Fierce warrior. I once had to fight a gang of five, knife wielding men who waylaid me in Nakawa while returning home. Looking back at this terrifying experience, I determined to equip as many women as I possibly can with skills that can help them when the worst happens, writes George Katongole.
A black belt is a sign of maturity and proficiency in Taekwondo, and Sergeant Moreen Awori is an embodiment of all those qualities and more. A first dan degree black belt in Taekwondo (there are ten levels within the black belt), Awori is the epitome of self-assurance, but she says it was not always that way.
Empowered women are not perfect; in fact, empowered women mess up, a lot but the difference is they build their empire brick by brick. Awori’s mission is to help women of all ages become determined, confident, and fearless.
Awori developed an interest for martial arts as early as eight years through her uncle Francis Ayepa, who now lives in Japan. When her uncle moved to Japan, one of her friends Suham Muhammad, who was a student at Victoria Nile Secondary School, linked her to her brother who trained her in Karate. Awori was at Parvatiben Muljibhai Madhvani Girls’ School commonly known as PMM Girls in Jinja. She trained in Karate secretly every Saturday after classes.
“I got all the basics from Suham’s brother. It was my own secret and from then on I didn’t want to be like any other lady,” she says. Having showed interest, she was given training by Japanese instructors every evening during her family’s stay at Walukuba estates.
She says although she was attracted to the sport by it moves, she later realised she needed it for survival. “Growing up in Walukuba estate was like living in a war zone. It was a rough place where you survive like soldiers. When I beat one naughty boy called Ivan during a fight between the upper and lower estate, I started earning big respect,” she recollects. The tough childhood followed her most of her life, and it was one of the dominant factors that led her to choose Taekwondo over a well paying posting in the Very Important Persons Protection Unit (VIPPU).
A bitter divorce
While in Senior Three, her parents divorced and she went to live with her mother in Mulanda village in Tororo while the boys stayed with their father in Jinja.
In 2004, she completed her O-Level at James Ochola Memorial School emerging the best student with 29 points. In Senior Five, she was taken by her aunt to Kisoko High School but she completed her A-Level from City View College in Kyebando where she obtained 19 points in history, economics, geography and divinity.
During this time, she was not training in any martial arts and was either running middle distances or playing netball as a defender.
When her mother retired, there was no school fees for her and the only options she was offered was to join Uganda College of Commerce Tororo (UCC) and the Uganda Teachers College.
“I refused because I did not want to be a teacher and all I ever wanted was to get a university degree,” she said.
She went to Kireka Police barracks where her aunt who was married to the late Steven Accelam lived. She decided to try one thing she had never thought of in her life.
“One day he [Accelam] returned home with police recruitment papers but did not say anything. When I landed on them I thought to myself that I could try it.” With the prospect of joining the police over her and a highly supportive Accelam, her confidence grew exponentially.
She finally joined during the recruitment of 2007 ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) meeting in Kampala. She says she felt lucky to be included in the first intake where the late Assistant Inspector General of Police, Andrew Felix Kaweesi was the commandant.
“I faced Afande Kaweesi and told him I was looking at working with police to be able to get to university. He gave me a chance because I could run, play netball as well as Taekwondo,” she relates.
Black belt journey
The journey to a black belt in Taekwondo is divergent, with each student affected by age, commitment and development of skills. It is more structured and strict, requiring more intense mental and physical focus. For Awori, it lasted two years, crowning 2009 with her passing her black belt test before Grandmaster Kim Se In at Kabalye in Masindi.
“The instructor picked interest in me and made me the class monitor and I was always excelling,” she says. Her childhood training which equipped her with basic knowledge helped her advance very quickly from white belt to yellow and then to gold and orange belt.
During the first pass out completed on August 1, 2008, Awori was retained in Masindi with Lydia Athieno, Oliver Bulage and Jennifer Athieno for special training that lasted until 2009. They still converge for special duties. Apart from Athieno, the others are bodyguards attached to various VIPs. Only Awori and Patrick Ogenmungu were passed out as self defence specialists in that class.
Awori excelled in weapon training too, making her a master in AK-47 and pistol handling.
Going back to school
With her formal training under her belt, Awori made a request to the late AIGP Kawesi to consider her for studies but since she was still on probation and had not served the mandatory two years to qualify for this privilege, she was deployed to the Sports Department as a netball and archery player and not in VIPPU, her initial posting. Kawesi had recommended her for further training at the Presidential Guard Brigade in Kasenyi Entebbe.
In 2010, Awori, who was at the rank of Corporal, was released to pursue her Bachelor of Community Based Rehabilitation at Kyambogo University where she graduated in February 2014.
Two years later, she was promoted to the rank of sergeant.
Soon after graduation, she married Edward Isooba, the goalkeeper of Police Young FC with whom she has two children.
Earning a black belt is only the first step in the mastery of the practice. “The next phase is learning how to teach,” Awori explained. Now she regularly trains girls at Sharing Hall Nsambya in self defence.
“I have beaten the odds. I am married, I have had normal births and I look years younger yet the world out there is negative about women who do combat sport,” notes Awori.
Uganda Olympic Committee (UOC) president William Blick identified her potential during the Advanced Sports Management diploma course and hired her as a self defence trainer for his children. She was also appointed to the sport for social development commission.
Currently, she is proud to work with Tartan Burners Athletics Club (TBAC) and the Women and Youth Empowerment Programme which organise training camps across the country where she offers self defence drills to teenage girls and young women.
And beyond training, Awori says her goal is to offer life skills to athletes through Smart Sport, an organisation she runs with Lillian Muhangi, an Information Technology expert.
She wants them to develop ways to handle situations when they retire.
Another aspect of Awori and Muhangi’s focus is offering self-defence to the community with women making up the bulk of the classes. This concept hits home for Awori.
“I think women are vulnerable and I am confident the self-defense classes can be helpful because I have been there. I once had to fight a gang of five, knife wielding men who waylaid me in Nakawa while returning home. Looking back at this terrifying experience, I determined to equip as many women as I possibly can with skills that can help them when the worst happens,” says Awori. When asked how easy it is for a woman to learn self-defence, Awori says: “It is about awareness, changing habits. The number one tool for self defence is your mind.”
Born to Silver Othieno, a former deacon and Mary Margaret Achieng, a retired Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) auditor on December 15, 1987 at Iyolwa in the eastern Uganda town of Tororo, the mother of two is now a respected tutor of self defence. She has two brothers and two sisters.