The karate grandmothers

Gender Defender and grandmother practicing self-defence in a course held in nairobi's Korogocho slum. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

A grandmother practices a palm strike against a punch bag during self-defense classes

Mike Pflanz meets Korogocho’s Gender Defenders: grandmothers in self-defense classes learning how to fend off attackers amid a surge in sexual violence

KOROGOCHO, April 15 (Daily Dispatches) – First a prayer, then a stretch, then a hammer-fist blow.

Two dozen women, none younger than 60, were gathered at a school for disabled children for their latest lesson how to fight back against an epidemic of violence sweeping this Nairobi slum.

Under coach Beatrice Nyariara, a spry 68-year-old, each squared up to the punchbag in turn to practice hammer-fist blows to the head, upward palm-strikes to the nose, backwards punches and strong kicks.

“Make sure you don’t miss the ‘potatoes’,” Nyariara joked as one Gender Defender kicked up towards her imaginary attacker’s waist.

This program, run in one of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods, aims to give both grandmothers and young women the skills they need physically to fend off attackers.

Statistics are scarce, but anecdotaly there has been a huge surge in rape, violence against women and general thuggery across Kenya’s capital. Those in the poorest areas, where police rarely dare tread, are worst affected.

“The number of rape cases was too high in this area,” said Zeinabu Hassan, a training instructor with the Gender Defenders.

“We gathered some women together, and started learning how to defend ourselves. Soon it was something so popular, women were coming from all around.”

Gender Defender coach Beatrice Nyariara (r), 68-years-old, demonstrates a self defence kick to the groin of her "assailant." She advised the self defence class for women "make sure you don't miss the potatoes." (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Beatrice Nyariara shows the Gender Defenders how to aim kicks at attackers

The project, supported by Amnesty International, does more besides teaching grandmothers quasi-karate moves.

Women across Korogocho’s nine ‘villages’ are gathered on set days and taught how recent legislation – the Children Act, the Sexual Offenses Act – hand them the right to say no to attacks on them or their sons and daughters.

“A lot of this was happening inside the house,” said Peter Mwangi, chairman of the Gender Defenders scheme.

“There was a belief that excessively disciplining your child was acceptable. That forcing sexual intercourse on your wife was not rape. We are working hard to show how those traditional beliefs are wrong, and punishable.”

There are difficulties. More funds would allow for more workshops, more petitions to the government, more marches on police offices demanding increased patrols around the area.

Kenya’s judicial system – swamped with a backlog of almost a million cases – is too slow, and often too corrupt, to bring the swift justice needed really to set examples.

“It’s very hard,” said Mwangi. “Someone complains to the police that they have been raped, then the accused person’s family collects money and bribes the officers just to drop the case. This has happened too many times for me to remember.”

At least, the women here at the Light and Hope Center for Disabled Children will be able to punch, kick and fight back.

“There was a young man who broke into my house at midnight, he jumped over the fence, asking for water,” said Nyariara, sitting quietly after the training session had finished.

Gender Defender coach Beatrice Nyariara a 68-year-old grandmother, leads a group of grandmothers in self-defence classes in Nairobi's Korogocho slum. "Unless people are lifted from poverty, I fear even my great-grand-daughters will need to come to classes like this one," she said. (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Beatrice Nyariara

“He is our neighbor, I asked him to leave, he started walking away but after only a few steps he turned back and started insulting me. At this point I had to use my knife, I hit his forehead and he ran away.”

Nyariara’s proud smile then morphed to a frown. She paused, and then said: “You know, this thing, these attacks, raping old women, it was not there when I was young.

“But because now these young women have given birth to too many children, some of them obviously do not have jobs and some the parents have not afforded to educate them. So some of them have opted to live a life where they take from others what is not theirs.”

Poverty forces women to sleep with older men in return for gifts, money or protection, Nyariara said, adding that men rape old women because they think they are not carrying HIV or Aids.

“Boys think they have to sleep with a virgin,” she said. “They attack girls, or they attack grandmothers because they think it’s long since we were with a man, and are somehow virgin again.

“Unless people are lifted from poverty, this problem will still go on.”


Related: Brendan’s slideshow of the karate grandmothers.

© DAILY DISPATCHES: Nairobi 2011

2 Responses to “The karate grandmothers”

  1. Kiazi Kubwa says:

    Kaaaaaapoooooooow. Slllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaammmmmm!. Take that vijana. Nyanya, anajua!

    Look, there is a good evidence that there has been high incidence of sexual assualt for many years. However, electrification, tv, radios are getting the message out that this is illegal. Which is one reason for the surge in reports. Nyanya – anajua!

    One thing you also need to be aware of is the way that high incidence of male poverty and sexual violence is correlated. And certain psycho-analysts say not only correlated but also that there is a strong causative relationship which works like this:

    1. Strip a man of all his ability to work. Take away his dignity, leave him feeling like shit on the bottom’s of life’s heel.
    2. He gets angry. That anger eats away at him for many years.
    3. To make himself feel better, he takes out his anger on those weaker than himself. In his case, the weaker are only the children.

    This is not an excuse for sexual violence. However, this likelihood calls you to see those structural factors at work in creating the environment in which such behaviour grows. Maybe grandmother understands this, as well.

  2. Jenny L. says:

    Are more people in Africa fighting back against violence towards women and children? The photographs appearing with this article show older women striking what looks to be black work out pads. The author John Berger writes in his book “The Image” about how a caption changes the meaning of a picture. This is definitely evident in this article about the Gender Defenders. At first looking at the photographs one might see senior ladies outside of what most would consider their normal elements. When reading the article it becomes an extremely uplifting story about women combating violence and sharing that knowledge with others in their area. This is a very different and personal story about African women that is not often portrayed in national news.