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.
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