dangerous women

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

~ Thucydides

Back in October I spent an energizing and inspiring day with 33 women committed to a single goal: reducing rape, assault and gender-based violence in their neighbourhoods of Nairobi. They were learning not only how to kick some serious ass, but also how to teach other women to do the same.

at the training hall in Korogocho, women defend themselves against attacks from behind

My article on the course was published in the features section this weekend, but here it is in a nutshell: US-based No Means No Worldwide is a train-the-trainer initiative started by Lee Sinclair, a microloan-officer-turned-self-defence-teacher. Instead of  flying trainers to Nairobi from Boston or San Francisco to teach women in slums how to defend themselves, NMNW trains Kenyan women to become self-defence teachers themselves. These newly-minted trainers go back to their communities and spread the gospel.

The women featured here are the first graduating class of NMNW. They rock. There is no other word for it. They are confident, funny, intelligent, hard-working, beautiful, energetic, passionate about women’s rights. And if you cross them, they can kill you.

Sheila and Liz, mid-battle

Despite the fact that these women are now equipped to violently destroy an attacker — or multiple attackers — in a variety of situations, what I found to be most interesting about this course is that Lee tries to focus on the verbal elements of self-defence. She said courses in North America are very focused on physical fighting, because that’s what the students seem to want — but she told me that 85 percent of assaults can be stopped with voice alone. Verbal defence skills are a major part of the NMNW curriculum.

What exactly is verbal defence? Reasoning and negotiating, yes. But also screaming, yelling, raging, shouting, and basically scaring off a would-be rapist by acting like one crazy bitch.

Paps and Liz practice fighting from the ground

Witnessing one of their training sessions was inspiring. The class welcomed me into their tight-knit group, and they were eager to talk. I was surprised by how openly they shared with me their stories of rape, violence and abuse. The rape statistics in Nairobi vary, from the government’s official rape rate of 2 percent of the population, to some NGOs’ estimates of 40 percent. It’s impossible to know, but the NMNW graduates would definitely tell you that it falls closer to the higher end of the spectrum, at least in their communities.

One woman in her early 20s told me about being raped by her boyfriend. Another told me her cousin sexually abused her when she was 11, and it has taken her until her early 20s to be able to trust men. A third woman shared the story of a police officer who tried to rape her by luring her into his home with promises of a gift in remembrance of her father, who had just passed away.

There is no question that the women I met have experienced trauma and horror, but the most remarkable thing is how positively and passionately they have emerged from those challenges. There were no whining/excuses/wallowing in self-pity in that stark concrete training hall in Korogocho — only a fierce determination to prevent any more women from having to tell stories like theirs.

As one graduate put it, “We don’t want to take a woman to the hospital because she has been raped. We want to take an assailant to the hospital because he has been beaten by a woman when he was trying to rape her.”

graduation luncheon, downtown Nairobi

So far, so good. During the final week of class, two of the students were attacked not once, but twice, in a single evening. The first attack was two men, the second was 11 men. These men couldn’t have picked smaller women to attack — Paps and Liz probably each weigh 90 pounds soaking wet — but they stood their ground, used their voices, and got away without a scratch.

I don’t really know how to sum up the experience of spending time with these inspiring women. Maybe another inspiring woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, said it best: A woman is like a teabag, you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.

(PS: Speaking of kickass women, I really enjoyed this Vanity Fair article.)

spices, slaves and giant tortoises

Zanzibar. Just the name evokes images of spice traders, slave ships, Arab sultans, and palm trees shading white sand beaches. These are all accurate — or were at one point in time.

beach bum on Prison Island

Zanzibar has been on my life list for years, and I finally crossed it off last week. I had an amazing time there… although surprisingly not because of the beaches. I don’t know if it was just because I visited in the rainy season, but I was underwhelmed by the shoreline of Unguja, the main island in the Zanzibar archipelago. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely beautiful, but I wouldn’t say the beaches I saw were a cut above Kenya or Sierra Leone.

Stone Town, however, blew my mind. Navigating the maze of alleys, shaded from the sun by crumbling coral stone buildings, it feels like a slave trader or Persian prince might be right around the next corner. Breathing deeply, your lungs fill with hundreds of years. I spent hours just getting lost and found in the narrow streets.

the alleys of Stone Town

Second highlight: I gorged on seafood. Lobster, tuna, shark, octopus, squid, king prawns…

nightly seafood BBQ in Forodani Gardens = heaven

My second night in town I had a memorable birthday dinner at Swahili House, a rooftop restaurant on one of Stone Town’s tallest buildings. As the sun sank over the ocean, we could hear children playing in the streets and the call to prayer echoing over the rooftops. There was a warm, dusky breeze and a full moon. I’m still not convinced it was real.

looking west over Stone Town from Swahili House

My friend/guide/host in Stone Town gave me a trip to Prison Island for my birthday. The giant tortoises who live there are pushing 150 years old, which made me feel better about slipping another year closer towards infinity.

