Karate grannies: As assaults persist, Nairobi’s women fight back

Pauline Nyambura
Jane Waithiegeni rains blows on an improvised punching bag during practice at a hall in Korogocho, one of Nairobi's most dangerous neighborhoods. The karate classes help the women defend themselves.

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Morning sun filters into a makeshift hall in Nairobi’s Korogocho informal settlement as Njoki Muturi, 86, ducks and weaves as she practices punch combinations. On a typical morning here, some 15 grandmothers transform the sleepy hall into a frenetic dojo, directing punches and kicks at a homemade punching bag. 

Welcome to Ujamaa Karate, known locally as “Shoso jikinge,” or “Grandmother, protect yourself,” where older women in Korogocho study martial arts for self-defense. They may not be your typical karatekas, but for many, the skills they learn here have been life-saving. In an area with little in the way of policing or social support, several of the women say they have managed to fend off would-be attackers using knowledge and confidence they learned here. 

Why We Wrote This

A group of grandmothers here in Nairobi are challenging norms – and would-be-attackers – by learning martial arts and gaining the confidence to confront their community’s troubles.

Equally important is the fierce community of women they’ve formed. The women also run a savings collective and an informal day care for HIV-positive children. 

“These classes have done more for us than help us prevent rape over the years,” says student Esther Wambui Muriithi. “They act as a way of keeping us physically active in our old age and the social networks and the successive support system we’ve been able to form has been very useful during this pandemic.” 

It’s a Thursday morning and Jane Waithiegeni is ushering a group of older women into a makeshift hall in Nairobi’s Korogocho informal settlement. Around them, morning sun filters through the fissures in the wooden planks and iron sheets that make up the building’s walls. 

She’s talking about her grandchildren’s poor appetite when the last of her students, 100-year-old Rebecca Wambui, steps in with the aid of a wooden walking stick.

With that, the mood grows suddenly serious, and within a few minutes, the 15 grannies have transformed the hall into a frenetic dojo, directing punches and kicks at an improvised punching bag made from a sack stuffed with old clothing. 

Why We Wrote This

A group of grandmothers here in Nairobi are challenging norms – and would-be-attackers – by learning martial arts and gaining the confidence to confront their community’s troubles.

Their screams of “No! No! No!” ring through the air as each woman takes her turn at the bag. Welcome to the Ujamaa Karate program, also known locally as “Shoso jikinge,” or “Grandmother, protect yourself,” where older women in Korogocho study martial arts for self-defense. 

They may not be your typical karatekas, but for many, the skills they learn here have been life-saving. In an area with little in the way of policing or social support, several of the women say they have managed to fend off would-be attackers using knowledge and confidence they learned here. 

Equally important, they say, is the fierce community of women they’ve formed, which extends far beyond karate-chopping. The women also run a savings collective, and several operate an informal day care for HIV-positive children. And they’ve passed their self-defense skills to the next generation.  

“The combat moves and morsels of knowledge we have learnt since joining the program have been passed on to even our granddaughters who are equally vulnerable,” says Ms. Waithiegeni, who joined the class after being sexually assaulted in 2013.

Pauline Nyambura
Women warm up during a self-defense class. In addition to learning martial arts, they have formed a strong community.

There is no recent data available on the sexual assault of older women in Korogocho, but according to Lilian Kasina, who runs the project monitoring unit at Nairobi Women’s Hospital Gender Violence Recovery Centre, about a fifth of all such assaults are committed against women over 60, owing in part to a false local belief that sex with an older woman can cure HIV.

Empowerment in martial arts

Seven miles northeast of downtown Nairobi, Korogocho is a maze of tin shacks backing up against one of the city’s main trash dumps, Dandora. As many as 200,000 people live crammed into half a square mile. There are few streetlights, and order is still maintained mostly by a network of local gangs, who have also made the area particularly dangerous for women. 

“Here women are attacked in their own homes,” Ms. Waithiegeni says. 

In 2006, Americans Jake and Lee Sinclair visited an area near Korogocho to check in on a program they were running to feed homeless children there. Harrowed by the stories of sexual violence they heard, Ms. Sinclair, a martial arts enthusiast, decided to start self-defense classes for women and girls in the area – including one specifically for women over 60. Her course blended techniques from karate, kung fu, and tae kwon do to help women overpower would-be attackers.

Today, the teachers are exclusively local women who have come up through the program themselves, like Ms. Waithiegeni. Her road to the program was winding. In 2014, a year after she was abducted from a local minibus on her commute home and sexually assaulted, she heard a local nongovernmental organization was giving free T-shirts to anyone who took an HIV test. Thinking little of it, she took the test. To her shock, the result came back positive. It was the result, she suspected, of her rape the previous year. 

“Learning my status made me angry. I sunk into depression,” she says. Not long after, a friend told her about the Ujamaa self-defense classes. She signed up and five years later is now one of the program’s instructors. 

Today, she watches as one of her pupils, 86-year-old Njoki Muturi, ducks and weaves as she practices her punch combinations on the old punching bag. Ms. Muturi is dressed in a vibrant red dress and blue turban, with a brightly colored khanga– a swatch of geometrically patterned local fabric – wrapped around her waist, and a pair of slippers on her feet.

“We practice in everyday wear because this is how an attacker would typically find the granny if they actually got attacked,” Ms. Waithiegeni explains. 

Ms. Muturi knows that well. A few years ago, she was working on her farm at Kasarani, a residential area near Korogocho, when she noticed a man lurking nearby, watching her. Mustering the courage she’d learned in her self-defense classes, she approached him with her gardening panga (machete) in hand.

“I told him I was old and ready if my life were to come to an end,” she recalls. “And I asked him whether he was ready as I advanced towards him. The cowardly man realized I was not joking and took off.”      

Pauline Nyambura
Instructor Jane Waithiegeni helps Rebecca Wambui, 100, across a gully as students leave after a self-defense class.

A fierce community of women

Because attacks are so common, Ujamaa teaches older women not only self-defense, but also how to make noise and exude confidence in the face of would-be attackers, making them more difficult targets. 

“The grannies’ fighting abilities have become something of a legend here and the young men who thought of these women as weaklings now know better,” says Korogocho’s area chief and government representative, David Mula. 

But in recent years, the program has expanded from its original purpose of providing self-defense training. Several of the women now run what is known in Kenya as a chama – an informal cooperative society through which they pool their savings to take care of members’ emergencies.  

“We do beadwork and make African baskets for sale, the proceeds of which go into a collective fund,” explains Ms. Waithiegeni, who is also the chair of the savings collective. 

She and several of the members also sporadically operate a day care center for HIV-positive orphaned children in the neighborhood to prevent them from roaming the city’s streets, where they are vulnerable to being recruited by local gangs.  

But in recent months, the country’s COVID-19 lockdown has made that more difficult, since the women don’t have the spare money to keep their center going.  

Still, they gather faithfully once a week in the community hall, where Ms. Waithiegeni leads them through a series of drills to practice their technique. 

“These classes have done more for us than help us prevent rape over the years. They act as a way of keeping us physically active in our old age and the social networks and the successive support system we’ve been able to form has been very useful during this pandemic,” says Esther Wambui Muriithi, another student. The women, she says, often check in on each other between classes, “just generally making sure everybody is doing fine.”

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