10.28.09

Revisiting the Rumble in the Jungle, with an Eye toward Human Rights

On the 35th anniversary of her dad’s legendary fight, Khaliah Ali travels to the Congo, seeing that humanitarian conditions have worsened.

Thirty-five years ago, on Oct. 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali regained his title as “the world’s greatest” boxer at the Rumble in Jungle, his legendary championship fight against George Foreman. As a conscientious objector and advocate for black nationalism, Ali’s triumph, which took place in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), was celebrated at home as a civil rights victory. The fight holds an honored place in American popular culture: Legendary journalists Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and George Plimpton reported on the event. The Rumble has been the subject of an Academy Award winning documentary, “When We Were Kings,” and serves as the climax of the Will Smith biopic “Ali.” Sports buffs still debate whether Ali’s " rope-a-dope" strategy, which ultimately won him the Rumble, was indeed planned, or the result of fatigue from the sticky, near-equatorial humidity that baked both fighters.

“This was the first time in my life really seeing a malnourished child,” says Khalia Ali of her trip to the Congo. “As a mom it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever looked at.”

What’s been less examined is the Rumble’s long-term significance for the Congo, the country that hosted the fight. This week, to commemorate the Rumble’s anniversary, philanthropist and fashion designer Khaliah Ali, one of Muhammad Ali’s seven daughters, is traveling in the Congo to raise awareness on behalf of humanitarian agencies fighting exteme poverty, with a special focus on the challenges facing women and girls. “My job is to listen, learn and observe,” Khaliah Ali told The Daily Beast. “I do have my 10-year-old on this trip with me, and he’s accompanied me through everything that was appropriate. It is a family visit.”

Today’s Congo is a war-ravaged nation, much moreso than it was in 1974. The exploitation of the land for its metals and minerals—primarily cobalt, copper and tantalum, used to manufacture cellphones and computers—continues, and the frequency of rape against women in eastern Congo, where rebel and government militias face off, is reportedly the highest in the world.

“This was the first time in my life really seeing a malnourished child,” Ali said. “It is the most senseless thing I’ve ever seen. I saw a baby lying listlessly on the ground. I was not sure if he was alive. As a mom it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever looked at. I’ve volunterered and worked in the South, the Appalachians, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and I’ve never witnessed poverty like this before.”

Khaliah’s trip harkens back to a statement her father once made, in a November 1975 interview with Playboy. "Wars on nations are fought to change maps, but wars on poverty are fought to map change." What’s discouraging for advocates is the extent to which the map of poverty has not changed in the Congo since the Rumble in the Jungle. What’s clear, though, is that while today’s philanthropists agree that empowering women and girls is key to improving quality of life on the continent, feminist issues certainly weren’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind during the frenzied planning that led up to the fight.

In 1974, an ex-numbers runner turned event promoter from Cleveland, Don King, was looking to capitalize on the "black is beautiful" tide washing across the U.S., and struck gold in the Ali-Foreman fight. Ali was remaking a name for himself after losing his heavyweight championship—and America's adoration—for refusing to serve when drafted for the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Zaire's president, Joseph Mobutu, was looking to legitimize his regime, which had overthrown and assassinated anti-colonial leader Patrice Lumumba with the aid of the United States and Belgium. Western interest in Zaire's mines enriched Mobutu, allowing him, in turn, to enrich King. Mobutu put up the prize money for the fight: $5 million for each competitor. For Mobutu, it was a $10 million public relations investment to win the favor of black Americans, who were aware and disapproving of his U.S. government-backed overthrow of Lumumba.

At home, African American activists were entering a post-Civil Rights phase that depended less on non-violent marching and more on black empowerment. Black activists looked to African liberation movements, such as Lumumba's Mouvement Nationale Congolaise, which won parliamentary elections in the 60s and eventually took control of the government away from Belgium. Lumumba was revered by many American black leaders, who were focused on building a black pride movement.

Ali, then a member of the Nation of Islam and fervent black nationalist who believed African Americans should leave the United States, went to Zaire presumably unaware of Mobutu's corruption; if he was aware, he certainly didn't speak publicly about the sensitive political situation. He seemed, instead, more focused on the boxing crown, and on regaining the trust of the American public and media, who’d been alienated by the radicalism of the Nation of Islam and its “white devil” rhetoric.

Women’s issues weren’t on the agenda. For one thing, the Nation of Islam promoted an infamously sexist gender ideology, and Ali was known for his many infidelities. “In the Islamic world, the man's the boss and the woman stays in the background,” Ali told Playboy—exactly the assumption women’s organizations in Africa are fighting today, with their focus on better education for girls, ending female genital mutilation, helping women launch businesses, and eradicating early marriage. As Khalia Ali wrote in a recent article, "It's been proven that when girls go to school, a nation's GDP increases, and the rates of HIV infection dramatically decrease. Educated girls are not so easily forced into marriages with men who take many partners at once."

But Khaliah resists attempts to read her trip as a corrective to her father’s murky record on women. “I have a family like any others, and if you find a perfect one let me know,” she states. “My father, he's an amazing man." On her trip, Khaliah laid brick for a new Georges Malaika Foundation school for girls. The “resilience is astounding” among Congolese women’s rights activists, she said, adding she didn't "hear anything about woman complaining about the government or complaining about sexism," but rather witnessed "women united, searching for solutions and working together," and "struggling not just as women, but women struggling against poverty.”

Get Involved: The Georges Malaika Foundation educates girls in the Congo.

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Brentin Mock is a New Orleans-based reporter who contributes regularly to TheRoot.com, GOOD, TheGrio.com, The American Prospect, and is a staff reporter for the forthcoming investigative journalism non-profit, www.thelensnola.org.