t have a car to go to the gym. If he travelled five minutes in any direction, he had trouble finding his way home.

He went the distance during the match at the Shaw Conference Centre, but ultimately lost on points. He said he won’t box again professionally until he’s 100 per cent ready.

In the meantime, he launched Jambo Boxing Fitness. Jambo means hello in Swahili. Most of Hoday’s trainees are kids from east African communities. His guiding principle is “Somalinimo,” a kind of pan-Somali pride.

He sees himself in some of them — at-risk kids who need an outlet to give them confidence and identity. For others, their parents simply want them off the couch and out from in front of screens.

Now a Canadian citizen, Hoday hopes to return to Africa this fall to box for his adopted country.

“Boxing’s been my passport,” he said. “I come into (a country), all I do is find a boxing gym and I feel at home. I start fighting, and people see me as one of their own.”

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