The mention of December 2007 and January 2008 often attracts the smell of blood, fighting and death. But for Catherine Njeri, 31, the post-election violence was a turning point in her life.
A teenager, struggling hairdresser, and firstborn in a family of five raised by a single mother was her description 10 years ago. But not now.
In 2007, a year after she had finished her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams, she turned to hairdressing and acrobatics.
It was the only way she could survive the harsh life of Kariobangi, a Nairobi suburb. She could later on be trained by Sarakasi Trust, a performing arts development organisation, then based in South B to better her acrobatic skills.
Even with this skill, walking past a warren of shacks into the alleyways that sometimes become a brown slick of mud mixed with residue of open sewers, she had no idea what to do with her life.
Then post-election violence happened. She turned to Sarakasi Trust to ignite hope in a hopeless situation. People had left their shacks and piled together in camps even as the violence stretched to the New Year, 2008.
”I was very sad growing in poverty, crime around me, going to bed without food and having an alcoholic parent. I was so mad at everything,” says Njeri.
“Sarakasi was holding peace circus and I decided to join them. All I did was entertain as people watched, cheered and put on a happy face.”
It was during this time that Paige Elenson, the co-founder of Africa Yoga Project (AYP), a yoga training organisation, came visiting. Ms Paige had developed the idea in 2006 while on a trip. During the journey, she saw a group of young men doing handstands in the bush. She got interested, joined them and awed them with yoga skills. That was to be the genesis of AYP in response to these young men who wanted to learn more.
Violence struck while she was in Kenya. While she may her viewed it as a misfortune, just like it was for many Kenyans, her decision to go into camps and keep people busy with yoga, was a blessing to Ms Njeri. “When she joined, it was a whole new experience. She moved us at the centre of the camp in a circle and told us to touch hands on mountain poses,” said Njeri.
Basic Yoga exercises that involve standing and stretching out hands, saw those in the camps touch each other’s’ hands. “It was electrifying. Nobody really cared which group they were from. Tension in the camp reduced,” says Njeri. This experience made her belief she could change life.
Even when Paige left Kenya, Njeri had made up her mind to be a yoga instructor. She wanted to get rid of the negative energy she had against “my life.” In 2009, Paige came back to Kenya, she took advantage of the opportunity. Paige took her to Mombasa, alongside six other young ladies, for a 10-day yoga training programme. That was an intensive programme.
This was followed by the physical aspect of yoga which involved regular workout and later on a discussion session with other trainees on what was limiting their space to dream big. That session would later prove useful. It was the time she got rid of negative thoughts. “Just 10 days was enough to change my life. I was able to share all the things I thought could stop me and I felt challenged I could actually break through,” narrated Njeri.
Back in Nairobi after training, all she wanted was to train others in yoga. With yoga gaining popularity, Paige was getting invitations from high end customers who wanted yoga sessions. “They were willing to pay as high as Sh50,000 per 90-minute session. That was the time I knew I could do what I enjoyed and get paid,” said Njeri.
As demand grew, Paige started sending Njeri and other trainers to take the clients through yoga sessions. She started organising free yoga classes in Kariobangi. This was in April 2009. Her first client, she says, was her alcoholic mother who quit booze. “She went back to Murang’a and now focuses on farming. I am happy she found her purpose too,” said jovial Njeri.
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Njeri is now a Director of Teachers at AYP which involves training those interested in becoming yoga teachers at a fee. For an hour, Njeri said a yoga session can earn a trainer up to Sh2,000. A teacher can handle up to three classes a day. On average, she rakes in at least Sh10,000 weekly but this could be higher depending on profile of clients.
“It is a well-paying industry. I want youth to stop focusing on corporate jobs. Only about 10 per cent may fit there,” she advises. Training as a yoga teacher costs about Sh250,000 in 10 days which she says can be recovered in less than two weeks.