I also took a spice tour. I thrive on making a mess in the kitchen, and I tend to be heavy-handed with the seasonings. Learning about spices in their raw forms gave me a whole new layer of enjoyment when I pop the lid off a jar of cinnamon.

red ribbons of mace wrapped around nutmeg

cocoa comes from a pit inside each of those white.... globs.

fresh peppercorns -- still pack a hell of a punch

the cinnamon tree: roots, bark, branches and leaves all have different (delicious) tastes and smells

a spice trader in Darajani Market

My last afternoon in Zanzibar, I rode out the rains in the slave chambers at the old slave market. After the abolition of slavery the British built a church on the site of the market, but a couple holding cells remain. Although few Zanzibaris were sold into the trade (their labour was needed on the island), Stone Town was a hub for the East African slave trade.

a cell designed to hold 50 men for 3 days... those that lived were deemed strong enough to be sold as slaves. That canal down the middle would be full of sea water and poop.

slave memorial: the chain is one of the originals used to bind slaves in Z'bar

church built on the site of the slave market after the British abolished slavery in the 1800s. On this spot, the slaves were whipped to test their mettle. Those who cried out in pain were sold for a lower price.

the abolition of the slave trade just meant that it went underground -- literally. Slaves were hidden in caves with channels to the ocean, and ferried on and off of the island in the dead of night.

After a glorious week, I flew out just as the sun was sinking on the horizon. As we cruised north-west at 31,000 feet, I had a perfect view of Kilimanjaro almost directly below my window.

the sun setting over the mainland

Zanzibar was wonderful, but descending into Nairobi’s web of light pollution (you can see the traffic jams from a remarkable altitude), I realized I really missed this city. Yeah we don’t have white sand beaches or the catch of the day, but there’s something to be said for reliable electricity, grocery stores and, most of all, the sleeping temperatures at 5000 ft.

born free

The trip from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara National Reserve takes you smack dab through the middle of the Great Rift Valley. It was the first time I’d seen been there in person… but in a way, we’ve all been there before, haven’t we?

hey guys remember that time we decided to be bipedal?

I have friends in high places in the Mara, so I was lucky to get a complimentary stay at the Impala Wildlife Lodge. It’s right on the edge of the reserve, at Ololaimatiek Gate. I could hear the hyenas barking at night, and when I walked to my room in the evening, gazelles bounded out of my way.

hut sweet hut

I spent my days touring the grasslands with the park’s chief ranger, Kennedy. We patrolled for poachers (found: 0), gave tickets to tour groups who strayed from the trails (5), and picked up litter (can’t count that high).

the President of the Mara

We went to visit some of the other rangers, hanging at the Keekorok airstrip. Visiting the Mara by air is actually very popular with tourists, as you can avoid the horrendous road that leads to the reserve.

the airstrip outpost

interrupted a game of checkers

And then there were the animals.

my absolute most favourite ever

hey there tembo

try as he might, Kennedy couldn't get this lion to wake up. Apparently the expression "let sleeping lions lie" doesn't exist.

however, this beautiful lady was wide awake... and pissed that she had just failed at killing a wildebeest.

wildebeest are kind of cool, but are also EVERYWHERE... so they lose their intrigue quickly.

there is, however, something to be said for the magnificence of the Great Migration. The sheer number of wildebeest in the Mara at this time of year (about 2.5 million) is overwhelming, and made me feel about as big as a dust mite. This picture doesn't do it the slightest justice...

the gazelle -- yet another animal that loses its allure after less than an hour in the park

giraffes remain cool no matter how long you look at them

you are the strangest animal. Even stranger is how graceful you are with your bizarrely-proportioned body.

a male ostrich, vogueing

water buffalo: a lion's favourite snack

zebras taking a dip. Just another day in the Serengeti.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been on safari, but it was the first time I saw a park through the eyes of a ranger. I am so grateful to Kennedy for showing me around his kingdom.

Obviously it was a pretty spectacular few days, and it’s hard to believe that all this is just a five-hour drive from Nairobi. (Even harder to believe is that it was work.) It was fastastic to leave the city, especially to see how much the city really did feel like home when I returned… as well as to get some much-needed breathing space. And what a place to inhale.

cue The Lion King soundtrack

Jack

Whether or not you agree with his policies, there’s no denying he was an admirable man. Here’s to you, Mr. Layton. You’ll be missed.

into the single digits

Today was my last day as a producer at CBC Radio in Ottawa, at least for now. I leave for Kenya in nine days, where a reporting job awaits. And I think Alice Bradley and I were separated at birth… this is exactly how I react/cope/deal with airports:

I’m really not a fan of flying. Not just the hurtling through the air in a screaming death machine part: the whole process. The packing. The boarding pass-getting (will I do it wrong? Probably.). The panicking on the way to the airport because the cab/train/subway is taking longer than I think it should take. The double and triple-checking that I’m in the right airport/terminal. The long, arduous security line. The possibility of being manhandled. The idiotic shoe-removal. The waiting around the gate for two hours because God forbid I don’t get there super early. The purchasing of overpriced snacks and magazines. The visiting of every restroom in the airport, because when I get anxious, my bladder goes into overdrive.

BUT! Then I see videos like this. And I remember why I can’t wait to lift off.

That one’s the best, but LEARN and EAT are pretty good too.

Anyway. Nine days. Less.