In January 2017, Nivedita Sarveswaran travelled to Zimbabwe with Mark and Phillipa Caddy to take part in the third iteration of the FairFight project in Marondera. Today she reflects on some of the achievements and highlights of that trip.
Firstly, Niv spent some time at Nagle House, continuing the project we began there in 2015.
“We did four sessions at Nagle House. Whilst we were based in Harare for most of the first week, Mark and I took our first session at Nagle House on Wednesday 18th January. In the following week, I took the Monday session with Gerald as Mark was teaching at the Old Hararians, and then we were all teaching together again on the Wednesday and Friday. There were 15 students who train regularly with Gerald who came to almost every session.
The remaining 30+ new students came to at least 2 sessions”.
The team also spent some time visiting the Ruwa Community Dojo initative outside Harare, a community dojo project sponsored in part by Jindokai, whose progress you can follow on their Facebook page.
“We spent a couple of hours in the Ruwa area as Taneta Kagande and the Ruwa committee showed us the model and plans for the community centre-dojo. We had some practical suggestions (with regards to storage, changing rooms and offices) in order to make the most of the space for use as a dojo and more general community functions. Several of the Ruwa dojo members came to train at the Old Hararians Dojo and to help at Nagle House on the final day there.”
Like last year, the FairFight team also stopped at the Jindokai Old Hararians dojo for some kihon and kumite drills, and at Peterhouse for both children and adult classes. Since the team had collected a large amount of funds before the trip, they decided to spend a large part of those funds on projects that FairFight and its members have been supporting since the beginning:
Reflecting on her time in Zimbabwe, Niv recalls:
“Whilst I am pleased we were able to make a physical difference for each of the communities we met, it also meant so much to talk to people of all ages and their day to day experiences. In particular, I was grateful for the chance to watch some of the lessons at Nagle House and speak to the girls in more depth about their hopes and aspirations. Through Gerald, it was also lovely to see members from different clubs connecting and training with each other, expanding the network of friends.
Maintaining the momentum of interest in karate at Nagle House will be the key challenge and opportunity moving forward; some of the girls have been selected for squad training now that karate will be in the Olympics and would make great role models for the younger students to look up to. Perhaps have some of the older girls from Harare to demonstrate as well to get the girls interested in competing at local tournaments. You could also encourage socials or opportunities for conversation between the girls at the different clubs for how karate has helped them in other aspects of their life.”
Lijnie, Laurent, Wahing, Pearla and Madeleine finally all made it safe and sound to Varanasi! After an hour and a half of crazy taxi driving (most insane traffic any of us have ever seen), we arrived at our guest house around 1PM, local time. After dropping off our luggage and shortly exploring the apartment, we followed the owner of the house to his restaurant for lunch. He then showed us the surroundings of our guest house, such as where to find grocery shops. Once we made it back home, we proceeded to reaching out to our contacts in Varanasi: Devesh, our martial arts representative, and Shiva, the head of AshaDia.
They both agreed to come to our apartment early in the evening to say hi and discuss what the coming two weeks would consist of. It is the first time in India for the whole team, and although we have been following the India project closely for a while, it was great to finally be able to put faces to the names we have so eagerly heard about. Shiva has taken over Meera’s old position, so he was really interested in hearing FairFight’s story, our goal and why we do what we do. After a brief round of introduction, we began discussing the plan for the coming two weeks, and we can say that it is going to be incredibly busy, but we are all so excited to get started! Everybody was really involved throughout the meeting and we ended up discussing for two hours. I will be giving you a brief overview of what our plan consists off, but will attempt to post regular more in-depth updates throughout the project (depend a lot on how nice the internet decides to be with us...).
Saturday is the kite festival in Varanasi, and for the occasion Devesh very kindly invited us to celebrate with him and his family. Our second day in Varanasi will thus be spent truly immersed in the culture and we are beyond grateful for that. Furthermore, we really wanted to visit the girls at Disha and/or Asha as soon as possible. Fortunately, we were able to plan a visit to Asha this Sunday already! On Monday, we will leave for Sarnath in the morning to visit the temple before going to the school where the seminar will be held in order to give an idea of the space we have and how our team should organize their teaching. Finally we will attend one of Devesh’s classes before heading back to Varanasi.
Tuesday marks the beginning of five consecutive days of seminar, three in Varanasi and two in Gorakhpur, which means that we will spend the Sunday thereafter resting. Unfortunately, Wahing will be leaving us on that same day. We will spend the next week visiting alternatively Asha and Disha, and planning tours of Varanasi to get to know the holy city better. Once all of this will be done, it will be time to head back home.
