One of the most iconic catchphrases in the world of boxing in the Lingala language of central Africa, the chants from an enthusiastic crowd in Kinshasa, host to Muhammad Ali’s championship fight with George Foreman in 1974. It epitomized his connection with Africans. Heralded as not just the world champion but their champion, Ali was a towering inspiration to Africans throughout and beyond his fighting career.
Yet, Ali, born in Louisville, Kentucky and as steeped in American culture and mores as any man of his generation, had a connection with Africa that was deep, meaningful, long-term and way ahead of its time for an African American of his generation.
The love and respect was mutual.
Ali’s popularity on the continent was rooted in his personal struggles and beliefs. Unapologetic about championing his blackness and defiantly embracing his roots, his involvement in the civil rights movement campaigns of the 1960s made him a favorite among Africans who could identify with his causes and struggles
As disappointment grew in post-colonial Africa, Ali was deified by Africans who felt they were being let down by former anti-colonial heroes turned presidents who had promised so much but given so little. Ali’s strength, defiance and fame across the world as possibly the first global sports star was something Africans could lay claim to.
Muhammad Ali was really the first ‘African’ American. At a time when being called negro was still acceptable, being identified as ‘colored’ was polite and being referred to as black was progressive, Ali went that step further and said himself: “I am an African.”
“I am glad to tell our people that there are more things to be seen in Africa than lions and elephants,” Ali said on arrival in Ghana.”
Beyond being adored by hundreds of millions on the continent, Ali championed Africa’s cause, pushing pan-African rhetoric that sought to change the grim views held by many outside the continent long before it became fashionable. “I am glad to tell our people that there are more things to be seen in Africa than lions and elephants,” he said upon arrival in Ghana—his first visit to Africa—in 1964. “They never told us about your beautiful flowers, magnificent hotels, beautiful houses, beaches, great hospitals, schools, and universities.”
That debut tour of Africa, which took in Ghana, Nigeria and Egypt, was a seismic event across the continent as thousands were on hand to welcome him at airports and even more lined the street to catch a glimpse of the great man.