It’s been a long time coming but we are happy to announce that we’re finally heading over to India! This summer, from July 10th to 24th, Ginie Servant, Floris Eland and our newest recruit Krissi Silianova will be bringing the empowerment of martial arts to a community of girls in the Holy City of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. We will be working together with a local association Ashadiya, who has been looking after girls from very underprivileged backgrounds in and around Varanasi with the support of their French parent organisation. We expect to bring self-defense and the basics of martial arts to 25 girls aged 10 to 17 this summer, in what promises to be two very intensive (and hot) weeks.
The coming together of FairFight India has been no mean feat. Last year Ginie travelled to Bangalore with the hope of setting up shop in two schools there, but since that trip, too many difficulties cropped up and it was getting more and more likely that we would have to postpone India until 2017 at least. Then, out of the blue, two students from Erasmus University College contacted the FairFight team: they had just returned from Varanasi and were very keen to introduce us to the association that they had volunteered with. We arranged a Skype meeting with Meera Rana and Anne-Laure Chanteloup who run Ashadiya locally in early February and immediately saw how our two organizations could work together.
As we’re travelling to India with a small crew and martial arts equipment is readily available in the country, we will bring only a minimal amount of training gear with us to India and hope instead to purchase everything locally. We’re also on the lookout for a martial arts teacher in Varanasi. We have a couple of leads in kickboxing, taekwondo and karate, but so far we’re still waiting to hear back from our partners on this subject. We’re making this our number one priority between now and July as the sustainability of the FairFight model rests on investing in local martial artists. We’re confident that this will fall into place in the next couple of months, and will be keeping you up to date!
There's a saying about being time rich & cash poor, or vice versa, which I can relate to. Zimbabwe has long been on my bucket list of places to visit and over the last few years I've been fortunate to receive several invitations. My wife has worked there, I have friends who live there, know many Karateka who train there and my instructor Prof Stephen Chan OBE was one of the earliest masters to regularly teach there. Despite all that, something had always got in the way and I'd never made the journey myself. That changed following an email from Virgine Servant who unwittingly created what is likely to be a life long relationship with the continent.
Through training of the martial arts we promote tolerance, respect & perseverance. We learn these ways in the training hall but carry them with us for life. So when people suggest teaching martial arts as part of a charity programme seems a rather odd thing to do, I tell them there are few things which make more sense.
I'm a founder member of the Jindokai martial arts association led by Professor Chan. A worldwide, not for profit group of martial artists. Prof Chan was routinely teaching across Africa 30 years ago whilst I was still trying to figure out how to put on a gi. At that stage Jindokai didn’t exist but I'm pretty sure there was a vision of a better world, wrapped up in poetic stories of birds of prey and elaborate exercise drills. If I've learnt one thing from the Prof over the years it’s he always has an idea or two up his sleeve to make the world a little better, even if they might take generations to bear fruit. He would never talk of it but a small part of his legacy are the number of karate clubs scattered across Africa.
One such club is the Old Hararians. I'm still learning all their history but it's survived the many hardships to face Zimbabwe over recent years. Karateka of all ages, creeds and beliefs regularly fill the club with their shouts, led by instructors who believe in paying it forwards. The new up and coming talent win trophies, mature in their outlook and when the time is right stretch their wings, leave the nest and start new clubs.
I see a similarity between African martial arts and Africa in general. There are raw materials in abundance, knowledgeable instructors and enthusiastic students hungry to learn. It's the enthusiasm that strikes me most, there’s so much of it. It’ marvelous and not to be under estimated. To achieve potential, enthusiasm needs opportunities to help shape it. However just like the rains in Africa again this season, opportunities are sparse.
In much of Europe we're accustomed to having everything on tap. Need information? There's an app for it. You want groceries? They will be delivered to your door at a moments notice. There is work for the vast majority and most towns have a plethora of clubs, backed by national bodies funding competitions, national teams, coaching qualifications etc. In Zimbabwe the opportunities are not so easy to find, they have to be nurtured, crafted and usually funded which is where the work of individuals and groups like FairFight is so important.
If I'm talking about FairFight I should begin with Virginie Servant. She tells me 'Ginie' is her preference and that her mother and I are the only two people to call her Virginie. Well since I'm in such illustrious company why would I want to change.
