"This year's WKC World Karate Championship was all about karate, but it was also about so much more than karate. It was about choosing to be positive in the face of tough challenges and how helping each other makes everyone feel better. I was in Orlando, Florida competing with Team Canada at the WKC Worlds. I am a second-degree black belt, and this was my fourth time competing at the Worlds for my country. I was also there to try and raise some money and spread awareness about the situation of the forced begging talibé street kids in Saint Louis, Senegal and how karate is changing their lives for the better.
A few years ago, when I was 13 years old, I visited Africa for the first time to volunteer at Maison de la Gare with my family. I wanted to help, to have something to offer the kids I would be meeting in Senegal. At home in Canada, I train and help teach karate. I thought, what better than to share what I love and what I am good at? I had to convince my family and Maison de la Gare that starting to teach karate to the talibé kids would be a good idea. They had enough imagination to decide to give it a chance.
So I got busy and gathered over 75 donated karate uniforms (gi's) from families and dojos in my home town, packed them up, and took them to Senegal. Once at Maison de la Gare, I just started doing karate and the kids were naturally interested. By the end of the first week, all the uniforms we brought were being worn in my overflowing daily classes by kids who wanted to learn karate. Imagine as a forced-begging, barefoot street kid how good it must feel being able to wear a clean white gi, and to be the centre of attention while you learn to take control in your life! Karate was such a success at Maison de la Gare that we decided to hire a local sensei to carry on giving classes after I had returned to Canada.
I have now been to Senegal three times to work with the boys of Maison de la Gare, register kids who show talent and dedication into an advanced program at the local dojo, train with them at the dojo, and coach my students to grade for higher belts. I am so proud of how far they have come, and of the dedication and passion many of them show for the sport we all love. I am looking forward to my next trip to Senegal to see my karate kids and to work with them again.
Now, at the World Championships, I decided to spread the word beyond my home city, to let people know how karate is so important for the kids at Maison de la Gare. I showed a video of the kids training in Africa, outside, under the sun in 40 degree temperatures, never complaining. In the pictures I showed, the karate kids were happy and determined, and looked like they were giving karate everything they had. All of us who were competing at the Worlds also give karate everything we have. But, we are never alone in pursuing our dreams. Our parents and our senseis support us constantly. Parents drive us to hundreds of training practices and dozens of tournaments each year. They cheer us up and convince us to carry on when we are in pain and feel like we have had enough. They do our stinky laundry and pay our coaching fees. They cheer for us at our grading ceremonies, congratulate us when we win, and console us when we do not. And our coaches help us push hard, dig deep to find our best selves, share in our glory and support us in our pain and losses.
The talibé karate kids have none of this support. They show up to karate classes after 6 to 10 hours of forced begging, having had very little to eat. No parents or coaches encourage them to persevere. They scrub their own gi's by hand and hang them to dry at Maison de la Gare. They feel the same pain and disappointments my teammates and I do, but have only themselves to look to for motivation and determination. When they achieve higher belts and win at tournaments, parents are never cheering from the sidelines.
And yet, they are as passionate about karate and as dedicated as I am. We can learn so much from these amazing kids. I certainly have. The Maison de la Gare karate kids have taught me that, no matter how tough life's challenges become, it is always possible to take back some control and choose to be happy. And, there is always room for doing what you love.
Sometimes we can help make a difference for other people who face challenges outside their control, and sometimes we can fight for a little more control in our own lives. And, when things happen outside our control, how we choose to react is always within our control - we can choose to be happy. We can do what we love."
I arrived back in Saint Louis a few days ago. One of my objectives for this visit is to review and reinforce the karate program at Maison de la Gare, with a particular focus on how to best support the young new talibe participants.
