Witness - Zambia boxing
Esther Phiri weightlifting in her gym, Zambia [Al Jazeera]

Zambia’s boxing star

Esther Phiri has become an icon for Zambian women, fighting stereotypes and finding success in and outside the ring.

Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.

Esther Phiri has literally had to fight hard to carve out an independent life on her own terms. In her native Zambia, the seven-time world champion boxer is an icon for women who pursue their dreams in defiance of tradition. In this film we understand why: she is a deeply charismatic and determined woman – and she can knock anybody out. Before becoming a boxer, Esther gave up her education to support her family and invested in her meteoric boxing career, despite the pressure to marry and have children.


By Salla Sorri

We first met Esther around August 2009 in her training gym. She was at the height of her career and tired of how the public and media had invaded her life, in way that she felt like an object. Despite this, she gave us her trust. She agreed to our request to make a film about her life, but only if she could tell her own story to the world, in her own words. That time Esther had just broken up with the love of her life who she was about to marry. She was already a 6 time world champion in female welterweight boxing and about to compete in a fight to win her 7th world champion belt.  At the time, she was considering competing at London Olympics 2012, where female boxing had just been approved.

Esther was not only a strong female icon but also enjoyed the popularity and fame similar to male boxing. Many of those we met said that Esther had made boxing popular again in Zambia. It is remarkable how Esther opened up new avenues for women in this sport. After her rise, in neighboring Zimbabwe, women were allowed to compete as professional boxers for the first time. While in Esther’s gym, we met women from all ages who had come to train especially because of her.

For three years we followed Esther’s journey with a small crew, mostly made up of women. Esther made clear to us that she had plenty of responsibilities and pressure from those who surrounded her life. She is strong, beautiful, furious, yet responsible.

We felt warm and safe to be around her but she can also demand a lot from her close ones – and for their own good. As an idol, she aims to maintain a good public image, even when things were hard. No doubt she is a talented athlete but I think that she is also very focused and driven; choosing to train with men instead of women and reacting well to the numerous obstacles in her way.

Esther has fought to be at the top of her game but in private she fights to strike a balance between her career, family and love life. It is a conflict any modern woman can relate to.

We found it quite striking how, even at the top of her career, she struggled with a feeling of insecurity; would her loved ones take care of her too if she ever needed them one day? Is she fighting for herself or to make profit for others?

What united us – the filmmakers – with Esther is that we are all women, around the same age, we are stubborn and we all love with heart and hope.

Making this film we got to experience different specters of Zambian society; from communities living in poverty to the close circles of the president. The journey made me think about the different levels at which we have our own battles. It always boils down to the same basic question; what are we fighting for?