Mildred Apenyo: Creating a safe space for women’s health

mildred apenyo she leads africa

Body ownership and self-love

Fitclique’s classes are designed with women in mind. All the trainers understand that each person wants to achieve something different with their body. There are those who are looking to build muscle and others who simply want to boost their endurance, for example. Clients are encouraged to communicate their body and health goals to the trainers. From the beginning, Mildred sought out trainers who have proven themselves in the gym space, received rave reviews from their clients, and most importantly, who care about women.

The trainers, all of whom are certified, are conscious about how they speak to women about their bodies. They work with their clients to come up with the best training schedule that will give them their desired results. This strategy is a breath of fresh air for clients who have often found themselves being pushed into what is considered ‘typical women’s exercise’  by trainers in other gyms. Mildred, a certified African yoga instructor herself, also works closely with the trainers to come up with different inclusive training styles. They recently introduced a babyrobics class, for example, where women with babies aged between three months and a year, can exercise and bond with their baby through specialized workouts.

The gym occasionally has guests who not only help with training but also give health and fitness talks. It recently hosted Ruth Riley, a WNBA star that Mildred met at the University of Notre Dame. Ruth, who has conducted numerous basketball, leadership and life skills clinics in the Nkomazi region of South Africa, was in Uganda to begin a junior NBA program. She not only had an inspiring discussion with the women at the gym but also joined them in strength training and yoga classes.

FitcliqueAfrica has been developing personal safety curricula to be used in equipping women with skills that they can use to effectively defend themselves. In structuring these, Mildred and her team gather insights from their environment. “We began to think about different women’s experiences – from the university student to women who use boda bodas,” said Mildred. “We created personal safety curricula closely based on this situations.” The curricula also aims to teach women the importance of owning their bodies and being confident in the spaces that they inhabit. “When you feel like you have something to retaliate with, when you feel like you own your body more, when you are more confident in the space you inhabit, then you are more likely to scare off someone,” she said.

Next month, Fitclique will begin personal safety orientation in Makerere University. This will give the gym a chance to test out the curriculum that is geared towards female students, and find out if it truly impacts the way that they experience campus life. “We want to see if it makes their lives better, makes them more confident, makes them feel like they own their bodies and spaces more,” Mildred said. She recognizes that many of these students are ill-prepared to defend themselves in the adult environment that is university. With the curriculum, she aims to break the cycle of young women having to learn through horrific experiences what it means to protect themselves, their bodies and their spaces.

A couple of months ago, the gym, in partnership with Action for Community Development and Attacked Not Defeated, held its first outdoors personal safety workshop. They met with commercial sex workers at Mpondwe-Lhubiriha, a town at Uganda’s border with Congo. After discussions with the women to find out their personal safety needs, Mildred and her team taught them self-defense maneuvers and also demonstrated the use of an alarm. Fitclique plans to continue to carry out such off-site training, expanding them to include corporate women. “We want to help women address the physical and emotional aggression that they face in the workplace,” said Mildred.

The power of process

When the gym was new, Mildred treated every single thing that happened as a crisis. However, she came to realize that when it comes to running a business, things constantly don’t happen as planned. She learnt that she had to calmly tackle each challenge and that things take time to happen. Mildred thought that Fitclique would immediately prosper, for example, but that was not the case. Success in business is often not instant. Entrepreneurs have to pour blood, sweat, tears and make a lot of sacrifices to get their businesses off the ground. “It’s like constantly chipping at this giant block that you wish would just disappear but every chip has to happen,” said Mildred. “If you are not doing all these seemingly endless menial tasks then your business will not grow.”

Fitclique has experienced growth within the last five months. Its client base has increased. The good press that it has received has boosted its social capital. Many more people now know about the gym and are interested in joining it. Growing and running FitcliqueAfrica has ultimately been a team effort between Mildred, the trainers and staff. The gym’s core team consists of four ladies who collectively handle its day to day operations. They include, Mildred’s assistant, a business development manager, a gym manager and a communication and social media manager. The gym also has a part-time graphic designer.

The team is working on getting contracts, similar to the one they have with Green Hills Hotel, with other establishments around Uganda so that they are able to reach more women. They are also looking to hold personal safety orientations in other universities. “Everything is focused,” said Mildred. “We know how we want to go about things at the moment and that feels good.”

The gym aims to make a sustained change in the way women experience space – the space that is their body, and personal and public space. “If Fitclique can influence this a bit, if there are women who are growing in emotional stature, and in body love and acceptance because of the work that we are doing through the gym and curricula – then I will comfortably say that my vision has been realized,” said Mildred. She hopes that the effects of Fitclique reverberate as confidence and safety for women. Society, in general, does not imagine that women can and should own their bodies and spaces.

“It shouldn’t be an act of revolution or considered an aggressive stance to say ‘This is my body and I love my body,’” Mildred said. “It should break our hearts for that to be considered a revolutionary act.”

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About Patricia Egessa

Patricia Egessa is a writer and social media enthusiast from Kenya. She enjoys using her writing to amplify women’s voices and share their stories while connecting them to beneficial resources.

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