The FairFight’s mission statement lists ‘empowerment’ as its objective on several counts: empowerment of women, empowerment of local martial artists, empowerment of communities. We all have some idea of what that word means: a quick glance at the dictionary will provide definitions ranging from ‘giving power’ to ‘promote the self-actualization or influence’. Without going into the philosophical implications of ‘self-actualization’, most people have some notion of how martial arts, women and empowerment might work together. Those who joined the Zimbabwe 2015 project saw this idea come to life. While it was neither obvious nor easy to quantify it after only 3 weeks, there was something in the twinkle of our girls’ eyes, in their voices that rose above the rest, in their assured step forward into kamae, that made us feel that this was it - the empowerment we had been looking for.
Since coming back from Zimbabwe, over the course of the year, we dreamt of what empowerment might look like for us in the future: communities joining together in the practice of martial arts, lines of girls in their crisp white gis training each other, our first black belts emerging… but these were all our own ideas of empowerment, based on our (western) life experience.
What really hit me when we returned to Zimbabwe in January 2016 is that ‘empowerment’ was redefined before us: not by us, but by the sharp contrast of the liveliness exuding from our girls against the backdrop of the difficult life experience of many Zimbabwean women around them. During my stay I wandered through market stalls where some of my students were conducting research on the experience of motherhood for Zimbabwean women, and I was struck by the sense that these women had given control of their lives over to a higher power: the economy, China, God… all mentioned with an equal sense of inaccessibility. Like fishing boats lost in a stormy ocean, these women were rocked by the waves of a most merciless form of capitalism, stoked by the winds of globalization, and they could only hang on for dear life to keep their boat afloat.
Not so with our girls: ‘I want to…’ is such an innocuous sentence, but it breathes forward motion and potential. We heard our girls say: ‘I want to…’, although what they wanted was different – some want to compete, nationally, internationally; others want to go up the belts and join the ranks of the dan graded karate warriors of Zimbabwe; some even saw in karate a means to travel the World. Maybe this is just youthful sprite that will wear off if, as is more and more often the case here, their husbands leave in search of economic opportunity to South Africa or some other faraway land, and never return. But maybe it won’t…
- Ginie, February 2016