Lithe and light, standing at 5ft 2 inches, a young woman takes her bow and aims. In a split second, the arrow hits the bull’s eye. Meet Shehzana Anwar, Kenya’s ace female archer who carried the country’s flag at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Kuki, as she is popularly known, is from a traditional Punjabi Muslim family in Nairobi and schooled at Oshwal Academy. “I was not an academic and happily skipped class for hockey or football with the boys,” says the young woman who at 31 can easily pass for 18, in her hijab. Her mother Tabassum is her coach and manager.
The mother-daughter duo give free lessons to newcomers on the spacious plains of Swara Acacia Lodge, near Nairobi.
“Archery is a disciplined sport,” says Kuki. “You have to be mentally focused and calm. Of course you need upper body strength but it’s all about having the right technique.”
“You enter a different world, spiritually connected to the bull’s eye,” says Kuki. “If you are stressed, your heart is beating fast and you are breathing heavily, the arrow quivers and you miss the target.
There are 16 steps to follow from the moment the archer loads the arrow to the release and follow through.
“Every time I release the arrow, I say ‘Dear god, please let the arrow go where it’s supposed to go. Raul Figueroa, the Kenya Archery official who encouraged mum and me into archery always says, ‘Think gold’." It’s the colour of the bull’s eye.
It was only in 2002 that Tabassum and her two daughters Kuki and the older Sanna stumbled upon archery at a sports exhibition in Splash near Carnivore, with Kuki going competitive.
“We joined the Kenya Archery Association and started training,” tells Kuki. “In 2004, I entered a local competition and beat all the men.”
Kuki’s first love is field hockey and she kick boxes.
That first win in 2004 propelled Kuki to be selected for the world games and in 2005 she qualified for the international competition in Germany. In 2016, she won the African Archery competition that qualified her for the Olympics in the same year.
“It is the best feeling in the world to be number one,” says the ace archer. “But the pressure of competing is intense and expectations are high. I’ve taken a step back from competitive sport.”
At the 2019 All Africa Games, Kenya lost all the qualifying rounds which meant that Kenya lost all the slots for Olympics 2020 in Tokyo.
“Archery went down after 2016 because there was no training and the team was not ready,” said Tabassum, both a mum-coach and national coach.
A major factor is the lack of funds and support for archery.
“To be an athlete, you have to be passionate, you have to live and breathe the sport,” says Kuki. “When I was competing I never got off the range at Strathmore College in Madaraka estate.”
That was between 2014 and 2016, when working for an international recruitment company. She would head off to the range to shoot 70 to a hundred arrows a day.
“That’s shooting 700 arrows a week. But compare that to 2,500 arrows shot a week by international professionals. They have no other job, they are sponsored by private companies and their governments. The top archers today are the Koreans, Americans, Chinese and Europeans. It’s only in Kenya that women compete with men in archery and out-perform them.”
The mum-daughter team has an easy ambience and chat like close friends. Tradition has not been a barrier to achieving great heights. “My husband has always been supportive” says Tabassum who coaches and shoots in her hijab and burqa, even at the Olympics.