Karate is life. Life as it has the full potential to be, life at its best.
Recently, when preparing to test for my Nidan (second degree black belt) I was asked to reflect on what karate has meant to me.
I began to understand that the possibilities might be limitless when I first earned my black belt. The feeling I had upon wrapping my new belt around my waist was a surprise. It was not that I did not feel I deserved my belt, I did feel worthy of it. But, I had a strong sense that the years and the hours and the pain and the perseverance and the triumphs that got me to this point were an almost insignificant warm up to what could be ahead. My first degree black belt had provided me the key to unlock a door to a limitless future of learning and growing in martial arts and as a person.
As I tied my black belt for the first time, the tears in my eyes and the thrill in my heart were not for the pride of achievement of reaching a goal. Rather, they were in recognition of a newly realized truth. I was now looking through the open door to the rest of my life, and I was about to step through. I did not know where the path winding away on the other side of the door would lead, but I knew it would challenge me. I was committed to working for each step. I knew that by walking this path I would become more. And, I knew that this feeling and this limitless future filled with possibility is also waiting for each of the karate kids of Maison de la Gare.
As I bowed to my Sensei as a black belt for the first time, I felt all of the Maison de la Gare - Sor karate kids in Senegal bowing back to me. They would understand. Some of them already seem ready to step through the door, in earning a green belt, or even a yellow. Some of them felt it the first time they tied a white belt around their waist.
The extreme adversity these children have faced in their short lives seems to have handed them the key to recognize that they can use karate to unlock the power in themselves to take control in an out of control situation. It took me five years of karate training to figure out that pain and fear are messages from my body that I have the ability to set aside and that the greater the adversity I face, the more powerful and peaceful I have the potential to be, the more the master of my own destiny I can become. I watched the look on the face of Ahmadou as he won the championship at his first karate competition. From the tears in his fierce eyes, I knew he was looking through that door with new certainty and confidence in the possibilities for his own future. I watched Bouaro step through the door as he was granted his black belt in Senegal. The obstacles he had to overcome as a begging talibe to earn his belt dwarfing anything I had experienced or even could even begin imagine.
Karate is a gift. It offers the children of Maison de la Gare a key to life, just as it did for me. The paths we will follow are unknown. They will have many bends, valleys, and hills, even mountains, I expect. But, as I trust this is The Way for me, it will also surely be for so many of the Maison de la Gare -Sor Karate kids.
It is the middle of the night. Silence reigns. A the sheep bellows, he can be heard throughout the cartier. Still dark, the first call to prayer sings out over the city, echoed infinite times in every direction. Then, with the first crack of dawn, song birds begin their morning ritual. At first just a few voices, rising gradually to a sustained cacophony. The darkness softens, children's voices join the birds as talibés spill out the doors of their daaras to check the night's new garbage piles for something to eat or sell before they begin another day of forced begging. As the mourning doves join the choir, mothers bang open shutters, water is splashed onto the streets, morning cooking fires are lit, sputter and crackle. Saint Louis wakes to meet the day.
As the sun rises over the Senegal River, the waters rush underneath the Pont Faidhebe, the rhythmic thunder broken by the purr of pirogue motors heading to the sea and the slap of bare talibé feet hurrying across the pedestrian walk. More talibés splash at the shore, playing, looking for clams or fish, calling out victoriously when a catch is made. Further along the rue Principal, traffic begins to thicken, taxi honks, calls of greeting, swishes of horses tails, and the crack of horse whips multiply.
As children walk up the alley toward the Maison de la Gare Centre, the bustling sounds of the street recede and laughter and childish voices begin to fill the air, growing louder as the gate is approached. Out in the city talibés are rarely heard laughing, they have work to do, collecting money for their marabouts, or to feed themselves. Tears and harsh words are common. It is not a happy chore. But, at Maison de la Gare, laughter sounds natural, children can be children. If only for a brief respite.
Inside the centre a karate class is beginning. Japanese instructions are called and answered. A different kind of work, but this time it is a labour of love. A gift to themselves: Passion. Yoi. Ich. Ni. Sun. Japanese gives way to Wolof as an explanation is offered and understood. Os. Back to Japanese. After class, roll call. Mohamed. Os. Ahmadou. Os. Mamadou. Os. Seydou. Os. Pride and confidence ring out with every response. An amazing sound from a talibé.
At midday, the call to prayer rings out across the city again. The voices of the imams in each mosque separate, but linked, calling out to the faithful. As the call is answered, the bustle of the city diminishes perceptibly, one by one and in small groups, some slip into mosques, others roll out mats if they have them, and yet others kneel down in a quiet corner or on the sidewalk, more or less out of the way of those who do not pause to pray.
