Karate began for Maison de la Gare six years ago. The very first classes were offered to talibé children who did not know the sport, or the language in which it was taught, or the thirteen year old Canadian boy teaching them. But, it looked fun, and it did not require shoes (which most did not have), and they got to wear clean white uniforms, and be the centre of attention. Dozens of talibés decided to give it a try.
Today karate is respected and adored at Maison de la Gare, a crown jewel among the programs offered for forced begging street children, modern day slaves known as talibés. Hundreds of children have donned uniforms, tried classes, become devoted students of martial arts, been registered in a local dojo where they are undifferentiated from regular, non-enslaved children. Many dozens have tested for and achieved higher belts, trained for and competed in local tournaments. For many talibé karateka karate has become a burning passion. For a few, they say karate has become to them life itself. Several of Maison de la Gare’s karateka have been invited to compete at regional, and even National tournaments! For all of them, life is better than it was before they discovered karate.
The karateka now understand the language of karate, taking their instructions in the Japanese universally understood in the karate world. Children, abused and exploited from a young age, have learned confidence, perseverance, and the discipline and humility that comes from strength, pride and self respect, rather than from fear and intimidation.
Maison de la Gare regularly hosts competitions, made possible by generous international donors, and run by the local Sor Karate dojo and the World Karate Federation. Many tournaments have been hosted over the past years. Tournaments are a chance for the karateka to truly shine. They prepare for weeks leading up to the big day, at the centre during morning karate classes and also at the dojo during evening classes. A few days before the competition Sensei gives a motivational speech to the competitors, giving them advice on how to focus and comport themselves during the event, as well as to congratulate them on their perseverance, dedication and accomplishments to date. The evening prior to the competition, mats are delivered by horse and cart, and set up by the older prospective competitors, usually in the dark after the other talibés have left the Maison de la Gare Center and returned to their daaras for the night. The first few times the mats were assembled on tournament day, all the pieces did not easily come together as planned. Since those early days, the karateka have learned to begin to assemble the mats from the center rather than from multiple outer edges at a time, and they have learned to plan ahead and complete the assembly the night before.
The morning of the tournament, the karate students began to arrive, nervous but excited. Determination, anxiety and anticipation all take their turns crossing across the faces of those about to compete. As first a trickle, then dozens, then hundreds of talibés begin to tumble in to the Center, they realize something special is about to happen. The competitors don their gi’s, take some time aside for a final review of a planned kata, or practice some final sparring drills. The Federation referees arrive, wearing suits and looking very official. The prize table is assembled. Prizes! Tournament sweaters and trophies donated by the Canadian black belt who started it all; t-shirts and medals donated by the Canadian dojos that sponsor the event; Extra prizes if extra donors can be found; and the Douvris Cup: A great trophy for the Grand Champion! Each tournament ends with a new name engraved on the side. This is Maison de la Gare’s Stanley Cup of karate.
Before long Sensei is standing by, and the competitors are lined up and ready to go. Maison de la Gare is packed with talibés, staff and visitors anxious for the competition to begin.
The first division is always kihon, for the younger group of students who train at the centre in the mornings. Over twenty competitors perform as requested. Or, what they thought was requested (the instructions are in Japanese after all). After each pair performs, a winner is chosen. Then the winners compete again. And again, until only the gold, silver, bronze and runner up remain. The process is repeated for kata. First time and veteran competitors alike seem surprised and delighted by the audience's wild applause. Then medals are awarded, and prizes for the winners. But it seemed that all of them felt like winners. There was glory enough to go around for each of them.
At 1:00pm the tournament is suspended so the invitees and referees can break for lunch. Some of the competitors are called back to their daaras, some go out to the streets to beg for lunch, and some remain to hang out at Maison de la Gare or train for the afternoon divisions. The tournament is scheduled to resume at 4:00pm.
At 4:30pm the group begins to assemble again. By 4:45 the older dojo talibés are dressed, lined up, and ready to compete. Occasionally the President of the WKF Senegalese Karate Federation will attend, a great honour! He sits at the head table beside Sensei Ignety Ba. The referees turn to salut him. Then they bow to the karateka. The boys nervously but proudly bow back to them. The afternoon battle for the Douvris Cup begins.
The afternoon begins with kata. Some are white belts, some have passed for yellow, but not yet been granted their belts (that happens later, after the competition), several orange belts, a few greens, and the occasional blue belt. For the tournament however, they are all equal, wearing blue or red. When a competitor performs a particularly spectacular kata the crowd burst into loud, sustained shouting and applause, astonished at his skill. The joy and pride experienced by the competitor is indescribable.
Finally, kumite. As the boys are paired off and don their protective gear, the anticipation in the air is palpable. What is it about competitive fighting that excites people this way? The referee starts the first pair. As they began to spar, the crowd grows louder. At first laughing as punches miss or are blocked, then clapping and cheering as hits are made and points called. As the fights progress, with the winners move on to fight the winners, and the skill levels displayed increases. The noise from the crowd grows ever louder with each successive pair, attracting even more spectators. Finally, the fight for gold. Glory, once more!
The medals are awarded, and the Douvris Cup winner gets revealed. All the competitors who place make sure their medals are visible to the judges, thinking to influence the decision. Then,,,"Et le Grand Champion de la Coupe Douvris est...!" The crown goes wild for the Champion in admiration. Glory, indeed!
Then, a ceremony to award the new belts earned the previous week. The President of the Federation awards the first yellow belt, a wonderful honour, and an important recognition and vote of confidence in the Maison de la Gare talibé karate initiative. The new belts are tied on each successful grader, in turn.
As the African sun sets on the end of a glorious tournament day, the glory will not soon be forgotten, for the talibés, competitors and guests alike. As for the medalists, it was truly a time to shine!
A morning class at Maison de la Gare
A class at Sor-Karate dojo
Figuring out the mats assembly
founder Robbie Hughes helps to prepare