She was named one of the ten most inspiring African women under 30 by African Woman magazine; has been interviewed by Al Jazeera, BBC Africa, Voice of America, New York Times, NTV and so many others.
Mildred Apenyo, a 2014 YALI Fellow, is – at 25 – a rising young business owner. Her business: a women’s only gym, FitClique Africa, in Uganda. The idea of a women’s only gym started after a man got violent after she refused to be bullied off a gym machine. As this was the experience of many women in gyms, she decided to create a space just for women. It has since grown to include all kinds of fitness activities like yoga (Apenyo is now a certified yogini!) as well other wellness packages. She participated in the MiniSkirt protest in Kampala in 2014 following the passing of the Anti-Pornography Law (popularly known as the “miniskirt bill”).
Besides FitClique, she continues to write and speak about the need to have safe spaces – and holistic approaches to self care – for women. As Apenyo said in a TEDx talk last year, “You can be depressed and insane with abs so tight that they show through your shirt.” She recently caught up with Rebecca Rwakabukoza to share her insights.
Rebecca Rwakabukoza (RR): So what turned you towards fitness?
Mildred Apenyo (MA): It was 2012. I had kept a running kit under my office desk for four months. I’m surprised that roaches and spiders didn’t fight for squatting rights when I finally decided to use it. I started running to shake off the lethargy and depression that came with living a sedentary life as a copywriter. I had a real fear of men on the street (Kamwokya, where my office was located, is the hub of street molesters in Kampala, Uganda).
I had anxiety issues, ugh everything was awful. But one day I downloaded some music, grabbed headphones and went running. Like all newbies to fitness, I became obsessed and shed 10 kilogrammes in one month. My joy was more from the power I felt, the ownership I felt over my body.
“You mean I can manipulate my body weight and aesthetic like this? I have this power? What else about my life can I change?”
Also, my fear of men on that street, that fear that would grip me before? It disappeared. With time my temper even stopped flaring (let me admit that I once or twice ran towards men and demanded that they swallow their comments. Hehe.) I felt like I deserved the ground under my feet, you know? And I felt a defiance. How dare men try to make my occupation of my space an uncomfortable experience? A lot happened when I began running, but things didn’t really change until I began to lift weights. I’d gotten to running 10 kilometres a night when I broke my leg. For three months I had to stop myself resenting even babies for having two functioning legs. I was desperate for physical activity and that’s what led me into the arms of weightlifting. I bought a membership at a gym and relied on the internet to be my coach.
RR: What is it about weights that changed your life?
MA: When I used to weightlift, the most distinct thing was how the body expanded. Every class, you lift more and more and eventually you can lift the equivalent of your weight. Then more. But it is not just being able to lift your body weight; it is also seeing the effect of that on your mind as much as in your body. It is a treat to realise that you can change your body and wondering what else you can do. But as far as the fitness activities I do with the most love and obsession, I have kind of moved on to kickboxing and self-defense. I love how with kickboxing, you’re not just learning how to throw a punch, your body is also learning some agility.
RR: I remember when we were very upset with Minister Ronald Kibuule’s remarks. You said, “Women need to get stronger.” And you hit the gym even harder. Tell me about that process. [In September 2013, Uganda’s State Minister for Youth said that women who wore miniskirts deserved to be raped and that Police “shouldn’t even listen to the person who comes to report a rape case, putting on a miniskirt.”]
MA: Ah, that time of Kibuule. I don’t know if I have ever felt so crazed. I was crying myself to sleep and crying myself awake. Becky, you remember. The comments on television, the way it seemed that Uganda was ready to declare a genocide on women. I went mad. No, I didn’t hit the gym harder. I was already weightlifting 3-5 times a week. It felt nicer to be lifting heavier than the dudes at the gym! I was like, eh, women, nobody has our backs. Can we please get strong enough to defend ourselves? I had no idea this would lead to a business, a fellowship (the Mandela Washington fellowship) and a new career that I consider my life-work. I couldn’t be a sitting activist anymore. A slacktivist. A keyboardtivist.
RR: So what sparked you into starting the gym, FitClique256?
MA: I was sparked into starting a women’s gym when a man got violent with me because I refused to be bullied off a machine. He had wanted three machines to be cleared for him because he was doing interval exercises. I was like Nah. So he tried to throw a dumbell at my head. Drama!
RR: How do you ensure that the FitClique space is a safe environment for women?
MA: First of all, FitClique is a no-nonsense zone. The reason why there is a place like this is because I was sick of bullying. FitClique is the kind of space that I needed when I didn’t have it. This is something that I have communicated to my staff and my trainers. There is this trainer whose attitude when people came in was “you’re here, we are going to fix that.” We had a three-month conversation about this and he had to understand that you cannot just tell a woman that a part of her body needs “fixing”. This wasn’t the place. Among the gym users, there has been no incident. The women who come to us are quite great so we have not had any moment where people have made the space unsafe with their eyes, words or attitude.
RR: How has the membership at the gym gone? What kind of community have you built?
MA: We keep growing every day. My most popular class is weightlifting because many women come with the aim of losing body fat. It has been proven that weightlifting makes you shed at least 40% more body fat than any other exercise in any given amount of time. This has to do with increasing your metabolism and building muscle which burns fat even when you are in repose. It also makes people feel confident. Just knowing that you can lift heavier than you could last week, the new relationship you get into with clothes, even food – where food is not to be feared because it is fuel – it is super empowering.
RR: FitClique256 became FitClique Africa. Can you explain the expansion? What should we hope to see from FitClique Africa?
MA: Our name was always a bit complex, but it truly hit me when at the US-Africa Leaders Summit, I asked a question about wellness and women that sparked a bit of discussion. I was excited, even more when Jim Yong Kim told me that he was impressed with my question. The only problem was that, Oh my God, he couldn’t remember the numbers. He couldn’t remember 256. 256 only means something to Ugandans, as it is our area code. A lot of fellows from other countries said, hey, we also need our women to be happy, healthy, strong and safe too! Don’t limit yourself to borders of one country. So the vision for FitClique also grew: We open women’s gyms, create personal safety curricula (for university, market, corporate women as well as LGBTQI groups and individuals) and promote wellness through the use of herbs. Our vision is to have a personal safety curriculum in every university in sub-Saharan Africa in the next 10 years. I have had the misfortune (sometimes I think fortune) of growing not a just company, but the essence of this company in the very eye of the public. It is like giving birth while on a stage, with all lights on you. So with every step that FitClique Africa and I take, there is no hiding it. When we are tottering or trying something out, there is no hiding. Because today VOA is calling, tomorrow NTV and Her Zimbabwe want to know what’s up and reporters are not going to take, “Go away I’m still thinking” for an answer.
RR: You have a complete programme where you also talk about food and other things. Tell me why you incorporated all these parts into FitClique.
MA: You cannot achieve your fitness and wellness goals without considering the food you eat, your level of self-love and appreciation, the products you use on your hair, face, body. We believe in well-rounded and holistic wellness. We are not slinging metal in the gym just for just, we are doing it to create a peace, a never-ending wellness within ourselves. That has to be supported by other aspects of our lives.