As the afternoon advances, a soccer game breaks out at Maison de la Gare. The laughter is now accompanied by happy shouts, calls for the ball, and triumphant declarations. As the winners are announced, screams of joy, singing, chants of the name of the talibé child who scored the winning point. The celebratory noises take a very long time to die down. Such joy only occurs for these children here, at moments such as this. Why not draw it out. These sounds will ring in their hearts for hours to come. Until the versement (begging quota) must be delivered and all joy dies.
As the teachers arrive at the Centre, sounds of play diminish, replaced by classroom words of learning. Scratches of chalk on chalkboards and tablets. Scraping of bench legs on floors. Quiet shuffling as a child shifts over to make room for a latecomer. All are welcome to join at any time. Each new entry is never a disruption. It is a triumph.
Another call to prayer. Another reminder, along with the hopeful faces of the children in class, that God is here.
Maison de la Gare's gate clangs shut for the night. The sound is now more quiet, somehow sadder, as night descends. Hundreds of little bare feet reluctantly walk away toward the road, kicking at the sand, leaving love behind until morning comes again and the Maison de la Gare gates open once more.
It is Thursday morning and he is one of the first to arrive at the centre. This early in the day most of the talibé boys are still out on the streets, begging for their daily quotas of money or a bite to eat for breakfast. But soon they will begin to trickle in to Maison de la Gare. So, Bouaro works fast, to sweep the sand of debris and pebbles that could hurt bare feet or trip up a martial artist focused on his kata.
As the sun rises higher in the West African sky children begin to tumble through the gates in ones and twos and threes. They greet Noel who tracks their attendance at the centre and assists Bouaro administer the karate program, and some of the boys entrust him with the money they have collected for their marabouts so far this day. Meanwhile, Bouaro sorts through the karate uniforms to determine if the gi's are in need of laundering yet, or if thy will last for another lesson. Talibés stop to greet Bouaro before skipping out onto the newly cleared sand to wrestle and play. Some stay to watch him, waiting for the signal that it is time to put on one of the white karate gi's and line up for class.
Bouaro was sent to Senegal from his home in Guinea Bissau to be a talibé at the age of seven when his mother died. His eight brothers and six sisters remained at home with his father. Bouaro did not see his family or home again until three just years ago. Now he is age 22. He misses his family very much. Although Bouaro cannot read it, he keeps his birth certificate with him, evidence of his full proper name, proof of a family far away. He prefers to be known as Bouaro.
Bouaro still lives in the daara. He says he will remain there as long as he must, until he is ready to move on. Despite having forgotten most of the Portuguese of his childhood, and hardly knowing his family anymore, Bouaro longs to some day return again to his home, this time for good.
Bouaro devotes his life to karate as much as he can. He discovered karate in Saint Louis even before it began to be offered at Maison de la Gare to talibés. He worked extra hard for years, raising enough money, not only to remit the required versement to his marabout, but also his monthly dojo membership fees so he could practice karate at night. Not long after karate began at Maison de la Gare, Bouro met young Canadian, Robbie Hughes, its founder, and became a recipient of the program sponsoring monthly dojo fees and became even more inspired to devote himself to karate. Before much longer, Bouaro's sensei sent him, as an advanced belt, to Maison de la Gare to assist with the morning classes. As a talibé himself, Bouaro could relate well to the boys, and they trusted him too. Under Bouaro's leadership, the Maison de la Gare karate program has continued to grow, regularly attracting new talibé students excited to unlock the mysteries of martial arts.
Recently Bouaro earned his black belt, an achievement celebrated by all of Maison de la Gare, as well as his sensei and dojo, and all the international supporters of the Maison de la Gare karate program.
Bouaro experiences a challenging language barrier with many people, as he does not speak French. But, when teaching and practicing karate, the universal language of karate brings down the communication wall. He hopes to have time to begin learning French soon in Maison de la Gare classes.
Since Bouaro has been given the responsibility for the karate program at Maison de la Gare as a talibé in transition, Bouro hopes to not only have the time to be able to begin learning French, he hopes to accelerate his study of the Quran with his marabout so that he will not have to remain at the daara too long. Bouaro is grateful to Maison de la Gare for giving him the opportunity to devote more of his time to karate training and sponsoring his participation in local, regional, and even national karate tournaments, moving him ever closer to his objective.
