She grew up in a family of boxing enthusiasts, and her dream was to one day become a professional boxer.
Born in Galappo, Manyara Region, Hellen Njau - popularly known as ‘Pendo Njau’ - is the third-born in a family of eight children. Although she is known as Tanzania’s first and only female boxing referee, Pendo’s journey in the world of boxing began with her as a female champion boxer. She won all 14 matches in her nine years of boxing career, from 2008 to 2017.
She tells Woman that her journey in boxing started from a dinner table with friends. One evening in 2008 while she was having dinner and watching sports news, she saw Tanzania’s famous boxer, Japhet Kaseba on TV boxing and told her friends she wanted to pursue the sport. Her friends laughed at her telling her she was a woman and that she was not fit for boxing.
Coincidentally, Japhet Kasseba’s friend happened to be sitting at that same table and promised to link her up. And truly while they were winding their dinner, Kaseba stepped in. She got introduced, he asked her a few questions and they agreed to meet the next day.
Japhet took Pendo under his wing and trained her for free. He supported her through her entire boxing career - and still supports her now that she has moved into refereeing.
Pendo says her journey in the world of boxing was not easy. Her first exercises were painful; but she persevered due to the love she held for the sport.
The mother of two says she won’t forget her first match where she went in shock and froze until Japhet Kaseba screamed: “Pendo push kick!” She threw the kick and her opponent flew to the other corner of the ring. That’s when her courage crawled back - and from there she did well.
When growing up, Pendo was notorious in the streets, fighting and starting trouble all the time. This changed when she moved into boxing. During exercise, she felt like the least powerful and as she continued into boxing, she learned to be humble and not to fight anywhere else but in the ring.
After nine years as a professional boxer, Pendo took almost a year’s break and switched to refereeing in December 2018.
“Being a referee is a dedication because you are watching out for the boxers who are in the ring. If a referee is not careful, boxers could fight themselves to death. I handle my job well and carefully. I love peace so when I am refereeing the matches, I bring the energy of peace along with me.”
She tells Woman that it reached a point where she felt she had to transition to another area in the boxing arena so as to give more girls the opportunity to be boxers. She made the decision because every time she played a match and beat the girls, most of them left boxing completely.
On being a female referee, Pendo says: “Honestly, refereeing is not that blooming money-wise; but I have a passion for it. When I came back from break, I was slacking with boxing exercise and they all joked that I should just become a referee. To their surprise, I actually started training as a referee.”
Pendo consulted Yahaya Poli - the secretary of Paid Boxing in Tanzania - and Joel Arnea, the president of Paid Boxing at the time. The two encouraged her to take refereeing seriously and invited her to Bagamoyo to referee and judge in amateur boxing matches.
Pendo’s first refereeing job was in Bagamoyo, the Coast Region, with beginner boxers - and after the match was over, everyone applauded her.
She was also invited to the judging panel to judge about 10 matches - and her fellow judges also appreciated her decisions.
One of the unforgettable moments in her career is the day when she refereed the match between Tanzania’s Hassan Mwakinyo and Democratic Republic of Congo’s Tshibam Kayembe.
The international match that took place at Mlimani City last year was watched all over Africa.
Pendo recalls how one of Kayembe’s team members denigrated her for being the referee. She braced herself confidently and assured everyone that the match would be refereed fairly.
A quarrel almost broke out during the match. But, Pendo got in-between the boxers - and ensured that the rules were followed. After the match, everyone applauded her, including Kayembe’s team which had been furious that a woman was refereeing the bout. The DRC ambassador in Tanzania also congratulated her in person for her refereeing.
Another match that Pendo recalls is the one involving Simon Ngoma and Ibrahim Class in 2020. She says although it appeared normal from the outside, it was different in the boxing ring, and she had to use her brains and stay keen. Simon was committing technical fouls that only a boxing expert would notice. She had noticed earlier that he was playing foul, prompting her to make important decisions, for which the crowd was proud of.
Pendo is popular beyond Tanzania’s borders, where she has captured the attention of the boxing world.
But the Corona-19 pandemic has hampered her travel to other countries. In June she failed to travel to Ghana to referee a match for that reason.
Pendo says refereeing will be her life-long job - or until she reaches a point where she can no longer make just decisions. She intends to continue working with the judges and the whole boxing fraternity, always making just decisions.
She encourages women to join boxing - and they should not give up easily even if they lose a match. She advises that they should stay strong and pursue boxing because it is a career that can change one’s life for the better.
Pendo appreciates the support from stakeholders, especially Azam-Tanzania. She says getting sponsorship as a woman boxer was never easy... But Azam had always been very supportive.