My ex-husband was an excellent cook. Within a year and a half into the marriage, I had gained close to 10kgs along with emotional baggage of a union that was marred with domestic abuse
Decked out in short red hair and a simple pink T-shirt that exposes her chiseled arms and seamlessly conforms to her toned body, Jane Mukami quietly seats in a corner in Java House, sipping a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee.
Between introductions and exchanging pleasantries on a chilly Monday morning, Jane comes off as candid, unassuming and warm. She is much a fitness household name as she is the girl next door.
“What will you have,” she asks, nudging me to place an order when a waiter approaches. Appetising aromas of freshly baked pastries and assorted snacks waft in the air. “I have to constantly remind myself why I can’t have that cake, because I understand that I am what I eat,” she says, staring at a piece of black forest cake on one of the restaurant’s glass displays.
Mukami loves coffee and is a Java junkie. She, however, refrains from any meal that may jeopardise her quest for wellness and fitness. The secret to her enviable body and glowing skin she reveals, is unerring vigilance to a clean diet and a daily dose of workout.
It’s no doubt that her ability to delay gratification fused with years of hard work have catapulted her from obscurity to a respected fitness trainer both in Kenya and beyond. Her debut into fitness in 2012 was not initially planned, but when she took the first step, somehow things fell into place.
What started as a desire to take control over her life after a difficult divorce in 2008 has now culminated into a strong movement of fitness-conscious men and women locally and abroad.
Born in Pumwani Hospital 37 years ago, Jane remembers growing up a chubby child. Her weight further increased after she completed her primary education at State House Primary School and joined Kagwe Girls in Kiambu for her O-levels. “Joining boarding school meant that I carried a lot of junk food to school.
A day did not go without a dose of blended drinking chocolate, sugar and margarine, popularly known as ‘mixture’,” says Mukami.
She loved avocados and never skipped meals, as part of the school policy.
By the time she was in Form Two, Mukami weighed 74kg. “People thought that my mum and I were sisters.
My mum was about 52kg then,” she remembers. Still, her weight never bothered her. It didn’t get in the way of her love for partying or making friends.
After completing high school in 1997, she joined a computer college. It was a direction that was largely dominated by her mother. “I am one of those kids who did not have a clear sense of what I wanted to be in future. My mother, who was an entrepreneur then, was however clear about what she wanted for me.
Just like majority of Nairobi-bred kids that time, I ended up going to a computer college and studying French at Alliance Française,” she says. Though unconvinced that information technology was the right course for her, she diligently went through the motions of school, first for a certificate, then a diploma and then advanced diploma.
It’s an academic path that would see her land an internship at the United Nations for six months in 1998, work in a software applications company soon afterwards and land a job at IBM in server support, just a month after moving to the US in 1999 for her Information Systems degree in Kennesaw State University, Georgia.
“Prior experience in the field was a major boost in landing the job in the US. I did not have to work in coffee houses or petrol stations as is usually the norm for immigrant students,” she says. Still, the field was not her passion. She was just cruising through life.
Marriage and divorce
The pressure of juggling between school and work saw her lose weight, but that would drastically change when she got married in 2006. “My ex-husband was an excellent cook,” she reveals.
Within a year and a half into the marriage to the African-American, Mukami had gained close to 10kgs along with emotional baggage of a union she terms as toxic, as it was marred with domestic abuse, later leading to a divorce in 2008.
“It felt horrible that I was a divorcee at only 26 years. The negative emotions were taking a toll on me,” she recalls. History seemed to repeat itself, as Mukami had watched her parents divorce while she was only 13 years.
She felt like a failure. It was while mulling over the divorce a month after it was finalised that she got a wake-up call. “My trousers ripped while dressing, I looked at myself in the mirror and I couldn’t recognise the woman that stared back at me. I immediately knew I had to get my life together,” she adds.
