Now a week after the team has returned, I can say without a doubt that the Varanasi project is a success. Our team went in with the goal of returning stable martial arts lessons for the girls at Disha, and if the first week means anything for the future that has succeeded.
The team has left Varanasi with an agreement between Devesh and Heifara, respectively the local karate instructor and the manager of the Disha house, which will ensure the longevity and quality of the project. More classes will be given, with more groups to reduce group size and better distinguish between the girls’ individual needs. Martial arts is something highly personal, and as the yellow belt graduation showed there are differences in the level of karate, and with that different needs. It’s not a surprise when the girls range in age from 8 to 18, as you can probably make out on the picture.
On top of this agreement we learned a lot from Devesh, Heifara, and the girls. This year FairFight’s very own impact evaluation was started. Myrthe Minnaert, a student from Erasmus University, interviewed the girls and partners in Varanasi, to better understand them as people, as well as to gain insights in the effects FairFight has been having on them. While the actual end result of the research is still being compiled, these interviews gave us better understanding of our partners and what drives them, as well as the perspective on karate of the girls. These were translated into information booklets for the girls, detailing their paths to black belt as well as touching upon the BUDO background of karate, translated in Hindi for them to go through at their leisure.
We leave the girls in good hands in Varanasi, and these hands deserve a massive thank you for their support and continued cooperation!
This project would not have been possible without our two local FairFight contacts in India. Both Devesh (local instructor) and Heifara (manager Disha house) have shown themselves to be very compatible with FairFight’s long term goals, and very supportive of the project to boost that.
Devesh has given three classes already since our leave. He taught one class for all the girls, with his new assistant Pankaj, on Wednesday, and two more last Saturday. In the 2 weeks that we were in Varanasi we spend a lot of time engaging Devesh in hearing what he thought of the project and his vision for the girls. This taught us a lot about our partner and his motivations, and helped us assist him in his teaching role. Our very own volunteer Mary Stevens is keeping in contact with Devesh and the other senior students of Sensei Sohan and facilitates the sharing of ideas and methods, assisting whenever they want.
Devesh has shown massive commitment to the project last Saturday as he chose to forego a national Karate competition in favour of giving the karate classes at Disha. We were all touched and impressed by his sacrifice, and have high hopes for Devesh and the FairFight girls at Disha house! Devesh truly did put the bar high by renewing the energy of the programme in this massive way. So, in other words, thank you Devesh!
Heifara was not only a great help and friend during the project, but has been invaluable as a spearhead for the Karate classes at the Disha and Asha houses. She has facilitated and ensured interest in the project, and has helped tremendously to increase the supply of steady karate classes for the girls. As a master of timetables, she worked the extra karate lessons in the timetable without a hitch, and shows a personal investment in our efforts that touches us deeply. This personal investment comes from a deep love for all the girls of Disha, and being an astounding karateka herself, and we are very thankful for her support and initiatives. As she is the link in Varanasi to our partner organisation Act & Help, her support means so much to us and the project. With someone in Varanasi who cares so greatly about the effective benefits of martial arts training, we can be sure that the girls are getting the karate they deserve.
The team worked tremendously well together. Although ages differed quite a bit, from the beginning it was clear that all eyes were on the same prize, and everyone was working towards said goal. The team interacted with the local partners and girls in new ways, spurred by initiatives of the team members. We engaged the girls in creative empowerment activities outside of the karate lessons, as well as spending dedicated time to better understand our partners on the ground in Varanasi. Three people falling sick for half a week on different accounts did not stop them, only slightly slowing them down, achieving the goals they had set out for themselves next to those set out by FairFight. Thank you, Katie, Mary, and Myrthe, I doubt this will be the last time you see Varanasi.
the End (But not really)
Although this marks the end of my time coordinating the Varanasi Project, I’m certain this will not be my last time in Varanasi, and who knows, maybe I’ll pick up the mantle again. As I already mentioned I’m eternally grateful to the people on the ground, but who I’m also grateful for is all the support back in our own countries. Countless of sponsors and backers have allowed FairFight to realise this project, and for the volunteers to come here. I am thoroughly impressed by the efforts our volunteers undertook to make the Varanasi project 2018 a reality, both on this project and those watching from the side-lines.
I can say very confidently that I believe this project will keep growing and become better than we ever could have imagined, and I can say that I absolutely believe the girls at Disha have what it takes to get to black belt and beyond. During my time I was touched by stories about how they already applied some lessons in their daily lives, painting the girls as modern warriors to me who will continue develop themselves in their best possible way.
No project is ever easy. We’re operating in an international environment, with all the problems that brings, in Varanasi no less. It’s a beautiful city, but really something else than anything I knew before. Now we continue our support of our local partners in Varanasi from the other side of the world again instead of from the city itself, but in our thoughts, we’ll never be far.
