Changing the Face of Fitness with FitCliqueAfrica
Writer and yogi Mildred Apenyo aims to empower women from the inside out through her Kampala gym FitcliqueAfrica, the first and only female gym in Apenyo’s native Uganda. FitCliqueAfrica features a wide variety of fitness options including mixed martial arts, African dance, and strength training. Fresh off of her graduation from the 2014 Mandela Washington (YALI) Fellowship graduation, Apenyo spoke to Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng about how she got in the fitness game.
When did you first become interested in fitness?
I first became interested in fitness in 2012. I was sitting for long hours everyday and experiencing anxiety due to the street molestation which was particularly horrible in the neighborhood where my office was located (Kamwokya). Running made me feel like I was slowly starting to take ownership of my environment, of the streets around me, and of my body. I have given a TED talk about this titled “Women and Spaces.”
What was the motivation behind starting FitcliqueAfrica?
I wanted to create a space where women could workout without inhibition, and with minimum distraction of the kind I had found in other gyms. I was also seeking ways to make myself and other women feel more confident on the streets, which is where the idea of personal safety curricula came in.
Why did you decide to make the gym all-female?
I needed for women-only spaces to exist. Also I wasn’t very impressed by the behavior of the instructors and patrons in other gyms. I felt I could create a better space, so I did.
What are the most common misconceptions that Ugandans hold about fitness?
Most people believe that fitness is slenderness, or thinness. Some are only in it for aesthetics, which I find sad because fitness and wellness are so wide. They tie into psychological health. Monitoring your endurance, strength, cardiovascular health, and flexibility are just as important as monitoring the amount of fat in and on your body.
There is also the belief that certain exercises are not for women, like weight lifting. I am happy to say that this is my most popular class.
What’s your own personal go-to workout?
I love yoga, and teach it in fact. I also love kickboxing.
What is the greatest challenge that you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?
Mostly just learning what it means to run a business. It can be a lonely road because no successful entrepreneurs are speaking about their inadequacies, or the moments in the start when they made massive mistakes. I like to say I was an accidental entrepreneur because before FitcliqueAfrica chose me, I was writing stories, and adverts about soap, you know?
How have lessons learned at YALI translated into your work with FitcliqueAfrica?
The network has been the most important. Learning the theory behind the process of opening a business was very helpful to me. I now have people that I can ask for guidance whenever I need it. Some of the ways we have benefited are easy to articulate, but some aren’t. How do I draw a picture of emotional growth, or a boost in confidence?
How do you see FitcliqueAfrica growing and expanding in the coming years?
Long term, I see FitcliqueAfrica gyms expanding all over Uganda, East Africa, and Africa. I see our holistic personal safety curricula becoming part of the culture. We teach women all these home and hearth skills but rarely teach them how to psychologically and physically defend themselves, and their honor from people who seek to take it away.
Can you tell me about some of the projects FitCliqueAfrica has been involved with lately?
We just hosted WNBA star Ruth Riley. We met at the University of Notre Dame during one of our sessions. I put up my hand and asked her if she could spare an hour for a short dinner. It felt really lame but she said yes. She had just spoken about some of her projects in South Africa, sports empowerment for young girls, and I felt that she would have some great insights. She is in town to begin a junior NBA program and will be giving us a few hours of her time. We have invited a lot of women from the basketball fraternity in Uganda because they will benefit most from a conversation with her. We are also going to have strength training and yoga.
We regularly host wellness seminars, retreats and training sessions, but later this month we shall be training sex workers at the Congo Border with Uganda.