Saturday June 14 2014

Mildred Apenyo: Getting women strong

Mildred Apenyo shows off what she

Mildred Apenyo shows off what she can do at her gym, Fit Clique. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa. 

By Christine W. Wanjala

Mildred Apenyo wants you to be fit and strong. She is not a gym trainer though, or some fitness guru. She is just a woman who knows what it is like to jostle for space with the men at the weight training section of the local gym.
“A man attempted to throw a dumbbell at my head because I had refused to budge from the machine I was using. He insisted that his training required use of all three machines and poor little female me had to wait until he was good and done. When I refused, he lunged at me with the dumbbell and had to be restrained,” she shares.

She has experienced the borderline sexual harassment from trainers and other men at the gym. She is fed up of feeling like the trainers are not in touch with her workout goals and of being told, “you are a girl, you should not do that, or that will make you hard.”

This is why she thought up the idea of a women’s gym. Fit Clique is now three months old having kicked off at the end of February with a Yoga class. Today, it offers classes five days a week, ranging from self-defense, dancing, yoga and strength training.

No ordinary girl this one
Apenyo is one of those books you cannot help but judge by its cover. Her look at the few occasions I have bumped into her screams “I’m not your ordinary girl, not one of the crowd”. Her hairstyle is always another story in itself.

On the day we meet for the first part of this interview, she has the sides shaved off and little dreadlocks sticking out at the centre. When I see her a few days later she had chopped off the middle and it was a clean shaven head.

“I wake up and ask myself, ‘what does Mildred want?’ If Mildred feels she wants to cut off all her hair but for a little patch of dreads in the middle, then that is what I do,” she says, adding that this goes into how she chooses her clothes as well.

The result is a woman who always looks comfortable in her skin and clothes, despite several curious glances from those around her. She is the very definition of feisty, with an infectious laugh, and an energetic straight-backed gait that Tyra Banks would totally approve of.

Although she had been running for a while, Apenyo started lifting weights in September last year, around the same time a certain youth minister’s remarks sent the feminist world, which Mildred is unapologetically part of, up in arms. Rage drove her to seek to want to be stronger.

“I realised we lived in a society that does not even want to take care of us. Either dress like this or… I also came to the knowledge that there are things a grown human ought to be able to do; provide for and protect themselves,” she shares.

Initially, Apenyo just wanted to learn self-defense for when a man decided her tight jeans were a green light to rape her. But she was just recovering from a broken leg after an unfortunate incident mountain climbing and was not about to earn any martial arts belts from delivering excellent flying kicks. So, she took to lifting weights, which quickly got her hooked.

The love of conquering weights
What excited her more than the appearance of the beginnings of abs after a few months of sweating it out was the confidence that came from seeing what her body could do. An attitude borne of conquering heavy weights at the gym.
“When I could deadlift about 50kgs, something happened to me. I felt strong both inside and out. I began to strut confidently rather than just walk,” she says adding that she wanted to see more women walking around feeling that good thus started spreading the gospel.

For a while, Fit Clique existed in her constant updates of her exploits at the gym, then as an idea in her column and blog posts. She admits she had no idea how she would start out. “I was still working in advertising and I had no real plan. All I knew was that I wanted to be involved in something that got women stronger, both physically and mentally, but I had no idea how,” she says.

Still, by February, she felt confident enough to quit her job as a senior copy writer at an advertising agency and throw herself into building Fit Clique.

The first class, held on February 25, 2014 at Apex House in Ntinda, was a success and Apenyo was elated but that did not last when the owners of the gym that had agreed to host Fit Clique’s activities decided to renege on the agreement saying they did not understand why Fit Clique was for women only.

Fortunately, another venue was found in Bukoto. Not only was Fit Clique welcome, it was able to rent the space exclusively, making it the first and only women’s gym in Uganda.

Making the cut
She still cannot believe her last minute application to President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) after a friend posted the link got her this far. “I had virtually no references,” she says.
She takes the panelists belief in her idea enough to pick her as one of the 28 out of a possible more than 2000 Ugandan youths that applied, as already a big step towards where she wants to go.

“It warms my heart to know that an idea, a gamble, is received so well. I’m looking forward to learning a lot about starting and running a business. I’m already so inspired by the other people on the programme,” she said.

Her hope is to see more women in Uganda join the quest to get stronger. And, of course, to dispel some of the myths around women doing strength training.

Like how muscle is for men only and that if a woman lifts weights, she will look like a body builder. “It would probably take a woman 10 years of intense weightlifting and some testosterone shots to achieve even half of a Gololaesque body,” says Apenyo.

There were already a number of women who did not need much convincing. Since its inception, Fit Clique’s most popular class today is strength and weight training on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For this, Apenyo’s joy knows no bounds. But it is still a long way from her ultimate desire of seeing more women coming into body ownership, irrespective of size and shape.

And more Ugandan women who feel empowered enough to decide what they want to achieve with their work outs. Whether it is to lose or gain weight, feel healthier or become stronger. While she is pushing for all the activities at the gym, self-defense still remains close to her heart and she will not tire of beating that drum for women to take a keener interest in the class.

The business of passion
The firstborn of six, Apenyo feels her knack for entrepreneurship and obsession with fitness is because of who her late mother was. “My mother was a serial entrepreneur. I do not remember a time when she was not dabbling in some business or other. She was also crazy about fitness and not in pursuit of weight loss. She would just jog, sometimes taking all of us children with her. People tell me I have the same energy,” she says.

The rest of it, mainly the confidence and go-getter attitude, she credits to Mr Charles Dalton Opwonya who has starred in Apenyo’s writing severally. He has since come around to making peace with his daughter’s current career path. “He still desires that I do law and become a lawyer but recently he came by the gym, looked around and called to tell me he was impressed.

That meant so much to me. He even offered to teach one dance class,” she says, escorting that sentence with an ebullient laugh, probably at the mental picture of her father taking a class full of women through their dance motions.

Apenyo is the first to admit that trying to get a business up and running, much less one based on an idea as novel as hers, is no walk in the park. “I have had to learn some lessons on money, coming from a well-paying job to running a startup,” she confesses.

But while she conceded money is important, even saying she does miss not having to worry about splashing some money here and there, she is ready to wait out what she is calling Fit Clique’s organic growth.

“You cannot go in looking for money. I believe it is essential to have a space where women can work out in a distraction free, lewd comment free, ogling free environment with trainers who know how to work with ladies. I also believe that it is necessary for the ultra-conservative women. When you are doing something essential and helping better the lives of others, I believe you will always make money eventually,” she says.

In five years, she hopes to expand Fit Clique to include reach out programmes that reach younger girls and educate them on self-esteem as well as inspire a desire for fitness early. And for the women’s gym to be in every major town in Uganda, as well as reach the rural women.

But today, right now, Apenyo wants women to pick up the dumbbells, get to the gym and get strong in a space of their own. She wants to start a fitness movement among Ugandan women.

Mildred Apenyo is 24, the firstborn in a family of six. Her youngest sibling is just two years old. Her father is a lawyer and her late mother was a businesswoman and home maker. She grew up in Bugolobi flats.

Her hobbies are working out and writing. She describes herself as a writer who loves business and sweat. A writer and blogger, Apenyo started writing in her Senior Six vacation. She graduated with Bachelors in Mass Communication from Makerere University in 2011 and almost immediately started working as a copywriter for adverts, employed by different advertising firms. At the end of February this year, she left employment and began Fit Clique, a women’s-only gym.

In April she was one of the 28 Ugandan youths selected for training and mentorship under YALI 2014.