The FairFight team has been in Varanasi for a week: that means they have reached the mid-point milestone in this year’s impact visit. Floris, Heifara and Devesh had agreed to a schedule and plan before the volunteers arrived, but two days after the start of the trip, Myrthe and Floris both fell ill with food poisoning and the plan had to be reviewed. Floris jokes about this:
“As a project coordinator the schedule is my responsibility, and adapting/confirming things on the fly has been the most work here. Most telling maybe was the singular comment Heifara had on the schedule before we arrived: "it's a great schedule, but keep in mind it is India." Her words rang true as we had to adapt to changed circumstances and spontaneous things throughout the week, but all changes turned out well!” - Floris
Encounters at disha
The first week has been mainly spent getting to know the girls at Disha both personally and as martial artists. Half of the Disha girls were missing in the early days of the visit due to an unexpected delay in the start of the school year, so the first couple of trainings took place in a cozy setting with almost one teacher for each girl! Skipping ropes were a big hit, breaking the ice between our senseis and the girls. The rest girls returned on Thursday, just as Floris and Myrthe recovered from their illness, and the project was able to go ahead full swing. For Katie, taking the time to get to know the girls and understand their needs and aspirations was paramount:
“For me it was establishing a relationship with the girls to gauge their martial arts understanding and to help motivate them to understand the deeper benefits if martial arts. It seems that at the moment although there is some understanding that "kittens need to switch on their inner tiger " there’s little or no connection to the wider principles of martial arts. The reaction we have had to the skipping ropes and the way the girls take instruction is positive and promising for future learning- spending Friday and the weekend doing art and kites is establishing this positive relationship where we are hoping to further discuss what strength is and to inspire these girls particularly the older ones to be an example to one another by using these values.” – Katie
It seems that FairFight still has a lot of work to do to help the girls go from the practice of martial arts as a sport to the living ethos of Budo. This impression was shared by Myrthe, the only non-martial artist of the groups, whose mission it is to provide us with a comprehensive report on the impact and diffusion of Budo (empowerment) principles within our project. It seems Myrthe’s research will yield very important results for FairFight:
“Of course I knew I was going to spend two weeks researching martial arts while being part of a team of martial artists, but that doesn't mean I had realised that this would mean two weeks of martial arts talk. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, there is always a chance that one of them will jump into a martial arts stance and show how to do a certain punch, kick or other technique. I admire the passion and confidence with which this is done, whether it is on our rooftop or in a busy restaurant, they don't seem to be bothered by the staring faces around them. This first week we have come to realise that it is still a long way for the girls to achieve this same mentality, but based on the conversations and shared training sessions with Devesh, the trainer, we also believe that there is a lot of potential for growth in both Devesh and the girls. Creating the ideal climate for this growth, is what we are working on now, we are optimistic.” - Myrthe
working with local martial artists
The other important goal of this first week was to work with the local martial arts team to understand their perspective on martial arts, the issues they have run into in working with the girls on the FairFight project, and work towards a set of context-appropriate, sustainable solutions. This is no mean feat, but Mary explains that steps are being taken in the right direction:
“We arrived with a major challenge on our hands but the team has worked creatively and cohesively to break it down and solve the problems facing this fragile project. On our first week we have developed our understanding of why the classes haven’t been going well and then worked on a strategy to address these issues. We’re looking forward to implementing this strategy during the second week.” - Mary
Heading into the second week, the team is feeling positive, motivated, fit and healthy, and ready for action. For now though, they will be enjoying a weekend of kite-flying for Makar Sankranti. Until next time, thank you for your support!
On January 4th, Floris Eland and Myrthe Minneart arrived in Varanasi, marking the kick-off of the 2018 India impact visit. They will be joined on the 8th of January by Katie Alexander and Mary Stevens from the UK. The main objectives for this impact mission were to assess the progress of the girls, reinforce our collaboration with our local partners, and help our local teachers with context-appropriate teaching tools and pedagogical training.
The team has been busy getting everything ready to get the most out of our third visit to the India project site. Katie and Mary ran successful fundraising campaigns to cover the costs of their travel and provide some of the equipment and materials needed for the trip, such as new gis for our local instructors. Mary, a veteran teacher-trainer, condensed her elaborate teacher training tools into a succinct, easy-to-use manual for Sohan Kumar, Devesh Verma and the team at Dragon Martial Arts Academy. Because many of the local karateka do not speak or read English, Mary had the material translated into Hindi by her friends Rajeev and Uma Joshi, then printed and bound at very short notice and for a very generous price by Mayo Digital Printing (Abingdon, UK), who also printed a set of FairFight gis for the team. The ladies also collected donations for the girls, such as skipping ropes, stationery and sustainable menstrual products. Thanks to everybody who donated their time, services, money or items to the project! We can only do what we do because of your support!
To provide a day-to-day account of the journey, the team started a blog, written by Mary and illustrated by Katie. In Mary's words: "We have a strong sense of purpose and momentum now. But still so much to do before setting off for the airport!"
BAck in Varanasi, first impressions
Floris and Myrthe were picked up at the airport by Devesh, and then finally got to meet Heifara in person in upon arrival in Assi Ghat. After a paneer dinner with Heifara, our guys collapsed for the night in their rooms at Ashish Cafe, the FairFight stronghold for the duration of the trip. The first full day was spent discussing plans and expectations with Heifara and Devesh, and we are happy to report that everything is on track!
Floris shared the following reflections on his first day in Banaras:
"Being back in Varanasi is very weird. Myrthe and I are still getting acclimated to the intense sensations and life in Varanasi, but we hit the ground running. As many may know the smells, noises and life in general are very different from what I'm used to, and the past 2 days have been a blurr.
We made sure to meet up with our local trainer Devesh, with Heifara from the Ashadiya foundation and of course to already say hello to the girls. In preparation of the arrival of the rest of the team we're talking to all relevant parties to confirm the proposed schedule and talk about expectations, as well as making sure we have an accurate picture of what is and has been happening in Varanasi.
I'm very excited, and I think I can speak for everyone to say that they are as well, and ready to give and get the most out of our time here in Varanasi!"