That a professor of epidemiology could take part in an odd competition like weightlifting was sure to leave Kenyans’ mouths agape.
Added to the fact that the mother of four and grandmother of two is a few days shy of her 58th birthday (she was born on October 26, 1961, like President Uhuru Kenyatta), the result was an internet sensation.
That is why a photograph of Prof Elizabeth Bukusi, chief research officer at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), has been doing the rounds on social media in the past week.
It was taken while Prof Bukusi competed at the 2019 finals of the Kenya Strongest Man Competition at Two Rivers Mall in Nairobi last Saturday.
“I would say that I was determined to do my best,” Prof Bukusi told the Sunday Nation on Friday, speaking from Botswana, where she was on official tour.
She was one of the 10 women battling out for the honours in the competition. She did not emerge tops, as Mercy Obiero took the crown and a Sh80,000 prize in the women’s category, but being her first time competing, and given her background, Prof Bukusi has been the talk of the town.
On the Facebook page of sports enthusiast Daudi Were, where the post was first shared, accolades have been pouring in from every corner.
“I like such motivation,” wrote Brian.
Amos took cue: “No human is limited. A wake-up call to professionals who claim to be too busy to keep fit.”
Prof Bukusi did not imagine her participation would become such a spectacle. But it is now slowly dawning on her that the decision she took to start exercising just to be fit enough to play with her sons and later her grandsons, and to be strong enough to take the Sunday school children she teaches to annual camps, placed her on the path to becoming a source of inspiration.
“I had no idea it was going to draw so much attention, or that we were going to end up in that space. But if it’s made a difference to someone, and if it encouraged someone to know that they can achieve their goals, then I’m glad,” she said.
She never really grew up as a sportswoman. During her O-level at Kenya High School and A-level at Alliance Girls, she says she was never a sportsperson of note.
“I did sports in school because it was required. But I didn’t stand out in any way,” she said.
After studying medicine at the University of Nairobi, she was soon neck-deep in career life, moving from interning at Kenyatta National Hospital to being a research professor at the University of Washington and later to holding various leadership positions at Kemri.
“I became a little more interested in sports when my children were growing up. I have four sons, and boys naturally like to play and to be outdoors,” she narrated.
Her interest in bodybuilding developed only recently. She says it was due to the demanding nature of the deputy director's position she held at Kemri. As a way of managing stress, she figured out, sweating it out at the gym would come in handy.
“That was around 2012. But that year, I didn’t go to the gym much because I was also doing a master’s in bioethics,” she said.
She was attending gym sessions regularly until 2015, when she injured her left ankle during a church event. That meant she could not participate in the normal exercises. Her trainer recommended that she start lifting weights.
She feared this could make her “look strange” and so she had to seek the advice of her sons — the eldest is 33 and the youngest, twins, are 27 — and they saw nothing wrong with the recommended regime.
With time, she discovered that lifting weights was working well with her body. Then her trainer told her co come up with goals and, as she kept meeting them, he recommended that she participate in the strength competition, which is run by Stealth Mark Africa, a sports marketing company.
The preliminaries to last Saturday’s national competition were held in Nakuru, Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa. She took part in the Mombasa event and emerged fourth. It was not enough to take her to the nationals but, according to Mr James Omondi, the founder of the Kenya Strongest Man Competition, she was given a wild card.
“Of course, she is such an inspiration at her age,” said Mr Omondi. “We love it that she is becoming the poster girl for encouraging people in that age group that they can still push their limits — they can still pick up a new thing.”
With her limited time to practise, given her busy travelling schedule, she tried all she could to be ready for the finals. And, in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the well-attended event where regular tickets cost Sh1,000, she wrestled with the dead lifts, the giant tyre, the farmers’ walk and other activities that would win a competitor points.
With the attention she has received, Prof Bukusi feels confident dishing out advice on the importance of being active.
“Being a professor of medicine doesn’t mean that you can’t be fit and you can’t do sports,” she said. “(Marathoner) Eliud Kipchoge said that there are no limits. It doesn’t matter where you start from, whether it’s in age, whether it’s any lack of ability, whether it’s something you’ve never done before. We’re only limited in as far as we allow ourselves to be limited.”
“Sometimes people say, ‘gym fees are expensive.’ I’d rather pay gym fees than buy medication for treating diabetes, hypertension or other lifestyle diseases.”
Epidemiology, the field in which she has a PhD, is about studying diseases with regard to their frequency, what populations they affect and how they can be controlled.
On the male competitors’ side, which had 16 contestants, one athlete was a fifth-year medicine student at the University of Nairobi.
Bernie Luke Nang’ayo, alias Dr Deadlift, emerged third, bagging Sh50,000. Chris Oketch was the overall winner and defending champion, taking home Sh200,000.
Mr Nang’ayo, 26, said he developed an interest in bodybuilding from a young age due to the people he idolised.
“All my childhood heroes were big, strong guys, so I started training when I was 12 years old,” he told the Sunday Nation.
He developed more zeal to enhance his strength in 2015, when he was attacked by armed thugs, who shot him and damaged his nerves so badly that he could not “even hold even a cup”.
“It was in my recovery period that I decided that I was not only going to be strong again but I was also going to be the strongest ever,” he said. “I’m still on that journey. What I want now is the top spot.”
Mr Nang’ayo dismissed the notion that the strength sports are a reserve of the not-so-bright people, calling it a stereotype.
“People think brawn can’t exist with brains. I’m going to challenge that,” he said. “Socrates once said that no man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”
Mr Omondi, who founded the strength competition in 2015, says strength sport is fast gaining traction.
“In 2016, our dead-lift record was 300kg. Only one person could do 300kg. By 2017, we had a group of four people and now, during the latest event, many people surpassed the 300kg mark,” he said.
“The sport is growing. We can’t compare it to when we first started. There’s quite a good fan base across the country in places like Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru and of course Nairobi,” Mr Omondi added.
He also stressed that the strength competition varies greatly with bodybuilding.
Bodybuilding is more about aesthetics: It’s about physique, where you work out but your focus is on being able to display the muscles, symmetry, muscle density.
“For Strong Man, it’s about power. It’s about demonstrating your strength. If you look at a typical strongman, the physique is quite different from that of a bodybuilder, because the preparation is totally different,” he explained.