On learning a martial art in Bamako
First I should insist that I know next to nothing about martial arts. I began studying aikido, which means “the way of harmony,” only two years ago, and when I got to Bamako in August 2011 I wanted to continue learning it. The lessons I received, and the experience of receiving them, were revealing over the months that followed.
On the international sports scene, Mali is better known for its soccer, but it’s also home to a sizeable martial artists community. In poor countries, the martial arts have the attraction of not requiring expensive equipment or practice facilities; usually all you need is a simple uniform and an open space to train in. The most widely practiced martial arts in Bamako are karate and taekwondo. Daba Modibo Keita, the 2007 world heavyweight champion in taekwondo, may be Mali’s best hope for a medal at the 2012 Summer Games.
Aikido, which spread from Japan only after World War Two, is less commonly practiced in Mali. Nonetheless it’s well established: in 2006, the vice president of the Malian Aikido Federation estimated that over 3000 people practice aikido in Mali. The city of Bamako is home to at least a dozen different aikido dojos, or training centers. Some are dedicated martial arts facilities, with four walls and a roof. Others are makeshift outdoor spaces. Near the artisanat, I visited one dojo housed in a childcare center, where adults trained in the evening on a tarp stretched over the same sandy courtyard where toddlers played during the daytime. Some of these dojos are visible in the gallery below.
Back in the 1960s Bamako was briefly a node in aikido’s nascent global network. Three Soviet aid workers learned the art, then unknown in their homeland, at the Bamako Judo Club from one master Van Bai, a Frenchman of Vietnamese origin. (Malians sometimes recall his name as “Henri Wambaye”.) A few years later these Soviet students brought aikido from Mali to the USSR — illustrating the unpredictable pathways of the transnational diffusion of culture.
My first contact with aikido in Bamako was at “Camp Para,” a dojo and gym in the Djicoroni neighborhood, across the street from the entrance to the 33rd Parachute Regiment base. I found the Camp Para environment a lot like a Malian public school: a large number of students (80 or more, most sessions), learning mainly through repetitive drilling and rote memorization without much time for context or subtleties. They even took roll-call. After a strenuous warm-up, beginner students spent half the session practicing punches, blocks and footwork (the tenkan steps so vital in aikido). They spent the other half sitting around the perimeter of the mat, swatting mosquitoes and watching instructors put the more senior students through their paces, trying to make out the master’s commands over the din of the stereo from the adjoining gym. I doubted I could learn well in this setting, and the fact that Camp Para was a 15-minute cab ride from home would make getting there and back three times a week both costly and time-consuming.
So I started my own dojo, arranging with Camp Para’s head instructor to have some of his black belts come to my house instead. We set up shop in the empty one-car garage. The only requirement was a good soft floor covering to cushion falls, an essential part of aikido practice. Rubber floor mats like we use in the U.S. are expensive, so most Malian dojos improvise with tarps covering sand or some similar material. We spread a 12-cm layer of sawdust and rice chaff over the floor, moistening it slightly to make it cohere before nailing a blue polyurethane tarp tightly over a wooden frame around the edges. Three nights a week, one of the black belts would give instruction. I invited my friend Issou, a tailor who was at the same level as me (i.e., an absolute beginner), to train with me. Occasionally we were joined by other students from Camp Para seeking extra practice.
Issou and I got outfits. Luckily Bamako has an ample supply of second-hand martial arts uniforms, which come from Europe and North America along with many other varieties of yugu-yugu or used clothing. A martial arts outfit is known as a gi in Japanese, but Malians and other French-speakers call it a kimono. (I was always uncomfortable referring to my outfit as a kimono, which just seems like the last thing tough guys would wear: “Before I kick your ass, let me slip into my kimono.”)
We spent several weeks on basic movements which my U.S. training had largely bypassed. I found aikido practice in Bamako more physically rigorous than in my U.S. dojo: between practicing footwork, punches and blocks we always worked up a good sweat before even getting to the waza, or grappling techniques. I also became conscious of the swish-swish sound our feet made on the tarp, a sound I never heard when practicing on rubber mats back in the U.S. This sound became a valuable training aid: in aikido, one only picks one’s feet off the floor when getting thrown, and most foot movement entails sliding or shuffling steps. When we heard our feet swishing over the tarp we knew we were moving them correctly.
A couple of months after beginning my training, I attended the Malian Aikido Federation’s annual exposition at Bamako’s Omnisport complex. Aikido devotees came from each of the country’s eight regions, and taekwondo and kung fu were also represented. You can view a short video of this event below. I found the ukemi (vaults and falls), showcased between 0:29 and 0:49 in the video, stunning in its execution — like Evel Knievel stunts without the motorcycle. It made me wonder if anyone’s ever done ukemi over a flaming pit or a shark tank.
I never got very good at ukemi while in Bamako, but I learned plenty of aikido and made good friends in the process. Although the practice style was quite different from what I was used to (more regimented, more aggressive and physical, less reflective), I benefited from great instructors and dedicated training partners. In the roughly nine months of practice at my home dojo, we only had to cancel four classes, twice when I was out of town and twice in the wake of the March military coup. Nowadays I’m practicing in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but I look forward to returning to Bamako someday and resuming my training there.
Maybe I’ll even start another dojo of my own….