KINSHASA: The first and only woman referee of professional boxing in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Wivine Tshidibi says she battled her way to renown in a man’s world thanks to a “fit of jealousy”.
It was a way to keep an eye on her husband, recalls the 40-year-old mother of four who once practiced the “noble art” herself but now sees the sport as a strictly male affair.
“That’s the real fight,” Tshidibi says, clenching her fists and calling boxing matches between women “child’s play” in comparison.
Stubborn and generously built, Tshidibi came to boxing after practicing several other sports, including handball, basketball and judo but she readily concedes that jealousy pushed her into the ring in 2002.
Tshidibi was then married to renowned Congolese boxer Mbuyi Tshibangu, alias “Mbuyi-Champion” to his fans. “Each time he finished one of his boxing matches, he went off with other women,” she says with an amused smile.
“That’s why I decided to take up boxing, so that he couldn’t get away from me any more,” she adds, though times have since moved on and “Mbuyi-Champion” has emigrated to Canada.
Only about 30 women boxers are active in the DRC on both the professional and amateur circuits, as compared with some 100 men. Sponsors are not interested in women and the matches can be difficult to arrange.
For lack of finding opponents in her own category, Tshidibi decided to take a course in becoming a professional referee.
Since the first fight she adjudged in 2009, Tshidibi has served as referee for 15 professional matches and more than 80 amateur contests, every one of them between men.
“She deserves it,” says Ling Shang Kieselo, head of the Congolese League of Boxing Referees, who has watched over fights himself for 36 years.
Kieselo adds that relatively few matches take place in the DRC, though the sport is widely followed, so that some of Tshidibi’s male colleagues have not seen a single fight since they became qualified.
“You can place Mrs. Tshidibi in charge of any fight there is and be certain that there will be no mistakes on the part of the referee,” Kieselo says.
During a commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Kinshasa’s “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, when US heavyweight Mohamed Ali beat then world champion George Foreman, Tshidibi refereed two of the six matches staged in the capital.
‘Nothing scares me’
The sport of boxing gained ground in the former Belgian Congo after independence in 1960, but has not become widespread despite the worldwide news coverage of the Ali-Foreman contest—which the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had pushed for to bring publicity to his country.
Kieselo believes that Tshidibi has carved out her place in such a masculine preserve because of the qualities he admires. “In the ring, she’s very watchful, objective in her decisions, knows when it’s the right moment to end the fight [and]can distinguish what’s right from what is not.”
Boxer Dady Bola, who has fought under Tshidibi’s vigilant eye, respects her skills. “In the ring, she’s strict,” she says, but she’s “also very hot-tempered and gets angry fast.”
Tshidibi herself accepts these assessments, saying that she won her status because of her personality, which she describes as “stern, tough, choleric . . . And nothing scares me!”
Her task as a referee is her “passion”, she adds, noting that she oversees matches only in Kinshasa, but this does not enable her to make a living for her family. “We don’t earn much,” she says, a little flustered to talk about money.
To serve as a referee during amateur matches is a purely volunteer job, while the pay for adjudging professional fights varies “between 30 and 80 dollars [24 and 65 euros]”, Tshidibi finally discloses.
She raises the extra cash to feed her children by braiding the hair of women living in her district, who are prepared to pay between five and 10 dollars a head for her expertise.
Proud of her career, Tshidibi keeps her old photos as a trainee boxer and of matches she fought on display.
Her professional referee’s certificate has suffered from the humidity but she keeps it carefully, along with a medal awarded to her in 2013 by the Congolese Boxing Federation for having been referee at the final of a local championship.