I can say that the team is really incredible, and I could not wish to have any better people handling the project. Everybody is serious about what we are doing here but still manage to keep a very pleasant mood and atmosphere, especially thanks to Wahing’s out-of-nowhere-jokes that makes us all burst out laughing. However, we are missing our dear Floris that could not attend due to an injury to his knee, you are truly being missed buddy!
After a lovely dinner together, we all fell asleep quite early and quickly as none of us slept the previous night due to the overnight travels. Nonetheless, we are beyond excited to start giving classes and meeting all the rest of the people involved in this project! We will try to update you as often as possible, thank you so much for reading and supporting us. Do not hesitate to contact us via Facebook or email if you want to know more and/or have any questions, we would be happy to provide you with anything you need.
Until next time,
This January, for the third year running, FairFight is sending a small team to Zimbabwe to carry on our work with young girls, women and communities. It’s been a tough year for our Zimbabwe teachers and students: the rains are late again, causing long draughts that have ravaged crops. The on-going cash crisis means day-to-day business is difficult for many and financial difficulties have made it difficult for our students and teachers to focus on their training, but our collaborations with Nagle house and Peterhouse have been able to weather the storm. We managed to organise the first FairFight indoor tournament in October 2016 in which competitors from both schools as well as the Harare and Chitungwiza Kofukan dojos took part.
This year, FairFight veteran and Jindokai Shihan Mark Caddy is coordinating the project, and is joined by Cambridge PhD student Nivedita Sarveswaran. Together, they’ve raised around 2000 US dollars through online fundraising campaigns. 500 dollars from that went on the purchase of lightweight gis for the girls and body protectors for upcoming competitions.
Nivedita says about her passion for martial arts: "Having started training as a shy young girl in a class full of grown men, karate showed me that I could match my peers in strength and skill through hard work and perseverance – a lesson I carried off the mat as well. I continued training throughout university, discovering the athleticism and mental resilience essential to sports karate, as well as the fierceness and technical fluency required of more traditional combat. While on the surface these traits may seem unique to the world of martial arts, they strengthen the body and mind in ways that inevitably help inspire self-confidence to make one’s way in the world"
They will take the rest of the cash to Zimbabwe, some of which will go to fund FairFight operations for the coming year, while the rest will be used to support local initiatives such as the Ida Wekwako Old Age Home, the Musha Wevana Orphanage, and the Svosve village and Musha Mukadzi women’s empowerment project. These are all charities and organizations that FairFight has worked with before through the EUCSA study trip.
The team lands in Harare on the 14th of January, where they will spend the first week of their trip. Their plan includes a series of trainings with our old friends the Jindokai Old Harareans, where FairFight trained last year. FairFight will also visit the Ruwa community dojo, a project located just outside of Harare and funded partly through Jindokai donations. During that week, there will also be the opportunity to train at Peterhouse and Nagle House in Marondera. The second week will be spent in Marondera, where Gerald Muusha and the team will spend time following up on the progress of our Nagle House project, ending with a grading session for the girls there. As the team will be staying on Peterhouse premises, they hope to engage with the successful Peterhouse Girls and Boys karate programme set up by FairFight and Gerald Muusha last year. During their stay in Marondera, they will also plan for the year ahead and meet with community businesses and organizations with a view to building up community involvement in our project. Gerald has big plans for future FairFight tournaments, in which we want to include the whole community.
For Mark Caddy, the main objective of this trip is to strengthen the bonds and relationships that we set up before. Mark is particularly interested to discover the Ruwa dojo and see how the students at Nagle House are progressing under Gerald’s hard work.
It has been a long time since our latest blog entry and I would like to apologize for the lack of update regarding our activities in the past couple of months. This time of the year tends to get rather busy for our team due to our day jobs and/or studies. For example, Ginie needed to finish her PhD (for which she got an impressive Cum Laude - congrats!). However, this does not mean that we have remained idle all this time; quite the opposite actually! Coming January, we will be operating two projects in parallel for the first time. Both experienced and new members will be traveling to Zimbabwe and India in order to strengthen and further develop our projects there. An update on what we will be doing in Zimbabwe will be published soon, but in the meantime I will be focusing on our plans for India.
