Many people praise physical exercise, and for good reason. It is a good therapy for our body muscles and for the heart and lungs. Most people in my country, Zimbabwe, now understand the benefits of exercising. I might be hypocritical saying so, considering that as soon as I tie my shoelaces for a jog, the men in my family always mouth off the most sexist words imaginable—a woman exercising alone is up to mischief.
I was a fat woman. My weight was 80 kilos. Whenever I passed through public places in the township they called me “fatty fatty mama!” Small children followed me singing “who made the fatty fatty mama.” That annoyed me, and the anger drove me to do what they were mocking—eating more fatty chicken just to swallow the insults.
I live in Highfields, the oldest town in Zimbabwe. I sell car parts in a nearby open market in Highfields. It’s a job I have held for the last five years. I love it because where else in Zimbabwe can a woman like me know authoritatively about car gearboxes, engines, oil seal caps, and wheel alignment, and boldly explain those things to drunk men who come into our store expecting to see a male salesman?
Highfields is a historic place of square, brick houses tightly built together in the 1960s to house African laborers who worked in white-owned factories as machinists, cooks, truck loaders, and tobacco dryers. It’s in the south of the capital city of Harare and no one in power when it was built cared that the smoke of the factories would pollute the homes of the Black dwellers. The township’s yards are filled with mango and peach trees planted to provide some household fruit. In the 1970s, Black leaders who were waging a bitter war against colonialism decamped to Highfields, and they used the township as a place to advocate for support. Today the leaders have left Highfield to live in the posh northern surburbs of Harare. Highfields is now unkempt, filled with potholed roads, frequent power cuts, and not much safe tap-water. It’s a place in rapid decay.
One day, it was on Friday, going to my work place early in the morning, I passed through Zimgrounds, a famous venue in the city of Harare. It’s a sports arena built by the colonialists, so that Black Zimbabweans could get a taste of elite “white sports,” like rugby and cricket. While the township that Zimgrounds was part of was neglected, Zimgrounds was well kept-up, with barbed wire, trimmed grass, and commercial advertisement billboards. Today, Zimgrounds is a sorry site, unkempt, and its barbed wire was carted off years ago by, who knows, vandals perhaps? I heard some voices coming from the grounds, and I thought, well, it was a turf fight between the unlicensed Indigenous African churches that always competed for space at a corner of the grounds on Fridays. I went closer to the Durawall to look through a broken place in the concrete. I didn’t want to show my face for fear that the people inside Zimgrounds would mock me for my fatness, and thus traumatize me again. So I squeezed the corner of my eye to take a quick look at what was going on inside. There I saw people, both women and men, jogging, doing cardio, and workouts and aerobics.
I was interested in what I saw, but what inspired me the most in there was a huge man with a big stomach and a long beard. His name was Coach Paddy, I was told, and he was shouting Hey hey to me in no time. In my my mind I called him “Mr. Beard,” as I marvelled at his long black beard, which he continuously grazed by hand minute after minute, as if it was the banner of his entire existence. Though he was “Mr Beard” to me when I first saw him, I now call him Coach Paddy, as others commonly do.
“You!” he said compelling me to come out from behind the concrete wall and walk forward. He shouted for me to come into Zimgrounds, and then he commanded me to jump and immediately join his students. “Having seen your eyes inside the wall and now your big body, I won’t take no for an answer—fall in line with everyone!”
This felt cruel and amazing, for the first time ever. He felt like a sweet bully. He is a harsh-talking man, Coach Paddy. He rarely talks about his family. His forehead is always shining with lotion mixed with sweat. He never stops exclaiming his abhorence of alcohol. His front teeth are straight and he brags that this means he has aged well. He rarely smiles for very long, perhaps fearful that it’s a sign of weakness. He drives a rundown 1997 Volvo sedan and says it has no ignition—because he likes his fitness students to push it, to crank-start the engine, as a way of demonstrating their body stamina.
Being a woman, I am part of a new generation—GenZ women—who have flipped the local tradition that frowned on women who tried to do bodybuilding; we are rebels against patriarchy. Now I wake up at four AM and walk from my township, Highfield, to another, called Waterfalls, where there is the United Military Fitness club (UMFC). At this club we do Aerobics.
At the UMFC we work as a team. We lift cut logs of wood, kick bags filled with soil, stand with one leg held up for a minute, roll on top of old theatre carpets. At UMFC I met different types of people and I was motivated because there were many “faty fatty mamas” like me. But we are strong! When one person fails to complete the workout, we get punished as a team. When the workout is killing you, you hear the coaches shouting eight more counts! Sometimes you mock the coach silently, thinking can’t you see that I’m tired? The UMFC motto is “go hard or go home,” and ”we don’t stop because we are tired—we stop when we are done.”
At the club I gained endurance and consistency. I became a fitness coach. Now I’m fit and strong, and I shed weight, down to 65 kilos. I’m now so charmed by my body that I fear it. Each time my weight fluctuates even by 10 grams, I sweat frantically and jog in my bedroom, my head almost hitting the wardrobe. With the sweat dripping, I balance myself on the scale, wishing my body mass would drop with the sweat! This morning I took my six-year old daughter from her school and she looked at my shrinking belly and then touched my stiff limbs and gasped—“did mosquitoes drink away your body?”
29 November, 2022