Ethiopians have used their lifestyle itself to stay fit: they walk in abundance to and from schools and markets; they spend hours running up the hills and down to the rivers while attending to their livestock on the pastures. That lifestyle seems to be changing in recent decades and years. Now, urban settings are hosting modern gyms which house people exercising with the goal of being fit. These scenes in gyms also bring strong women of various backgrounds. From the fit looking to get fitter and the overweight looking to trim some fat, gyms entertain various individuals with divergent mental and physical stances. Abiy Wendifraw shares an uplifting story of one of these strong women whose life has been changed by just going to the gym.
When Kekron Asfaw moved to her university’s campus in 2012, she was not in a position to foresee that her life would undergo a tragic experience that would later change the life and disposition of her entire family. In the first few months of her freshman year at Hawassa University, she started to gain weight following a change in her lifestyle. At first, people commented positively on her body change as she used to be underweight. As she then started to develop signs of obesity, Kekron realized the comments towards her body’s size were becoming toxic.
“Hearing people judging my appearance was difficult,” Kekron told EBR. “I started to condemn myself and this lowered my self-esteem and I became increasingly isolated. I knew that I had to find a way to help myself.” She did not want to consider physical exercise which she thought was not an option. “Exercise was something I hated all my life. So, I had to look for something else.”
She then met someone who claimed to be able to help her with a drug that treats obesity. He requested ETB4,000 which she got from her family with the false premise that she needed it to process a scholarship opportunity. Just one day after she started taking the drug, she collapsed and had to be admitted to a hospital.
“The doctors told me that I was lucky because the unknown drug could have damaged my organs. I did not want to die and I did not want to live disliking myself. I decided to go for that one thing that I had excluded from my options—exercise,” remembers Kekron.
For a girl who was new to sports centers, gym life was strange and unfriendly. “My first day was so confusing. The fitness coach came and began to introduce me to the machines. He was just pointing in different directions saying ‘this is a running treadmill. That is a spin bike over there…’. Shortly after his rather brief and bizarre introduction, I was just staring at the machines. Slowly, I tried to resemble what I saw others doing. In a few weeks, I came to know how to cope. But I started to feel worn out and struggled to attend my classes.”
Weeks became months without visible satisfactory results. After eight months of hunger and fatigue, she had lost just about two kgs. “There were times when I cried my way to the gym. I would ask myself: why do I suffer so much? Yet, I did not want to give up. I wanted to know what to do differently from my regular workouts. I then began reading up online and realized that the exercises I undertook did not match my personal goals. I explored a lot and learned how to exercise right. When I started to apply it, everything changed. Gradually, I noticed that my tight-fitting clothes were loosening. I became a happy girl and loved the exercises even more,” Kekron tells her story.
The demonstrable change boosted her energy. Whenever encountering people new to the gym, she automatically wants to help. This paved the way for her to eventually become one of the most wanted in the gym. “I continued reading and working hard to show people how to exercise right just if they asked for a piece of advice. Gradually, the number of women who would regularly visit the gym began to increase. As we gathered and did different types of exercises and activities outside of just using gym machines, the number of people joining us increased.
They were drawn in by the aerobics and group exercises of ours. The encouragement I received from those wanting to readily work with me made me more and more responsible,” says Kekron. “Later, the people I was working with began to pay me for the support I provided. As a university student who always looked for financial support from family, the money I made in the gym was a big deal.”
Entering the final year of university life, the once depressed campus girl found herself in a completely different world. She became a happy and proud person who overcame her struggle against herself. Little did she know that life was to bring on tougher times. What followed next was grief and loss, one after the other.
“My mother’s health was deteriorating and she passed away. I felt weak and defeated,” said Kekron remembering the pain. Months later, another tragic incident ensued when her older brother, who resided abroad, died. “This happened when I was just two months away from my graduation; it was too painful to bear.”
“I made the gym my hiding place. The physical exercise which trimmed my weight, I think, saved me from addictions. But my father—left with my younger siblings at home—was struggling and even needed medication to sleep at night. He encouraged me to not drop out of school. On my graduation day, I saw my dad smiling. But that did not last long and he too soon became sick. I tried my best to get him the medical treatment he needed. Unfortunately, I lost him too.”
The 23-year-old Kekron took over the role of her parents as a young woman. The university’s civil engineering education was not an ideal field for her to secure employment. She went on to knock on the door of every gym in Addis for a job. But they would ask for certificates which she never had. Her responsibility to provide for her younger siblings forced her to take every opportunity. “I worked a range of jobs from being a sales lady to an usher for gatherings. There were times when I engaged in up to five jobs at a time. Unfortunately, COVID-19 came to take all these opportunities away from me. Gyms closed and meetings were canceled.”
Hoping for a better tomorrow, Kekron mobilized residents of the condo neighborhood where she resided to join her for mass outdoor physical workouts. People responded well to her call and she met people from all walks of life. “One of those people helped me by arranging paid online training from abroad. The courses made me realize that physical exercise is a science that is much more complex and profound than I first thought. I completed the training and received an International Personal Trainer certification. That was a real game-changer; I started receiving phone calls. My dream came true.”
Kekron believes that life’s journey of ups and downs decided her fate. She now has regular clients everywhere in Addis as well as in different European and American cities via virtual sessions. “I have trainees who have their own spaces suitable for exercising at home. I am working with mothers, people unable to visit gyms because of physical or health issues, and those with privacy concerns.
“As a personal trainer, I have to assess the physical and psychological status of every client for which I create customized workout plans. Obviously, the fee I charge for these customers is a bit higher but I cannot ignore people who cannot afford personal trainers because I came from that same disadvantaged group. Three trainers, including myself, got together to create group exercise sessions called ‘Kidamen Kegna Gar’ at Entoto Park. This is a free and open session where we are joined by 107 regular trainees every Saturday morning in the park.”
The 27-year-old woman and strong individual has already achieved a lot. But that does not seem to stop her from dreaming.
“Yes, I still have a dream. I have a dream of having my own fitness center in the future. I want to have a big gym where girls and mothers can visit comfortably and freely. I want them to join me there.”
EBR 10th Year • Apr 2022 • No. 106