To Bouaro, karate is life. He has a dream, to progress and learn enough from his sensei and his experience with martial arts in Senegal to eventually merit returning home to Guinea Bissau to start his own dojo. Bouaro knows this road will be long. There is much to learn before he will be ready. But, it is a dream worth working and waiting for, to be able to make karate, the love of his life, part of his life forever.
On my most recent trip to visit Maison de la Gare, a very special activity took place at Maison de la Gare’s center, organized and funded in a very special way.
The Douvris Cup Classic was a karate tournament organized to show off the karate skills of the karateka of Maison de la Gare. The competitors were forced-begging talibé children who have been training in the Maison de la Gare karate program in their limited spare time away from begging, for between three years to as little as six months. The tournament was conceived and funded by the Douvris Karate Tournament Team in Ottawa, a group of Canadian youth who care about and support their forced-begging counterparts in Senegal.
The Douvris Karate Cup and The Douvris Young Guns Karate Cup were the grand champion prizes for the senior and junior divisions at the Tournament, provided by the Canadian youth. And, the Canadian dojo of the Douvris Tournament Team donated medals for all competitors. The karate kids of Maison de la Gare were invited to compete, to demonstrate their skills and passion for karate, and to vie for gold, silver and bronze medals. The junior and senior overall champions have their names engraved on the trophies, their glory permanently displayed.
The Douvris Young Guns Karate Cup was conceived in honor of the efforts of junior members of the Douvris Tournament Team to support the Maison de la Gare karate kids. Robbie Hughes first founded the Maison de la Gare karate program three and a half years ago. Since then, others in our Douvris dojo family have become involved, sponsoring kids to enroll at the dojo in Saint Louis, sponsoring tournaments, and contributing to the supplementary nutrition program.
For the past two years, two young Canadian karate students, Kaylie and Keagan Goosen, have saved their allowances all year long, saving enough money to sponsor at least one Maison de la Gare child to join the dojo each year. They were inspired by their teammate Robbie Hughes’ dedication to the Maison de la Gare karate kids. The story of the forced-begging street kids touched them, calling them to take action themselves. Recently, Kaylie requested donations to Maison de la Gare instead of birthday gifts for herself at her seventh birthday party. As a result, enough money was raised to help sponsor this special karate tournament for Maison de la Gare.
Word of the Douvris Cup Classic had reached the karateka of Maison de la Gare a few weeks in advance. The competitors had been working hard to prepare, staying late at the dojo each night, working on kata routines, and practicing sparring. The desire to win was strong. Glory and Fame were to be the rewards. And, the title of “Champion”. An almost impossible dream for forced-begging street children who have neither families, education, nor role models apart from Maison de la Gare and their karate senseis.
The day of the tournament, the excitement at the center was palpable. Competitors set aside their street clothes, donned their white karate gi and tied their belts. The kids gathered in small groups, warming up, stretching, or running through a kata one last time in search of perfection, or perhaps just in hopes of remembering the right moves. As the Douvris Cup trophies and medals were laid out, the tension in the air increased and all the kids of Maison de la Gare gathered around in admiration. The sanctioned referees, dressed respectfully in suits, gathered around the competition mat. Crowds of spectators, Maison de la Gare staff and hundreds of talibé children, gathered in anticipation.
As the center judge bowed to the competitors, it was time to begin. In pairs, the competitors donned blue belts or red. One by one, they presented their prepared katas. Then, the referees made their decisions with the wave of their flags. Blue, or red. On the faces of the two competitors, triumph, or despair. Then the winners of each pair competed again. As the competition advanced through the day, the crowd cheered on their favorites.
Finally, down to the last pairings, the tension was awesome. The prize was Grand Champion, the Douvris Cup, and Glory. The expression on the face of the winner said everything. And soon, even the face of the loser changed, breaking into a vast smile as it sunk in that he was the silver medalist, after all. Two trophies were awarded, one for younger kids and one for the older ones. And, medals were awarded all around, for sparring as well as kata, and for kihon for the younger competitors. The champions were carried around on the shoulders of their teammates and the onlookers as heroes. The revelry lasted well after the last light had faded. No one wanted this glorious day to end.
The tournament was evidence to the Maison de la Gare karateka of the peer support of Canadian karate students. Kids the same age, who share the same passions, helping each other. Hands reaching out across the ocean, the sharing of a special passion among children from two different worlds. Different, but the same.
Donations to the karate program through GlobalGiving can help to bring more karate tournaments to the talibés of Maison de la Gare. More opportunity to feel seen and supported by the world. And, more opportunity to shine and be celebrated as individuals, to become heroes and role models to other talibé children.