Floris, Ginie and Krissi first travelled to Varanasi last June, and in the two weeks they spent there, they managed to set up classes in Asha and Disha (two organizations devoted to helping orphans and underprivileged children) and established first contact with the Dragon Academy Karate Club and Uttar Pradesh Karate Federation (UPKF). Our FairFight representative in India, Devesh Verna, has been successful in keeping ongoing classes with the equipment we provided him thank to HE Space Foundation’s generous funding. We will be visiting the classes as many times as possible during our time there, but this is not the primary focus of this visit as the project is running smoothly. This January, our team composed of Floris, Pearla, Madeleine, Lijnie, Wahing and myself (Laurent), will reinforce ties with martial art associations in the Uttar-Pradesh region, explore similar projects we could work with on and/or collaborate with and gather media and interviews.
In order to reinforce our presence in the region, we have been invited by UPKF to offer two seminars during our stay there: one in Varanasi (17-19 January) and one in Gorakhpur (20-21 January). Our team members are still working on the exact plans for the seminars, but there will be a combination of the three main martial arts represented within FairFight: Tang Soo Do, Karate and Aikido. Our Aikido representatives, Floris (1st dan black belt) and Lijnie (4th dan black belt), both come from Aikido Dordrecht. Floris was part of the team that traveled to Varanasi in June, but it will be Lijnie’s first project for FairFight. We have been in contact with her several times in the past, and she has been indirectly involved in our projects and fundraisings, but we are honored to finally have her part of the team and her experience is going to be valuable for the success of our endeavors in India. Our Karate representative come from Jundokan France. Pearla (2nd dan black belt) has already worked with us during out last Zimbabwe project, and she wanted to take part in the fight for empowerment once more. Her mother, Madeleine (6th dan black belt) will be accompanying her and having somebody with such experience will truly bring the project to new heights. Finally, we are lucky to count a master in Tang Soo Do amongst our ranks; Wahing Lee (4th dan black belt). As you can see, we have a very capable team and everybody is extremely eager to board the plane and get this project started. The seminars will truly be an enriching experience for everybody, and I cannot wait to share the outcome with you.
Besides the seminars, we will be teaching classes in Asha and Disha and attending Devesh’s classes as many times as we can. Additionally, we would be interested in exploring the next chapter of our project in India, which means we will be using our free time to meet with associations in the region and potentially find similar projects to unite forces with. We will also open a discussion with the Uttar Pradesh Karate Federation to explore the possibility for the opening of a FairFight dojo in India. This would enable us to make the next step forward for our fight for empowerment in the region.
See you in January for new updates regarding our project. Thank you again for supporting us!
For the FairFight India project, we have teamed up with AshaDiya Foundation, a local NGO that looks after women in precarious situations, mostly girls from the slums or from migrant worker families. Ashadiya, partners of the French association Act & Help, runs two projects in Varanasi - Disha House, which provides room and board, as well as access to school, a psychologist and medical care to 25 girls; and Asha project, which provides care and education to 50 youngsters of both genders. To get a better idea of the work of AshaDiya and the potential of a collaboration with FairFight, we interviewed the foundation's local coordinator, Meera
Meera was born in Uttarakhand in North India 28 years ago but followed her family to France when she was four years old. She returned to India for two years when she was 8, and moved back to France to finish her schooling in 1998. She studied film studies, languages and anthropology in Paris, and speaks French, English and Hindi fluently. She returned to India as assistant coordinator for AshaDiya last year to experience India as an adult, and became the coordinator in May. Being born in India, she was not shocked or suprised by the crazy city life of Varanasi (or Banaras, as she calls it), but in her own words: "everything is amplified in Banaras".
AshaDiya started life as a project for housing sex workers near the railway station, but this proved to be fraught with difficulties. Instead, they began to focus on girls from shanty towns and migrant workers. The aim was simple: to give food, a house, clothes and some schooling to which these girls had otherwise no access. The girls at Ashadiya are 7 - 18 years old and most are from the lower casts of the India social hierarchy. When the migrant parents return to the country-side after their work is done, the girls tend to stay at the Disha house so they can carry on with their education and be protected from exploitation (such as being made to beg) and other dangers of living in slums. The girls usually stay until they are 18 years old. Meera's wish for the girls is that they become able to make their own choices in life. She doesn't think that formal schooling is enough to achieve this, especially in India's rigid schooling system. But she does believe in a process of conscience-building, of becoming aware in one's potential as a woman, a person, and a citizen in a social whole.
