Mildred Apenyo: Getting women strong

At just 24, she has made a name as a humour writer in her weekly column that runs in one of the local dailies. This she has done alongside her full-time job as copy writer in advertising. However, at the beginning of this year, she quit employment to follow her dream in a women-only gym. For that business idea, she was one of the 28 Ugandans chosen for President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) 2014. In a few days, she will be off to the United States of America for a three-months training programme.

Saturday June 14 2014

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.

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