I am a gymnast. I grew up in a sport that is most popular among girls and women. When I was training I would never have thought that there are forms of my sport or places where it is mostly practiced by men and even a taboo for women to practice it. On the other side of the world, in a completely different context, men were training acrobatics. For them it was unimaginable that a woman would be able to do what they were doing.
Then, two worlds collided. Two vastly different worlds but with one very significant similarity. All of us love flipping, love adrenaline, love training and live for our sport. I had never been the odd one out in my sport. I had never had to fight for my place within my sport. Being talented and hardworking had been enough. I did have to prove myself but in different ways and with a different purpose. The acrobats from Nairobi had always worked hard, sometimes girls did join them but they often did not stick. The reason as to why not many women stick to the sport in Kenya is one for another article, but it is most certainly intriguing.
The big challenge of trying to integrate into this all-male group came up. I was determined to overcome our differences and try to integrate as much as possible. After all, we had gymnastics, we were roughly the same ages, we were just born in different parts of the world. An important aspect to integration for me, was to understand the people around me. To try and get where they come from and what their day looks like. I could have decided to live in a richer area of Nairobi, to take taxi’s to and from training, to be very careful with my own safety. Though, what is integration if you are living in fear of the people you integrate with? That is impossible and to me there was no reason to be fearful. I decided to live in an area on the East side of Nairobi called Umoja. Not just because I did not want to live in the rich areas but also out of convenience, this way I was able to live with a good friend of mine and it was easy to reach the slums by matatu.
The first day that I joined the acrobats, I knew I would have to do everything the same as them. At the time, I was luckily pretty fit, so I was in a state where I would be able to give it my all. Fitness however is not always enough… Let’s not forget about the fact that I was not used to the hot climate and most importantly, that I had been extremely spoiled in terms of training facilities. We were in a low concrete building with an iron sheet roof, attracting even more heat. The floor was crippling down and we were training barefoot. The warmup was tough but I was able to keep up and the basics we did diagonally were not difficult for me. The vast difference between the acrobats and myself immediately stood out. I am very technically trained, whereas the acrobats are extremely daring and just do everything. After the warmup the real pyramids and thus the real challenge started. I had never been part of a pyramid before, so it was time to be fearless and adapt.
So, how does one integrate? I cannot say that I am a pro at this, since I am certain I could have done better. But I did get accepted and respected by the team and we have become very close friends. Number one for me was to participate. To be open and say yes. Everything that is offered to you by the people you are trying to integrate with is an opportunity. It is a chance to better understand each other; discover your differences and start embracing these. When I was asked to be the third person on top of two other guys who were already standing on each other’s shoulders, I figured this was a sign of trust. They thought I could do it and so I had to give them that trust back. I gathered some courage and started climbing up on top of the other guy’s shoulders. My legs were trembling and I am not sure if I had ever been this scared of falling onto the rocky ground, but I still tried to do it. I got there, probably about 3.5 meters high. If I looked down, I could see the other team members below me, all ready to catch me if I were to lose my balance and fall. Up there, trembling of fear, but simultaneously feeling safe because of the incredible team around me, was when I knew that I had integrated to some degree. We were all interested in each other, we respected each other. We were all being open minded and explaining ourselves if something was unclear. Integration is about being curious, throwing yourself in the deep. For me it was about climbing that pyramid, overcoming my fears and instead embracing courage. It was about proving myself and learning from others.
There are such vast differences between all of us. People can be born on completely different continents, have lived completely different lives and have completely different morals. This does not mean that you cannot try to understand each other. It does not mean that you should fear each other. Or that you should put one above the other. It means that you need to learn about the differences, embrace them and see how you can bring out the best in each other.
Author: Veronique Sprenger