On my first night I checked in with the dojo Sor-Karate while the Maison de la Gare karate kids trained with their Sensei. The second night I visited the dojo again to see the younger group in action. Thursday nights is an opportunity for the younger kids to train at an earlier hour. This earlier than usual class was added a few months ago for the morning karate kids to have an opportunity to work on the mats and experience the more serious environment of the dojo. Many are not able to stay out quite as late as the older kids due to curfews at their daaras, or lack of permission from the marabouts who control their lives. I think this Thursday night class also helps these younger boys to really feel they are an important part of the karate program, with realistic hopes of advancing to higher belts and someday competing like the older boys. Indeed, several of them already have earned yellow belts. One is ready for orange. As we waited to enter the dojo, I gave donated red t-shirts, honouring giving and volunteerism to the boys. There were just enough to go around, and they were very happily received. Seven more boys arrived late for class, possibly having been held up by their marabouts or finishing up their forced begging quotas. Unfortunately, having the exact number of t-shirts was too good to be true after all. At the beginning of class, a group of the little ones grabbed traditional brooms and swept clean the mats in preparation for class. It seemed to be an honour they sought out. Then, another difficulty, four of the boys did not have their gis (traditional uniforms) and would not be able to train. I sadly thought of the dozen extra donated uniforms I brought with me, back at the hotel. I will ensure this does not happen again by giving the instructor five or so extra gis to carry with him to class. I consoled the little ones who watched from the sidelines with granola bars and some hand sanitizer, which satisfied them entirely as they dabbed it all over themselves as if it were a fine perfume.
I was so impressed with the discipline, determination and joy of karate these little begging street boys displayed during their two hour training. After class I was approached by one of the younger kids who wanted me to know how happy they were to have karate. My heart felt too big for words. When class was done, they ran off into the night, most of them barefoot, back to their lives of forced begging far from their families and home.
The next day I trained with the morning class, having promised them I would the night before. One or two did not believe I could be a black belt until they saw it for themselves in person. I loved practicing with the kids. One boy, Amadou, practiced his Heinan Nidan kata in preparation for an anticipated invitation to test for his orange belt. Grading here is a serious thing. I have attended three gradings and there seems to be about a 50% pass rate. Expectations are high, and thus so is the level of preparation.
In the afternoon I had a good meeting with the people responsible for maintaining the karate program to discuss how best to advance the karate program. Some of the older boys were feeling discouraged that it takes so long to advance to higher belts. However, it seems information and managing expectations are the key. When the students were told that it is usual for an increasing number of months to pass between invitations to grade as belt levels rise, and that it is a similar process at my own dojo, as well as at most around the world, they were satisfied, appreciative even. The sensei will establish an ongoing communication plan to keep the all the karate kids informed of expectations for advancement and of their individual progress toward higher belts. We also decided to add an extra day of morning training for the little ones at the centre, as often different children visit Maison de la Gare on different days, and we want to offer greater opportunity for more begging street kids to take advantage of the unique opportunity to learn karate and become part of something special. We decided to organize an "in house" tournament to be held at Maison de la Gare every four months, to demonstrate the progress of the karate kids, allowing them to shine in front of their peers, to prepare them for future competitive opportunities, and to raise awareness of the program and make karate more accessible to more kids. Finally, the supplementary meal plan will be advanced to include the Thursday night kids as well. Last year when I was here with my son, Robbie Hughes (the founder of the Maison de la Gare karate program), as we trained side by side with the boys we realized they were becoming faint and had to take regular breaks due to lack of nourishment. They had been expending more calories during karate that they likely consumed the entire day. To resolve this we established a system of providing tickets after training which the boys could redeem at a local restaurant for a meal.
At the end of the day I made my way to the dojo again, this time for training for the older kids. I arrived after training, in time to hear Sensei orienting the students about expectations for belt grading, realistic timelines, and what life opportunities can be provided by karate. He pointed out that although the years of training are long and not always easy, the effort can be rewarded in so many ways. He explained the sense of personal achievement and purpose offered by karate, a sense that most of these boys already feel. And he pointed out that in Senegal, a black belt can open doors for good work as a security guard, and that the skills of martial artists are universally accepted in most countries and regions and they would be accepted and comfortable in many dojos outside of this one. Sensei told the boys that the unique opportunity to do karate was thanks to Robbie Hughes, me, and generous donors from the other side of the world. Wait a minute...gratitude is not what I want these boys to feel. I explained that sponsorship such as they receive is something given to worthy candidates because they deserve it, they have earned it, and good people around the world feel lucky to have the chance to help other good people who deserve that help. The Sensei explained it is also important for the children to feel gratitude, in order to better appreciate their opportunity. I can accept that. And, karate is about respect and humility, after all. But, it feels odd to accept such gratitude when giving is such a reward in itself. I do know, however, that we surely are doing something good here.
