In her own Words: Lee Karen Stow on '42' Women of Sierra Leone at the Slavery Museum

By Ben Miller | 13 February 2012
A photo of a woman staring at a photo of a female boxer on an art gallery wall
In her own Words: Photographer Lee Karen Stow on a punchy portrait in her Sierra Leone-focused show, 42, at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool...

“Here is a jolly and laughing Grace Brown, head of the Sierra Leone Women's Boxing Team, training with coach Ali (yes, his name really is Ali).

Grace needs no encouragement, for this woman really packs a punch, or at least she did when I took this photo in 2007.

It was five years ago when I began photographing the women of Sierra Leone in West Africa for the documentary project entitled 42, to highlight the country's appalling life expectancy rate among women.

During my second visit to the country, I was invited to meet and photograph the women boxers. Can you imagine? A dream for any photographer, to be allowed into the world of a dozen talented and ambitious young women who train each morning at the dilapidated and neglected international stadium in the country's capital of Freetown.

Whilst I admired the tenacity of the women and their love and passion for the sport, I was disheartened by the lack of proper equipment and the immense barriers they face before they even reach the boxing ring.

There is zero funding and sponsorship for their quest. The women have to share boxing gloves with the men, waiting for the men to finish before being able to use the sweat-soaked gloves.

For male and female boxers the stadium offers no running water, flush toilets or showers. The roof of the gym lets in the rainy season downpours, forcing the boxers to train around the puddles.

They've managed to fix and rebuild the boxing ring, but proper tournaments and bouts cannot be held because no one can afford to pay for a doctor, should an injury, however minor, occur.

Meat – or any protein – is an expensive luxury for many in Sierra Leone, and a boxer can reach peak fitness only to fall prey to a mosquito bite and malaria.

Despite the obstacles, Grace and her female boxers had a dream of reaching London 2012 when, for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, the ban on women's amateur boxing will be lifted.

A photo of a young woman sitting down holding her fist up
Stow returned to photograph Brown after her stroke
© Lee Karen Stow, leekarenstow.com
Sadly, and frustratingly, a lack of in-country sponsorship and support meant the women were not able to try for the early qualifying rounds in order to have a decent chance of reaching the Olympics.

At the same time, Grace fell seriously ill. She underwent a mastectomy and suffered a stroke. She is now housebound, unable to train and box, and relies on the power of prayer to ease the pain.

She is 43. The team feels as though they have lost their dream, and also their leader.

In September 2011, Grace allowed me to photograph her, at her home, surrounded by her team mates.

She raised a defiant fist and said quietly 'Gold', determined for her team one day to reach the Olympics and bring home the Gold medal."

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