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.