Conjestina Achieng was a role model for young Kenyans who wanted to get ahead in sports. She played soccer as a child and was then inspired to try boxing by her brother, Joseph. She worked hard at training, and, after 7 amateur bouts, made it to the pro ranks. She won her first pro fight in 2002 in Nairobi by decision.
In Nairobi in 2004, after only 2 years of pro boxing, Conjestina won the GBU middleweight championship, becoming the first African woman to win a professional boxing title. She beat Uganda’s Fiona Tugume in a hard-fought, ten-round unanimous decision.
Conje, as she was called, was known as a knockout artist and often said, “Come early, ’cause I’ll finish early.” But in 2006, she ran into problems. She had won and lost several fights by decision after going the whole six rounds; early did not come as soon as she would have liked. In January 2007, Conje was TKO’d by Laura Ramsey in the 6th of 10 rounds, in front of a home Kenyan crowd. That sent her record to 9-4-3 with 4 KOs.
Conje’s best fight was possibly in Feb. of 2009 in Nairobi, where she won a 6-round decision over rival Charity Mukami. She “opened floodgates of punches,” and the decision was unanimous. Her last fight was in 2009 in Berlin, where she fought for the WBF middleweight title. She and Maria Lindberg of Sweden slugged it out to a draw in 10 rounds. Conje wound up her career 15-6-5 with 7 KOs.
What motivated Conje to embrace such a punishing career? The love of sports and the need for money. “I earn a living the hard way,” she said. “I’m only paid if there is a fight and if I have won. I have a son and younger sisters who are still in school”. Conje is from a family of 10. She added that her parents were aging, and they now depended on her.
But in 2011, Conje started showing signs of disabling mental illness. She appeared confused and despairing and burned all her boxing gear. She took her son out of school. She was unable to work and, for a while, was cared for by a younger sister. Conje has been in and out of mental hospitals in Nairobi and Kisumu since, but she’s shown no improvement.
Recently, she escaped from a rehabilitation center in Kisumu, and her brother William reported she’s a danger to the family because the heavily-muscled Conje is “punching everyone around her“. The rehabilitation center has asked the family to return her, but that will be challenging.
Conje worked hard at her profession and to support her family. It’s a sad situation for an athlete to decline as rapidly as she has. Hopefully, with treatment, Conje can return to her former glory.