Issa Ba was a talibé from the region of Kolda in the far south of Senegal, far from Saint Louis. He is also an apprentice mechanic, a talibé-in-transition member of Maison de la Gare, and a karate student.
Issa Ba has been in Saint Louis for years, begging and working to fill his daily quota for his marabout and studying the Coran a few hours a week, while spending as much time as he could at Maison de la Gare where he had friends and could rely on people to watch out for him. Now, as an older talibé transitioning away from forced begging, Issa Ba is taking full advantage of the opportunities Maison de la Gare has to offer. A few months ago Issa Ba was given a leadership role at the centre, with responsibility for general maintenance and assisting the younger talibés with hygiene. The talibé in transition program is designed to be a stepping stone between forced begging and independence for older talibés who could be freed from forced begging, but are not yet developed enough in education, skills or training to live successfully on their own.
While working daily at Maison de la Gare, Issa Ba also is a mechanic's apprentice. Upon learning of opportunities to acquire skills though Maison de la Gare's apprenticeship programs, Issa Ba approached a staff member and confided his dream of learning to be a mechanic. Now, Issa Ba is in training at a local repair shop. He arrives every morning at 9am, remaining until 3pm. Two days a weeks Issa Ba returns to his daara to study the Coran for about an hour. The days he does not have Coranic studies he remains at the shop longer, eager to put in the training hours that lead him closer to his goal. At 5pm his work at Maison de la Gare begins. Then, after work, karate at night.
As a student of karate at Maison de la Gare, Issa Ba trains each night at Sor-Karate dojo for several hours, developing his passion for martial arts. A few years ago he became curious about the morning karate classes at Maison de la Gare and soon joined in. Not too long ago, noting his particular interest and progress in karate, we registered Issa Ba at Sor-karate as a member. Donors have generously sponsored Issa Ba for membership at the dojo since then. Last year my son, Robbie Hughes, the founder of the Maison de la Gare karate program, was struck with Issa Ba's determination and perseverance as he helped him prepare for his yellow belt test. We both proudly participated in Issa Ba's ceremony after his successful grading for yellow (which only half the candidates passed). Issa Ba is ready for his orange belt test now.
Due to his skill and persevering attitude, Issa Ba was invited to join the Maison de la Gare-Sor karate competition team. International donations have made it possible for Issa Ba and his teammates to be outfitted with competition uniforms and equipment. And, when there are enough donations, Issa Ba and the Maison de la Gare-Sor karate team have the opportunity to travel to compete at a regional level.
Issa Ba applies himself to each of his pursuits with uncommon dedication, recognizing his opportunities for what they really are: Hope for the future. After years of forced begging, Maison de la Gare has led Issa Ba to come a long way in a short time. He is a leader, a role model for young talibés on their own and far from family, talibés without education or skills or any idea of how to obtain them. Issa Ba is apprenticing for work he loves. And, his development as a martial artist is gaining him not just self defence skills, confidence and respect, but also the stamina and discipline to help him through long days that are necessary on route to achieving his goals.
Keep Karate Kicking at Maison de la Gare
By Sonia LeRoy, international volunteer and partner
Souleymane led the warm up on the hot sand under the mid-day sub-Saharan African sun at Maison de la Gare. Several dozen white-belted karateka followed his movements, copying him to the best of their ability, listening for the correct moments to kiay. When Souleymane felt the children were properly prepared, a Sensei from a local dojo, Sor-karate took over to teach the class. This could be a scene in any North American martial arts school. But these eager, attentive students are talibe, forced begging boys of Senegal.
