SUTUKOBA, Gambia – Many teenagers in an eastern Gambian town had their lives turned around when a karate champion opened the first school dedicated to instructing the martial art a few months ago.
Saikou Yaffa, the 2016 national karate champion originally from Sutukoba town located 350 kilometers (217 miles) east of the Gambian capital, founded the school with a 60-student capacity in August last year.
“Our main objective is to improve the students’ self-esteem and turn them into better people,” Yaffa told EFE.
Karate is a highly respected and popular martial art in Gambia, where the national karate federation continues to strengthen the name of the small West African country on an international scale.
However, the federation failed to decentralize its activities and ensure the martial art lovers could also practice the sport in rural areas, where almost 40 percent of the country’s two million inhabitants reside.
Those living in rural areas are often deprived of this opportunity because of the absence of nearby facilities, as well as the difficulty of traveling to Banjul, where almost all national competitions take place.
Yaffa’s idea to open a karate school came after he won the national championship in 2016, realizing that many other young people in his village could also make it if they had the chance to be trained.
Meanwhile, one of the school’s students said that he had been “a karate lover since I was a kid. I grew up watching Chinese movies and that inspired me a lot.”
“Without the Sutukoba Karate Club, it would be an impossible dream,” he added.
The karate school also organizes an annual competition in Sutukoba that is attended by hundreds to spectators, many of whom are student parents, who would like to learn about the martial skills the young athletes have acquired throughout the year.
On the eve of the Feb. 16 competition, Yaffa gathered all his students for a final rehearsal at the school, where they kicked, punched and performed defensive movements.
“Tomorrow is a big day. You must remember the tactics you learned and respect the rules,” Yaffa said to encourage the athletes, while reminding them the winner would win a prize and take a certificate.
Sutukoba mayor Kumuntung Jabai, who attended the competition, promised the club a land to build a field for training.
“I am delighted to see how far they have come. Their skills will not only be useful for self-defense, but also to protect our town in case of external attacks,” Jabai joked.
Yaffa said the road has not always been easy without sponsors, not all students have their own kimono as their families cannot afford it.
“The difficulties are numerous. We lack equipment and an adequate space to train. We do it in the school’s classrooms,” he added.