“No! No! No! I don’t want anything to do with you!” screams 75-year-old Beatrice Nyariara along with her fellow classmates as they practice their self-defense moves.
A few years ago, the elderly women living in Korogocho, known by many to be Nairobi's most dangerous slum, were victims of sexual assault, rape, and murder. Some men in the community attacked the ‘grandmothers’ of Korogocho at night, believing the elderly women were less likely to be HIV positive and that their vulnerability made them easy targets.
A group of women decided to fight back against these sexual predators. They learned how to box, cry for help, and assess dangerous situations. They also taught their community how to help during these attacks.
We spoke with director Brent Foster about his new short film “Enough: The Empowered Women of Korogocho,” his experiences working with this inspiring group, and how together these women are taking back their neighborhood.
Tell us about “Enough.”
I grew up in a very small, classic Canadian town where everyone plays hockey. I knew this old man who would sharpen everyone’s skates and never took a dime. I’d always promised myself I would go back and share his story. But at the time I was working as an international photojournalist and he passed away. I never got the chance to tell his story.
This film is part of a larger passion project I’ve been working on over the past three years called While I’m Here, the Legacy Project. I started this project with the idea of documenting people who are living legacies, everyday people doing extraordinary things, and telling their stories while they are still here with us.
What sparked your interest in this group of women?
I came across a short news clip about the women almost eight years ago, when I was living in India and doing a lot of freelance work. It’s always resonated with me.
But waiting made a lot of sense, because I was able to grow a lot as a filmmaker and learn the ins and outs of travelling in rather tough environments … and Korogocho is a really tough place to live and to work.
Tell us more about Korogocho.
Korogocho is only a couple square kilometers and home to approximately 200,000 people who are living in really tight conditions. It’s filled with gangs, crime, addiction, and mental illness. And for an elderly woman, it’s a very challenging place to live. It’s a hard place to live for anyone, but especially the elderly women, who possibly feel more vulnerable.
This story felt like a really important one to tell because here is this amazing group of women who have come together to not only empower each other through self-defense training, but allied their community.
What kinds of dangerous situations do these women face?
Often the elderly women were treated poorly. Men in the community believed they were HIV free, and that’s how the sexual assaults began. These women stood up and said, ‘we aren’t going to take this anymore,’ and went a step further by bringing back the respect they deserved.
Did you and your crew feel threatened while filming?
We definitely realized quickly if we weren’t with the people we were with, then we would’ve been in a lot of trouble, really fast. We were fortunate to have preplanned and have a good crew we could trust immediately. There were times of minor confrontations, but before any situations escalated, the former gang members that were working with us were really great at knowing the community and knowing how to gauge people’s actions. They would gently talk to them and walk them away before anything could arise. We feel like without them we would have been in a different situation, but with them we were able to focus on the creative side of telling this story.
Tell me about the lead figure in your film, Beatrice Nyariara.
We were looking at a few potential different ways to tell the story, whether that be from the group or from one voice. As soon as we met Beatrice, we knew that was the direction we needed to go. She was such a strong, passionate woman [who] could care less if you were there or not. She was there living her daily life. She wasn’t performing. She wasn’t afraid to share exactly how she felt about the community, and she was very much an open book.
Does the group have a name?
They don’t have an official name, but we kept calling them the “Kickboxing Grannies of Korogocho.” They’ve called themselves that to a point, but I feel like they potentially had just heard that from other people.
Is Beatrice the leader of the group?
There’s been a couple organizations that [have come] into Korogocho and helped train the women in self-defense. Beatrice and one other woman took the lead in organizing the group and continuing to work with these women. One of the younger women you see teaching [in the film] is actually a teacher from the school where the local women do their training. She is more involved in the teaching side of things, while Beatrice is more involved in the organization of the group, making sure everyone is communicating, and setting up time for them to do their training.
How many women participate in the group?
It’s ever-growing, but I’d say there is steadily approximately 20 women there on a regular basis. I do think some people come and go, and there are a few key members.
What are the main skills taught in these weekly self-defense classes?
It’s an informal style of training, so they aren’t doing specific kicks or punches. They are learning how to hit back, how to scream and communicate, so neighbors and people nearby can hear them and come to their rescue as soon as possible.
A large part of that has been educating their community. For example, the men attacking them may be holding a weapon, so they learn what they can realistically do to protect themselves. They also learn to yell “No! No! No! I don’t want anything to do with you!” Because they live in such a tight community, as soon as they yell, someone is going to hear them. Now the community knows to respond to that.
Do you think the women feel safer now?
The women definitely feel safer now, but that doesn’t mean they are naïve to think their problem is over. There are still attacks on older women, but they are dropping in numbers, according to everyone we talked to in the community.
What do you hope this project inspires?
I hope it inspires people in communities like this to stand up and continue to fight and advocate for each other. I think that’s the most important thing for people to get out of this. I hope people will see the film and decide to help within their own communities, because there are issues like this everywhere.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.