It was this unsettling realisation about her weight that formed the basis of her quest for fitness. She figured that the journey to reclaiming her ideal weight would be easy on her own, and therefore, did not look for any professional help.
The next two years, she tried all tactics she came across with little discernible outcome. “I got into a series of fad diets, cleanses, colon hydrotherapy, 30-day juicing fast and anything else that promised weight loss.
In 2009, I started running half marathons,” she says. Running was therapeutic, but by 2010, she had only lost two kilos. Mukami was frustrated and on the verge of opting for liposuction as the last resort, when she decided to enlist the services of a professional fitness trainer.
Secret to fitness
From working with a professional, she totally transformed within six months and realised a secret to fitness she had missed all along. “I learnt about the importance of nutrition and striking a healthy equilibrium with workout to achieve long-term results,” she reveals.
Friends who kept track of her transformation on social media were keen to find out how she did it.
Her following on Facebook steadily grew, and there were a myriad of questions landing in her inbox about fitness.
Her transformation was not only a big personal triumph, but also stirred a passion in fitness.
“I enjoyed helping others by answering their questions. I spent most of my time responding to messages and soon, that was not sustainable,” she says. It’s what led her to start a blog, Fit Kenyan Girl, in May 2012, to cater for her growing audience.
The move was followed by a visit to Kenya to understand the needs of her Kenyan audience. “Fitness in America is a bit different from Kenya. Most people in the US have access to a gym as it’s cheap, unlike in Kenya.
Focusing on nutrition would work effectively in Kenya as gym membership is expensive and a concept that’s gradually taking root,” she says. This realisation during her visit led her to come up with the book 10 Days of Detox in 2015.
It’s a book that has gained popularity among her followers and has been attributed to a high level of effectiveness. Her enthusiasm in fitness is unstoppable and infectious, and has so far earned her a dedicated online following of close to half a million people in Kenya, US and other countries since she started her Facebook page 21 Days of Change in 2014.
Her consistency through the years is pivoted on structure and discipline. She devoutly observes a clean diet and a daily workout regimen lasting at least 90 minutes.
Losing her brother
Over the years, her passion in fitness has proven to not only have physical and monetary benefits through the sale of her book, but also provided emotional healing. It has become a reliable antidote to pain and low moments.
It has for instance been effective in helping her get through the death of her only brother and sibling through suicide last year. “Learning about his death was devastating, especially because I was the last relative to see him 10 days before his death,” she says, recounting the events of February last year.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Mukami blamed herself. She felt that she had failed him. Her brother, who served in the US army, had exhibited signs of war-related post-traumatic stress disorder, and her constant calls for American authorities to intervene had proven unfruitful.
Organising the logistics of his burial was the most dreadful part. Her brother moved to the US immediately after high school in 2006 to join the army. He had been to Kenya only once ever since, and often joked that he preferred being in America.
The family eventually settled on burying him abroad, with Mukami tasked with handling the funeral arrangements. In her early years, she grew up as an only child until her younger brother was born when she was eight years.
She regrets not spending as much time with him when he was around. “We mostly went to boarding school and generally met during the holidays,” she says. To avoid the constant return to grief, Mukami devised a good way to remember her brother; with Transform 21 challenge, a fitness regime starting this January as tribute to him.
“Death is something you deal with long-term. I have gone through a lot of counselling sessions and I’m better now. Working out has proven to be a great way to boost my mood when I’m down,” she shares.
Establishing herself as a fitness trainer in Kenya is something she considers a big success. Mukami, who still works in IT consultancy, currently under contract with the US government, thinks that her success in fitness may have hampered her love life. “I have not dated for the past three years.
I have a feeling men are intimidated by this woman who works out. They probably think I will beat them up,” she laughs. She is also quick to admit that undergoing a divorce might have played a role in the current circumstances.
“Having been married, I sort of know what to expect. I hope to settle down someday regardless,” says Mukami. Nonetheless, she is unstoppable in her mission to see people take control of their wellness.