I first met Virginie over 10 years ago at the University of Kent. I was a resident instructor there and she had just enrolled as an undergraduate, signing up to almost every student activity going, one of which was Karate and that's where this story begins. At the start of the year there are always a host of new faces, heads filled by tales of samurai, bushido and no small part Jackie Chan & James Bond. Each year, many would start and most would usually leave once they realized there were no shortcuts on this journey and that the road was paved with toil, sweat and occasionally tears. The typical academic student is used to learning from a book, with problems and answers neatly presented on a sterile page to consume, digest and regurgitate at a later date. You can read about karate, the internet is filled with words and images on it, but to learn you must do and do again and again and… well you get the idea. Where others eased off or fell by the wayside, Virginie put her head down, hit the gas and pressed ahead. Not in spite of the challenges, I suspect, but because of them.
University clubs are transient places where people arrive and leave with a rhythm predetermined by the academic calendar. After graduation, most venture to London seeking their fortune, many return to home towns across the UK and Europe. Virginie… well she was headed to Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand… you get the picture. Martial arts build lasting bonds immune to distance or borders and through those bonds we’re able to facilitate introductions and opportunities. I was able to point Virgine towards reputable instructors in Singapore who guided her towards others in Hong Kong. As we support one another, we create opportunities for our friends, our families, ourselves and people we've yet to meet. So often it's the smallest of graces which can have the biggest impact on peoples lives.
It feels like just a couple of years went by but the calendar insists it’s almost 10. Virginie and I are in touch again about her idea for FairFight and using martial arts to promote female empowerment amongst young girls of Africa. How far things have progressed since that first session at the Kent dojo where she was just one student in a crowd and now we're discussing how to create and empower whole communities on the other side of the globe.
Too often I see 'Smash & Grab' charity projects where they arrive with a fanfare, make a lot of noise and promise before vanishing over night once they've grabbed headlines and a feel good factor. FairFight has no intention of being one of those wanting to forge lasting relationships with local people. Historic friendships link together forming a chain of martial artists. At the end of this chain Virgine is introduced to Jindokai members in Zimbabwe and two more people enter this story. Gerald Muusha and Paul Danisa are regulars at the Old Hararians dojo. Gerald is a Zimbabwean Kata champion and Paul coaches the national team and both of their stories are worth more than the few lines this article can afford them. Paul has long sacrificed his own time and money not only to coach the national team but often finding the funds to get athletes to events they couldn’t otherwise contemplate in destinations from South Africa to Paris.
Gerald volunteered his time to work with FairFight during their first visit and has worked tirelessly to promote its values throughout. He makes the 6hr round trip to teach the girls at Nagle House school twice a week, at his own expense. This isn't a quick nip down the highway… it's usually a long, cramped, bumpy, noisy bus journey over potholes in the heat of the day. Gerald doesn’t complain about it, he doesn’t even mention it, it's what needs to be done and he gets on with it. When he lost his job, he kept on doing it at his own expense. When his family had a tragic loss he kept on doing it because in his words 'It's important to the girls'. Gerald was already a success story in his own right before FairFight arrived in Africa, before FairFight was even born, however with the support of FairFight more schools across Zimbabwe benefit from having him as a role model. FairFight created opportunities for him to teach the staff and students at one of Africa’s most prestigious schools but it is his hard work, commitment and integrity that closes the deal and earns the money to literally put food on the table for his family.
In its first year Gerald and FairFight forged a lasting relationship with the Nagle House school and had approx. 15 students training regularly. Following our most recent visit to showcase martial arts, its benefits and their national champion Gerald Muusha, a lot more interest was generated. Five schools have now established long term relationships with Gerald and around 150 children, parents, teachers and even nuns train regularly each week. So if you're wondering about the future of martial arts in Zimbabwe look no further than how far it's come in recent years. Look how far it's gone in the last year with all the opportunities people have created. Think about how small interactions ripple down the years to create these opportunities and ask yourself… If you take five minutes out of your day to help create an opportunity for them, how much further will they be able to go?
When I went to Africa I was 'time poor'. I had to forgo work, forgo family and wave goodbye to friends for close to a month but I came back all the richer for it. My only regret was why it took me so damned long to make the journey in the first place.
You might have already heard of Sister Sandra in one of our previous posts, the Nagle House sister who started to train with Sensei Gerald in January. Whilst in Zimbabwe, Ginie Servant had the opportunity to talk with her. We were able to learn more about her background, why she joined the ranks of FairFight and her point of view on society’s opinion regarding Martial Arts
Ginie: Could you start by telling us a bit more about yourself and your role here at Nagle House?