About the collaboration with FairFight
Meera first heard about FairFight from two Erasmus University College student who came to volunteer as English teachers in January. AshaDiya had already begun looking for martial arts classes for their girls and thought that FairFight's mission fitted perfectly. The previous coordinator, Anne-Laure, highly valued women's empowerment, and wanted the girls to understand their own body through sport, but martial arts also gave the added benefit of developing self-defense skills.
What Meera likes most about FairFight is the focus on empowerment, beyond just martial arts. Like us, AshaDiya does not believe in imposing empowerment from above, rather seeing empowerment as a growing process of becoming aware, and journey of unlocking potential. Meera tells us that she sees a lot of women's empowerment projects that are focused on economic empowerment here, but believes that this can simply throw women into the harsh reality of the capitalist system instead of truly empowering them. Seeing the impossibility of changing the entire World, Meera particularly likes the focus of FairFight that focuses all of its capabilities on one mission.
We’re finally here: tickets at the ready, a few days away from boarding our flights to Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, where we will be launching the FairFight India project in partnership with the Ashadiya Foundation (http://ashadiya.com/ashadiya-foundation.html) and Devesh Verma from the Dragon Martial Arts Academy of Varanasi. There are 65 students waiting for us in Varanasi: 25 girls at the Disha house and 40 students of both genders from the Asha project.
Preparations have been hectic over the past month: we have been actively working to raise the funds for the project. First, we organized a self-defense seminar at The Hague University of Applied Sciences to raise awareness as well as money. Second, we followed on from our “FairFight, What’s Next” event in April to pursue our collaboration with the HE Space Foundation, who will be underwriting the costs of our project in India for this year. Unlike in Zimbabwe, where the scarcity of equipment on the ground means we have to bring in equipment in out suitcases, we managed to source cheap equipment in India, meaning the only thing we’re bringing this time is ourselves and the FairFight T-shirts, in green this time to symbolize the fertile jungles of India.
Our thanks go especially to Meera Rana from the Ashadiya Foundation, who sorted out most of our logistical issues on the ground for us, and to Devesh, who ordered the gis so that they will be waiting for us when we arrive at Disha. Internet is a challenge in Varanasi, but we will do our best to keep you posted, send you pictures and stories from our project over the next two weeks.
In the meantime, here are some pre-trip thoughts from the India Team:
India was always on the cards from the minute we started FairFight. To be honest, I used to dream about working in India when I was only 6 years old. I think it came from my obsession with the children’s book “The Secret Garden”, I used to write stories about India in my notebooks. In recent years, with the recurring disturbing news reports of violence against women in India, my resolve to use Martial Arts as a tool for dialogue and empowerment there increased. Buoyed by the success of our project in Zimbabwe, I knew when Ashadiya reached out to us that this could be the opportunity we had been waiting for. That said, I realise that as an outsider I know so little about India, having only been to Bangalore once. So I am looking forward to humbly learning and listening, taking my cue from the girls and their community, letting their priorities guide us. We are here to build bridges together, not impose ideas from the outside. Hopefully we will carve as deep friendships there as the martial arts family we have in Zimbabwe now.
Four nights left before we leave for India. It does not feel real yet. Every big journey I have ever undertaken never felt real until you step into that car, plane or whatever it is that is taking you where you want to go. There is no doubt that the full reality will hit me once Ginie and me park our bums in the way too small airplane seats. Two weeks in Varanasi, India which we have worked for, prepared for and looked forward to. To be honest I can’t wait to see the groups and teachers we’ll be working with, and see my carefully constructed lesson plans be swept away by all kinds of unforeseen events. That is however something you get used to, as most teachers of any kind can tell you, and in my opinion help form some of the charm of standing in front of a class. But to cut this paragraph short, I feel great, the team is great and India going to be great!
India is going to be full of surprises. I believe that this will be a learning journey not only for the girls and boys we will empower. We as FairFight are going to broaden our knowledge on the human aspect and how to further empower those girls and boys by attracting supporters from the local community - considering that it is a patriarchically-led, traditional community.
I feel that the individuals we will approach are going to welcome this project wholeheartedly and will benefit especially when it comes to battling with their own selves to overcome their past experiences. Looking at this journey as a whole I think that dealing with the heat of the country during trainings will be the least of my concern. What I seek to achieve is to actively interact with the young people from Ashadiya and relieve them from their pain. Martial arts are not only about building a good physical condition but are also concerned with stress relief and the balancing of emotions. Ultimately, as I will work to meet FairFight's empowerment goal for the Ashadiya school, I am positive that I will be empowered by these girls and boys as well.
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.
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