Instructors from the Ujamaa self-defence programme train a group of women to protect themselves against rape at the Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum in the capital Nairobi, Kenya, on March 16. Photo: Reuters/Siegfried Modola
Cackling manically, the old woman points at a sheepish young man by her side in a poorly-lit tin shack in Korogocho, one of the most dangerous slums in Kenya’s capital.
“He wants to sleep with me! He’s younger than my son,” she says, as a dozen elderly women sitting on wooden benches around her laugh raucously.
Across Nairobi, more than 200 elderly women, aged up to 105, are learning self defence to protect themselves against rape, which is widespread in Kenya, particularly in its slums.
Research by the charity Ujamaa, which runs the self defence program, shows that one in four women in Korogocho experience sexual assault.
The cucus – or grandmas in the local Kikuyu language – learn how to poke assailants in the eyes, whack them in the groin with a walking stick, or break their noses with the palm of a hand.
Some of the women are too frail to stand, so feigning madness and other forms of trickery are often the best weapons.
“You act like you are crazy and you go towards the attacker,” says Jacqueline Mukami, one of the instructors. “You scare him because this is not the person he expected.”
One of the women attending the class was accosted by a young boy while walking home from her vegetable patch.
“She called at the top of her voice, ‘Hey, Kamau, why are you so far behind and this boy is disturbing me?'” says Sheila Kariuki, another instructor. “No man was with her – she is probably a widow – but she was able to save herself.”
The twice-weekly classes are supposed to last two hours, but instructors first gauge their students’ energy levels.
“Cucus are like children,” says instructor Irene Wambui Muthoni. “Their memory is very low … we repeat each and every day.”
Stopping the horror
The programme is expanding, with seven classes across the city, up from two in 2012.
“It’s just growing on its own,” says Jake Sinclair, an American who started the project with his wife, Lee, in 2007 after hearing horror stories about sexual violence in Korogocho.
Two or three elderly women in the slum were being raped each month, with some being gang-raped to death, he says.
“Boys have crazy ideas that after a robbery, when they sleep with an old woman, it’s like they are cleansed,” says Kariuki, a former resident of Korogocho. “The young boys would strangle the cucus … Every time we went to pick up the corpse of an old woman, my heart used to bleed.”
The success of the cucus program led to another, “No Means No Worldwide”, which is teaching 130,000 secondary school students in Nairobi to stop violence against women.
The cucus are also helping to protect young girls.
Mary Njoki Wainaina, 85, collects waste plastics on a dump site and sells them for recycling, a job she has been doing since her husband died 30 years ago.
“You can get stopped and pulled into a corner by some drunk or drugged youth and raped,” she says, wearing an ankle-length black and orange dress, and a blue headscarf.
She has been attending the class for four years and shares her knowledge with her five-year-old granddaughter, who she lives with.
“I tell her, ‘Do not be bought, sugar, because you are going to pay for it with something else which will be bad,” she says. “I can look at a person and tell if they have a bad intention. There is no one who can threaten me.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation/Katy Migiro