Sister Sandra: Okay! So, I am fully Zimbabwean. I come from a family of seven; three girls and four boys. I am the 6th child and the youngest girl. In 2006, when I completed my A-levels, I decided to join the religious life. I then completed an honors degree in geography which led to my arrival at Nagle House in 2013. I started off as a geography teacher, but recently I have been assigned to local divinity. As you know this is a catholic school and it is owned by the sisters. So they appoint one sister to oversee if the values are respected, and that’s what I am here for.
G: Have you heard of our project when we came here last year?
S: Yes I did! My first reaction to that was “waaaaaaah”. I would have loved to be part of that group, but back then I couldn’t spare a second to do that.
G: But this year you are joining us. How come?
S: I would identify three main reasons that led to this decision. First, during my A-levels, my brother started taking Karate classes. He would come back home and teach us things that he had just learnt. It really got me interested, but unfortunately I forgot about it after some time. Also, during my studies I used to stay until quite late at the university. Usually, the sisters would come and pick me up at the end of the day to go back home, at the convent, but there were two occasions where they could not make it. The first time I had to take the public transport, which did not stop in front of the convent. Scared, I asked the conductor if he could drop me off at home for an extra dollar or two. He refused, and as soon as he drove off I heard people whistling, so I ran. I felt that there were people following me, I then knew that my life was in danger. A few meters before the gate to the convent, a guy stopped with his car and invited me to come in. I did not trust him, so refused and kept on running. He kept on driving slowly and talking to me at the same time until we got the gate. I then told him that it was fine as I was home. He replied “Actually I am glad I followed you otherwise you wouldn’t have made it. Did you see those guys following you?”. After thanking him, I passed the gate and almost fainted. God sent an angel on my path.
The second incident, a similar thing happened but this time it was only one guy following me. I tried to confuse him by changing directions but he still caught up with me. I looked at him with a relaxed posture and told him “I will kill you”. I really don’t know how I got the courage to say that, but he ran off. On that day, my memory was going back to the basics of karate my brother taught me and I told myself that if I ever get the chance, I’d love to attend classes for self-defense. Just to know that I am safe when alone. The last reason that led me to karate is just my love for physical exercise. From time to time I like to go jogging, I just love it! I am really engaged and have too many things to do, but when I exercise I relax my mind, it’s the only spare time that I have. At night I can have trouble to fall asleep, but when I exercised I go to bed, no problem!
G: From what you told me, it seems like women in Zimbabwe have a lot of threats to their security.
S: Yes and there’s actually an increase in rape cases now and it’s scary. It’s very risky for anybody to go out at night now. If there are robbers and you have nothing to offer then your life is in danger, they will just rape you. Also there are cases with children and that’s very sad…
G: Considering this, how come there are so many parents opposed to girls learning karate? We had a few of our students that had to quit because of that.
S: Well, it’s unheard of that a sister will challenge her brother or a wife will challenge her husband. So for the society now to accept that girls do karate, it’s also saying that girls can challenge anybody because they are now stronger than what they are supposed to. That’s what parents in society struggle with. Also, they see karate just as fighting. They don’t take it as a skill or something relaxing that builds physical strength. For me, initially, it also took some time to get interested because I thought that when my brother started doing karate, he just wanted to beat us all up. Then I realized that he is the most peaceful person. He doesn’t start any fight, he’s not that kind of guy.
G: Do you have any advice on how to reach them and make them understand what you just said?
S: I suppose that these kind of activities are what you should start with. You might have started with 50 girls and end up with 10, because the other 40 dropped off, but the ones who stayed, they will help to raise the awareness in their communities. I am impressed that amongst your group one of the best is Tinashe. When you look at Tinashe, she is the most peaceful person that you can think of, always smiling. There is no seriousness that you will associate to fighting but she is the best in her group. Girls like Tinashe will have the power to make society understand. Also we recently started inviting parents to our activities. If they come to see how the girls are doing karate and experience it themselves, they might understand.
G: It really feels like we already brought a nice portion of the community together; the teachers, the girls and everybody wants to take part now.
S: I’ve also told my sisters and they are all interested in it! I remember the first day I told them, they were quite indifferent, but the first time I practiced in front of them, the interest was building up. Yesterday they were telling me “we might not find the time to come and join the class, but would you mind teaching us?”.
G: That’s amazing! My hope is that we will carry on, having more and more people to strengthen the community and maybe even build our own dojo. We need to reach the parents and I think you are a real role model for the girls.
S: I will try.