Even more astonishing, Souleymane too is a talibe. Only two and a half years ago Souleymane was a new white belt himself, learning his first forms from the Canadian founder of this unique karate school, then thirteen year old Robbie. When Robbie and his family first arrived at Maison de la Gare with scores of karate gi's (traditional karate uniforms) and the objective of spreading Robbie's passion for Karate to the talibe, Souleymane was fascinated from the first moment. The young Canadian black belt and the teenage talibe white belt were soon inseparable. Souleymane soaked up Robbie's lessons, and it was soon apparent he had adopted Robbie's passion as his own. Souleymane was one of the first small group of talibes Robbie introduced to Sor-Karate. He registered these first karate hopefuls as members of the dojo and I guaranteed their fees, confident in Robbie's promise that he would find sponsors upon our return to Canada.
Today, Souleymane is not only a helper with the Maison de la Gare karate program, he has earned his orange belt, and he is regularly competing as part of the tournament team for the Sor-karate dojo where nearly 30 of the most dedicated Maison de la Gare karateka are now registered. He warms up the class at the centre with confidence and skill, an example to the other students. Karate has helped transform this once shy boy into a leader.
During my most recent visit to Maison de la Gare with Robbie, Souleymane helped us make a list of the morning students attending lessons regularly at the centre that he felt were ready for the dojo, and who wanted to join. Many had been hopefully waiting since our previous visit for their chance to become a "dojo talibe".
As we gathered to walk to the dojo for the evening class, it became apparent the evening meal at Maison de la Gare would not be ready in time for the kids who needed to arrive at the dojo early to be registered, which was a 20 minute walk away. I could see the concern build as stomachs growled, then the resolution settle in that this chance at becoming a member of Sor-Karate could not be missed. So, off we went with Souleymane, leading 5 hungry talibes. Souleymane and Robbie helped get the new kids oriented at the dojo, then the white belts lined up nervously for registration. I guaranteed payment of their fees, knowing generous karate families back home at our own dojo would be willing to help.
As Robbie and I joined this class, practicing karate alongside our friends, we were struck by the equality in the room. In the dojo all go barefoot and there is no indication of who owns shoes and who does not. Talibes practiced along side kids from regular families, families who could afford these fees. The only thing separating the karateka was their skill level. No wonder kids who beg to survive, set apart from society, are willing to forgo a certain meal for this. As the evening class progressed we were surprised by the number of times the Sensei halted the class for rests. When we questioned the Sensei about the frequent breaks, he explained that the talibes get dizzy because they have not eaten, and they need to rest and re-gather their strength. Robbie and I were horrified that we had not previously identified this problem. Of course, the kids, who beg daily for their food, were expending more calories during their karate practice than they consume in an entire day. The one reliable daily meal provided by Maison de la Gare had to be missed in order to attend the evening dojo practice. And, none of these children were willing to trade karate for food. To them, the lightheadedness, growling bellies, and other side effects of malnutrition feel normal, not worth remarking on. But to Robbie and I this was a solvable problem, and one we may never have realized had we not had the opportunity to train alongside our friends.
After spending several days searching for a suitable location with a sympathetic proprietor, Robbie and I made arrangements for the roughly 30 dojo talibes to have a nutritious meal at a local restaurant two afternoons a week, several hours before class on the days of heaviest karate training. In this way, the meal would not disrupt the routine at Maison de la Gare, where food is offered after the French and math classes in order to encourage education- too late for the karateka who take off for the dojo immediately after their tutoring for the day. At Maison de la Gare if a meal is given to any it must be available to all, so a meal earlier in the day at the centre just for karateka is not an option if a peaceful sense of fairness among hungry children is to prevail.
