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Don’t mess with Jean-Louis, the sharpshooter and judoka

Jennifer Jean-Louis is a daring woman, her prowess in shooting and judo unrivalled among her peers.

Currently, she is a judo instructor and referee in Nairobi. Jean-Louis is also a Director of Referees in East and Central Africa.

Born in Nakuru in 1950 to a half Mexican half English father and a Seychellois mother, Jean-Louis grew up with a desire to be the most unique woman in Kenya. She also had the urge to inspire other women to become like her.

This saw her take up judo, then a predominantly male sport in 1963 at the age of 13. She was the first woman in martial arts in Kenya.

Lack of opponents

At the time, there were no women opponents for her to fight and get her belt. She had no option but to take on men to earn her ranking.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as everything she did made history. To date, Jean-Louis is a pioneer in everything judo for women.

“Today a judok­a only needs to complete a set number of hours to earn a specific belt, but in the past you had to fight for it. After many years of waiting, I finally got a chance to be graded and it was a wonderful moment,” said Jean-Loius.

You had to fight five opponents and beat at least three of them to earn a black belt. Jean-Louis floored four of the five male opponents she faced to earn her 2nd Dan black belt in 1979, which she describes as one of the most memorable in her glittering career.

Jean-Loius was an instructor too, as there were hardly any available in Nakuru at the time.

“Once in a while, we would have guest instructors who would teach us for about three months then I would take over until the next one came. It was a good way for me to learn, as it helped boost my confidence,” said Jean-Louis.

Everything went smooth for her until she injured her knee in 1982 when active judo took a back seat. She, however, continued instructing.

Jean-Louis became the first woman referee in East Africa and one of the highest rated judo officials in Kenya. She was also the first woman accredited as an official by the Africa Judo Union and the International Judo Federation.

Feared falling

Jean-Louis has watched many women walk in and out of the sport. She said: “Most of the women feared falling, which was an inevitable part of the sport.

The number of female judokas kept shrinking at an alarming rate. At some point, I only got students who wanted to learn basic self-defence skills.”

Something curious later emerged, when Jean-Louis noticed that several of her students were twilight girls only interested in learning how to protect themselves in the course of their precarious trade.

“Some of the girls’ clients would get violent and try to get services from them without paying, so they learnt judo to protect themselves,” she said.

In 1980 Jean-Louis overheard two of her students – one French and the other German – talking about shooting as a sport and she asked them if she could join them and they agreed.

“The first practice round had 50 target shots, I hit all of them and this was when I discovered that I had another talent,” she said.

Jean-Louis won two national championships in 1982 and 1983, shooting up the list of Kenya’s top marksmen in the men’s and women’s categories. Being a sharpshooter and a martial art expert made her one of the most lethal civilian women in Kenya.

Jean-Louis is also a part time bodyguard, mostly for spiritual leaders who visit Kenya.

“I have worked with religious leaders of the Brahma Kumaris such as Dadi Shivani and Dadi Janki, the Greek Orthodox followers of the seer Vassula. I have done security work for officials in the former presidents Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki governments,” said Jean-Louis.

She is married to History professor Shem Louis and they have a son, Clint Jean-Louis who is a doctor in Spain. Even though she had a family to take care of, Jean-Louis always found time to do her two favourite things -judo and shooting.

Leadership row

For many years, Kenya Judo Federation has been embroiled in leadership wrangles. Early this month, a suspended official Shadrack Maluki held a regional tournament in Nairobi that ended in chaos.

Teams were locked up in hotel rooms because of non-payment of bills. A blame game ensued, with the Maluki team insisting that visiting teams were required to pay for their own accommodation.

Such sideshows that rocked the sport over the years but they have not dampened Jean-Loius’ spirit.

She is not about to slow down in doing what she loves.

In the living room of her Westlands apartment, where we did the interview, she has over 100 trophies in her cabinet won in judo and shooting.

“I have many medals too in a box in the storage room that need to be in the trophy cabinet but I keep delaying the move,” said Jean-Loius.