Every four months or so there is an opportunity for the karate kids of Maison de la Gare to test for higher belts. At my dojo in Canada, such an opportunity is known as Grading Day. At Maison de la Gare, it is known, simply, as "Passage".
Passage is a time of excitement and anxiety for the karateka of Maison de la Gare. The tests they are required to attempt for Passage are rigourous. Instructions are usually called out in Japanese. And, the pass rate is about 50%. But, very little can compare to the feeling of being awarded a new karate belt rank when one tests successfully, evidence of so much hard work, commitment, and personal growth. One step closer to black. So, the boys relish their opportunities for Passage.
My son, Robbie Hughes (the founder of the Maison de la Gare karate program) and I have had the opportunity to witness several Passages. The Passage candidates are invited to enter the dojo one at a time, while the others wait outside, unable to observe what transpires in the dojo. For yellow belt candidates testing for the first time, unaware of what to expect when their turn comes, the anxiety of waiting is evident in their expressions.
When his turn comes, the candidate enters the dojo, closes the door behind him and presents his testing fee. Maison de la Gare provides this fee for their karateka, thanks to generous donors. Sensei, sitting, faces the candidate. The candidate bows, yoi, then waits in hachiji dashi. Sensei calls out a series of instructions, in Japanese: soto-uki, oi-zuki. Three times forward, three times back, ichi, ni, san. Bow. Hachiji. Then, gedan-barai, maegeri, gyaku-zuki. Three times forward, three times back. Bow. Hachiji. It is so easy to misunderstand the instructions, or to mix them up in one's state of anxiety. Or, to forget to bow, when one is sweating and shaking, listening intently for the next instruction. Sensei gives the candidate a few chances. But, if the same mistake is repeated Passage comes to an end as Sensei points to the door. If Sensei is satisfied with the drills, he then calls out a kata. Here, Sensei allows for one error, maybe two, no more. Certainly do not forget to kiai. Bow. Then, another kata. Bow. Next, if kata was satisfactory, another candidate is invited in for kumite. Then the two perform kumite drills according to Sensei's instructions. Bow. The first candidate leaves, the kumite partner remains, to complete his test.
As the first candidate leaves the dojo, his fellows, waiting outside, gather round, lending support, offering condolences, or congratulations, depending on the demeanour of the candidate and how long the grading lasted. If a candidate had made it all the way through drills, kata and kumite with fewer than a few errors, his chances are good.
One week later, Sensei gathers the candidates together to let them know who was successful, with a superior performance, who failed, and who was average. Sensei often will allow the average candidates to have another try at Passage the following month, as they were close to satisfying the requirements and four months is a long time to wait for another shot.
Robbie and I have also participated in a triumphant grading ceremony at Maison de la Gare. Here all the successful candidates are presented with their new belts, and are honoured with an official certificate of achievement, as all the staff, volunteers, and children of Maison de la Gare gather round in admiration. For the karate kids of Maison de la Gare, this is usually the first time they have been in the spotlight for a positive reason, and certainly the first time they have been presented with a certificate engraved with their own name. It can be a heady moment.
This week, Sensei has informed me that twelve of Maison de la Gare's karate kids have achieved Passage with a superior result. Five students have earned yellow belts, six orange, and one green! Robbie and I have been training with many of these kids since they began karate in Robbie’s classes offered at Maison de la Gare. We could not be more proud of their perseverance in the face of unimaginable challenges and of their achievements. And, Maison de la Gare's lead instructor at the centre has earned his black belt! Boirot has been a very accomplished brown belt since I have known him, over three years. becoming a blackbelt in Senegal is a rigorous process, and has a financial cost which many cannot afford. Last year Boirot, who although older, is still tied to his marabout and daara, was welcomed under the umbrella of the Maison de la Gare karate program, that now covers his fees, generously funded by donors. Boirot has been a devoted leader of the Maison de la Gare karate kids for years, and has recently been hired as the on-site lead karate instructor at the Maison de la Gare Centre. There will be a Passage ceremony and karate demonstration at Maison de la Gare next month to celebrate these momentous achievements.
More great news, Sensei will offer another Passage opportunity in two months, during my next visit to volunteer with Maison de la Gare, for these candidates who earned an average test result, as well as a few others who he deemed were not quite ready for Passage this month, but were close. I look forward with great optimism to this Passage, and to celebrating our mutual love of karate as well as the indomitable spirit of Maison de la Gare's karate kids, together again.
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