Once again, Robbie was certain we could later find enough generosity back home to pay for two weekly meals for the dojo karate talibes. We sadly remarked on the necessity to limit the meals for the 30 children to just two a week, when they practice at the dojo up to six nights a week. After all, food is a basic human right, but it is expensive. We hope that through generous donations the number of meals can be raised to at least three a week. I am excited for my next visit to Senegal, to train alongside my talibe friends once more. I, who used to take basic nutrition for granted until that fateful day training at Sor-Karate, now am very conscious that food is fuel. So too is passion. Imagine the unlimited potential of these determined, hard working, inspiring martial artists now that they are being fed by both.
Rowan, an International Student Volunteer and Arouna. a Senegalese Talibe and student, worked together on preparation of this report of karate’s arrival at Maison de la Gare and among the talibé children.
"Well here I am in Senegal for the fourth time. And with my whole family, my little brother Robbie included. In preparing to volunteer with Maison de la Gare for the first time, Robbie decided he wanted to conduct his own special project, and suggested teaching karate to the talibé children. Robbie is a karate black belt, a member of the WKC Canadian Karate Team, and practices and teaches karate with passion. At the time of his idea to offer karate to the talibe children, Robbie could not possibly have known how successfully it would turn out.
Before leaving for Senegal, Robbie organized the collection of gi (traditional karate uniforms). Using the logo "Karate Can Kick Poverty", he pasted posters in the Ottawa, Canada dojos of his karate school, Douvris Martial Arts. The karate community responded with nearly one hundred gi, packing our entire baggage allowance to the limit. After the long journey to get our family and all the karate equipment to Saint Louis, the real work began.
Arouna, the perspective of a talibé:
Robbie’s idea was to find a local karate master, a sensei, to teach at Maison de la Gare’s center in the mornings. With Maison de la Gare administrator, Noël Coly’s help, Robbie invited several local senseis to teach classes, to audition. Robbie was looking for a sensei who had the same values and showed the same gentleness with the children as his karate master in Canada
The Douvris Student Creed
'My goal is to become the best person I can be. I will achieve this objective by disciplining my body and my mind, working to overcome obstacles that hinder my positive growth. I know this will take discipline. I am ready to make this commitment to myself in order to become the best person I can be and to share this progress with others.'
Robbie has played a very important role at Maison de la Gare in helping young talibés in Saint Louis to improve their lives. His first objective was to provide karate classes for talibé children in the center. This is not only a welcome sports activity for them, but it gives them confidence, discipline and self-defense skills. In educational terms, karate is a noble activity that encourages the development of the mind. And socially, it promotes mutual respect and fellowship among its practitioners.
After only four days working in Robbie’s classes, the children mastered the first karate stances. For many children, they had to learn the difference between left and right. But when they learned a new karate position, they never forget it. From the first day, Robbie earned great affection from the talibé children of Maison de la Gare.
Talibés lead a hard life, and they potentially face sexual abuse and other forms of street violence. Hopefully with new karate skills they will be better able to defend themselves and others. Talibés also grow up without parents in their lives. We often take for granted that our parents teach us to be respectful of others and ourselves. As much as I love these kids, they can be quite rude and undisciplined sometimes; with karate you don’t just learn fighting - you must learn respect. It is about disciplining your mind and body, and you can’t do one without the other.
This is a new program for Maison de la Gare but I can see so much potential for the street children who find shelter here as they discover karate. The sensei Robbie chose to lead karate classes ongoing for Maison de la Gare, Sensei Ignety Ba, is a coach for the WKF Senegalese karate team. Who knows what opportunities this could hold for the future!
Robbie identified some talibés who showed particular potential and passion to advance in karate. He enrolled them at Sensei Ba's dojo, Sor-Karate so in addition to learning karate at Maison de la Gare during the day they could train at night and advance more quickly, sure that he could find sponsors to pay for their memberships upon returning home to Canada.
Robbie, this young Canadian, has amazed us with his gentleness, his exemplary behavior as a person of strong values, and the openness of his big heart to share his skills and passion with children in extremely deprived circumstances. We thank Robbie’s dojo, Douvris Martial Arts, and everyone who is behind what Robbie did here, especially his mother Sonia who moved heaven and earth so that Robbie's vision could be fulfilled and karate could become one of the sports activities of Maison de la Gare.
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