Finding Community Through Martial Arts

By Yi Yang
March 13, 2019

Every weekday at 6:30pm, Volunteer Yi packs her sports bag and heads five minutes down the road to her karate gym.

In a bustling city like Thies, the pace shifts as people from different walks of life join together, trading day clothes for karate GI’s, to begin another day’s training.

The local dojo is run by a lifelong karate master and supported by three other black-belt sensei’s (teachers). Influenced by the growing popularity of martial arts, he founded the club in 1991. When Yi arrived at site, a work partner introduced her to the club. Since then, she has been attending karate classes regularly.

Volunteer Yi at karate class

In line with Japanese tradition, students arrive as white belts. Through fastidious work, they gradually move up the ranks to yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, and finally black. Classes are taught using a mixture of French and Wolof, with technical terms taught in Japanese. The students vary in age and social class. Some come with backpacks straight from school, others after a long day at the office. However, once settled into their outfits, distinctions disappear. Students are grouped by their ability and criticized all the same for a weak punch, or misplaced foot.

Yi has been coming to the gym for a year and half; it’s one of her most treasured communities. When she arrives for training, she first greets the teachers and salutes each student. Between the warm-up stretches and physical condition, she trades stories with the students on the day’s events. Souleymane did well at his job interview in Dakar – a round of congratulations. Sarr’s injured hand got re-injured – a collective “massa” (Wolof for I’m sorry). Samba just found out he had to learn a new kata for his upcoming belt exam – a momentary pause followed by chuckles. Good luck, man!

Through the mundane, a community develops. When one student forgets a movement, others come in to provide guidance. When one competes in a tournament, the club shows up in matching jerseys to cheer her on. Day after day, the predictability of training provides a sort of relief – that no matter how crazy the day gets, training will go on. Between the punches and yells, the day’s stresses quickly evaporate.

Yi and her karate classmates

All over Senegal, karate gyms promote a similar sense of camaraderie. When Yi traveled to the northern border town of Richard Toll, she was instantly welcomed into the local club. Given the standardized language and movement, it is easy to transport lessons from one place to another. Every year in Dakar, the greater martial arts community puts on a “great night,” where each art showcases the best of their skills. As Yi visits other Volunteers at their sites, she has found plenty of gyms that shared a common enthusiasm for the sport.

In a culture where gender roles are clearly defined, sports blur the edges. In the gym, there is no men vs. women. Everyone fights! However, there is a long way to go to change certain attitudes on women’s place and ability in the gym. Like in all male dominated spaces, respect for women is not given but earned. Men often correct women unsolicited, and unneeded. These are tough obstacles, which Yi finds herself navigating. As a woman, she hopes to set a visible example that everyone – including women – can become great at the sport with consistent work and an open mind.

Soon, Yi will say goodbye to the club as she finishes her service. She is thankful for all the friendships and life lessons that came from the trainings, and hopes that the karate spirit will continue to grow throughout Senegal.