When it comes to CrossFit athletes with compelling backgrounds, Botswana’s female country champion Cingiwe Ciegy Seru’s story is as unique as it is extraordinary.

Growing up in a remote village in the southeastern part of the landlocked country in southern Africa, Seru, who goes by Sbrana, was born into a family of arable farmers. Botswana is known primarily for its diamond mining industry and also being a sparsely populated country of vast resources with relative poverty.

Seru, who is the sixth child of 10 siblings (four men and six women), said working for a living was not only a way of life, but a necessity for survival.

“My family being arable farmers required a lot of physical labour which was hard to find,” said the 35-year-old. “So we siblings had to provide it. Since men were few, I was the one that had to balance the scales. I therefore led a tomboyish life, driving tractors to till vast pieces of land as early as 12 years old, year in and year out.”

Seru said growing up on a farm was hard, but it ultimately made her tough. Photo: Handout

Despite putting in punishing days in the fields, Seru said there was little in terms of respite or compensation, and she also had to deal with a volatile home life on top of everything.

“Unlike other families where people worked and enjoyed the benefits, ours was different. We worked hard each year and never got the basic needs, such as school uniforms or even food itself. Whatever we produced we got to eat after other people were given. My father was an abusive man.”

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Seru said what came out of this was a warrior mentality, where she equipped herself with the necessary tools to become a fighter rather than a victim.

“From a young age, I learnt to be a survivor, to fend for myself,” she said.

“Fast forward to my high school days, and I was a loner or always with a group of boys, because that is the only thing I knew how to do. I always worked at my younger brother and father’s side.

“We on many occasions volunteered ourselves when others refused to work so that we saved them from being beaten. Being around men all the time meant I learnt to be strong and saw myself as their equal, never believing they could be better than me.”

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After high school Seru took matters into her own hands, taking up karate and excelling at the sport until she graduated from university in 2006, when she took a break from sports after becoming pregnant.

As the years went on, Seru said she found herself having more and more of an issue with her mental health, and decided to act. She joined a gym, hoping exercise would boost her mood.

“In 2014, I started working out religiously in one of the city gyms because I was going through depression, but had no idea what it was. I was physically ill, hated life and was suicidal.”

After each workout though, Seru said the natural high was not only making her feel better, but also increasing her own self-worth.

Countless studies have shown daily exercise is one of the most vital parts to living a happy and healthy life. A 2018 aggregate study in the US found that even 10 minutes of exercise a day can have an impact on a person’s mental well-being.

“So I carried on because it made me happier and people started to notice that I had talent in the field. This increased my confidence as well. Both ladies and men came to me for advice regarding fitness. I was one of the few, if not the only lady, who worked out ‘like men’ as people put it.”

By 2017 she had found CrossFit and joined CrossFit Gaborone in the country’s capital, taking the ideals of the sport into her everyday life.

Seru said CrossFit has also given her a sense of community. Photo: Handout

“I got hooked,” she said about her first CrossFit class. “For the first time since leaving the gym, I got encouraged to be myself, compete with guys, yet got accepted and praised by ladies and guys for my capabilities.”

Seru, who works as a curator at the Botswana National Museum, has been the country’s top female competitor for the past three years. In 2019, she became the 125th ‘fittest woman on the planet’ after heading to Madison, Wisconsin, for the CrossFit Games.

While finding fitness led Seru to a better way of life, she said CrossFit gave her something she had been missing at regular fitness establishments where people would come in alone, work out alone and leave alone.

“I could not believe that the one thing I had been yearning for back in the conventional gym was finally around,” she said. “Competition, grit, challenge, a sense of family, you name it. So I stayed, I had finally arrived, and because I had been battling depression for a while, I felt the ‘box’ environment was perfect for me.”