Inside Nairobi's illegal 'fight club'

Updated 18th July 2016
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Osborne Macharia  mengo 4
Inside Nairobi's illegal 'fight club'
Written by Thomas Page, CNN
Kenyan photographer Osborne Macharia has a knack for capturing underground (and wholly fictional) scenes. His series of hip-hop grandpas proved so realistic that his Instagram followers have asked where they can download the subjects' tracks.
Now, Macharia is at it again, this time documenting the (again fictional) fight club Mengo, in the heart of Nairobi, with its roster of short-statured fighters.
Macharia's fight club is set in an abandoned warehouse in Kenya's capital, where the city's ultimate fighters converge every month to engage in illegal bloodsport.
The characters make up a motley crew. There's Dudus, a female wrestler who has been in the ring since the age of 10 (she's the current reigning champion). She defends her title armed with a sling shot and a keen eye. Meanwhile wizened veteran Mangalitos, the only fighter to have held all championship titles, defends his legacy with specialist move the Spinning Back Ng'oto, using a chain attached to his foot.

'We wanted to bring a sense of glory'

Macharia's latest creation is another fantastical narrative from the conceptual photographer, weaving together a rich story we almost want to believe is true.
His composite photographs, captured in a studio and on location before being digitally stitched together, have been his pet project for over a year, one he returns to when he's not pursuing commercial ventures or winning prizes at the Cannes Lions.
But this isn't a project playing fast and loose with its interesting subjects: there's a message behind it too.
"Society has placed [people with dwarfism] in a bracket of people with disability," Macharia says. "We wanted to change this narrative. We wanted to portray them as this strong, energetic and vibrant people."
"Traditionally if one was given the brief to photograph people living with dwarfism, it would be the same old direction of pity, disability and the need for help," he adds. "This was taking a different approach."
Joakim Mwangi, president of the Short Stature Society of Kenya (SSSK), says the community is stigmatized in Kenya.
"Parents refuse to take children of short stature to school... parents don't think much of them," he says. "Even at work we face a lot of discrimination, and we are not respected in any social gatherings."
Macharia says "we wanted to bring a sense of glory" to people of short stature.
"In as much as they do have their challenges and need for assistance in being accepted in society, we felt this was a different way of creating that awareness," he explains.
All the "fighters" in Macharia's series came through their affiliation with the SSSK, who were pleased with the photograph and his team's approach. The subjects chose their own character names, while props, production and styling were overseen by Macharia's regular collaborator Kevin Abraham.
"Abraham and I kept pushing the project as it seemed quite impossible and hard to put together," says Macharia.
"It's been a sentimental project for my team and I; we were happy that the subjects loved the outcome and were proud to be part of the project."
Watch the video above to discover how the project came together.