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KARATE KID FROM THABONG RETURNS

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 To mark my resumption of Karate teaching after a 2 ½ years’ semi-retirement, I take the liberty of reproducing an edited version of an interview I had with what are considered to be, in Karate terms, my Karate grandchildren in Zimbabwe. It is worth noting that my comeback is done in Welkom, the city of my birth in South Africa. This is where the adventure began …(Download public info/ demo, Wednesday, January 29, 2014, here, Pdf-fil: Karate Club demo invite)

BM: We are excited to be interviewing Simon Chilembo, Sensei, as a known pioneer of Seidokan back in the day. We hope to patch in some history that has been hazy, and we are grateful to people like Simon Sensei, who in many ways were responsible for linking Zimbabweans to Stephen Chan, Sensei, and responsible for shaping Jindokai as we know it today

1.BM. Sensei, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. We hope that we can go back with you in time. Please tell us how Sammy Chilembo was drawn to Martial Arts, and when this happened?
SC: I have always fought. First, as a smaller than average, sharp-tongued child protecting myself from others making my life difficult in various ways. Second, defending myself as a mobbing victim, given my sudden growth in body weight and size from near pubescence to early teens. Third, protecting my two siblings and myself against xenophobic and tribal inspired verbal and physical abuse arising from our father’s non-South African origin. There were also some direct responses to racial abuse and attacks in the then Apartheid South Africa.

©Simon Chilembo, 2014

I first started with Boxing from about age five. Christmas holidays 1971 in a street fight I’m warned that someone was about to throw a stone at me from behind. I turn around to find, a few meters away, the boy raising his right arm to effect the throw. Without thinking of it, I ran perhaps five steps and then flew on to the boy, kicking him with my right leg square in the face before he could throw the stone. Years later I’d understand that I had then performed something similar to a Tobi Yoko Geri. Afterwards, people kept asking me where I trained Judo. I didn’t know what they were talking about; so I kept saying it was secret! It was during my ensuing investigations about Judo that I, a few months later, discovered James Bond. An older guy told me that Bond was a Karate expert, and there and then I knew I wanted to train Karate so as to be cool like Agent 007.

2.BM.Your first formal Karate, was this under Seidokan? When did you meet Chan Sensei?

SC: Although I now know that that the guy hadn’t gone very far in his Karate training then, I like to acknowledge Lefty as having been the first-ever person to give me a formal Karate training session sometime in 1972. Lefty was one of the few older guys really nice to me in our township in Welkom, South Africa. He taught me Heisoku Dachi, Oyoi, Rei, and Hachi Dachi. Other than that I do not recall what exercises we did. But there sure was a lot of pain and sweat. And Lefty said one thing I never forget, “The most important thing in Karate is respect!” When I look back I think he could have meant “humility”.

I first met Chan Sensei in early 1981.

3.BM. How did Sedokan end up being such a force in Zambia, and later on Zimbabwe? Who introduced Seidokan in Zimbabwe?

SC: Regarding Zambia, my view is that at a very critical point in time we find at UNZA a spontaneous student convergence of the best and most promising Karateka in the country in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. Then, at about the same time enters the scene an unusual Chinese Sensei Chan from New Zealand.

©Simon Chilembo, 2014. Cream of Zambian Karate, 1983: UNZA

©Simon Chilembo, 2014. Cream of Zambian Karate, 1983: UNZA

Sensei Chan’s style, approach, and attitude are like nothing we had ever seen before; very generous, very patient and tolerant, open, and inclusive, as well as innovative. Sensei Chan subtly broke all rules of everything we thought we knew about fitness training, and all of the basics, kata, and kumite training. From this we emerged with a new style of fighting, which was more mobile with more circular and spinning techniques, including takedowns. At the same time we were all allowed to maintain and develop further our own individualities, such that it was difficult for opposing teams to find workable strategies against us who stood strong as a team, and yet performed so very differently individually. Respecting and developing further the uniqueness of the individual within the confines of certain specific techniques and methods has been a trait upheld since.

Jimmy Mavenge, second from left.

The late Jimmy Mavenge introduced Seidokan in Zimbabwe. Working then against very strong forces in Zambia, I facilitated this. When I heard that Zimbabwean Karate was represented in the World Championships 2012, I celebrated quietly, and thought, “You made it, Jimmy!” This is how it all started (excerpt from earlier correspondence to a friend):

[One Sunday morning early 1983, a BMW 5 series parks outside my home in Lusaka; and out comes the biggest and ugliest man I ever saw. Upon seeing me his face lit up brighter than the happiest baby face I ever saw… Although I had never met or heard of this man before, he spoke to me like we were like the oldest of friends (he had done some good research on me apparently). And, to be honest, Jimmy had enough charisma to kill the biggest elephant.

After introducing himself: Jimmy Mavenge, Green Belt holder, First Secretary at the Zim High Commission in Lusaka, on a 3 year tour of duty, he went on something like, “Zimbabwe Karate is polarized and racist. I want to change all that when I get back. Black people don’t go above Green Belt there; and I want to take Karate to the poorest of children in my country. You have to help me with this. I’m willing to pay you generously if you can give me a crash-training programme so I can return to Zimbabwe with a Black Belt. I am willing to work and train every day, I’ll do anything you want me to…!” I remember my jaws sagging, my eyes bulging, with me saying a low key “Wowww…ohhhh…. ok, let’s do it!” I told him though that given the magnitude of the ambition, we had to this properly by engaging the then Zambia Seidokan…]

Unfortunately we initially received neither understanding nor support from the others. Only because both Jimmy and I were both mad thickheads, we unilaterally went ahead with the project any way, getting a lot of battering along the way. Rest is history; speaks for itself.

4.BM. Taking you back in the day, who were some of the young men you trained with? You being a champion back in the day, who was your most difficult opponent?

©Simon Chilembo, 2014. I hit the bag as hard as I like. Nobody gets hurt.

©Simon Chilembo, 2014. I hit the bag as hard as I like. Nobody gets hurt.

©Simon Chilembo, 2014. With the legendary Super Fighter, Lemmy Ngambi, Lusaka, 1987/88

SC: When it came to kumite I was my own toughest opponent because I was just too strong and temperamental. With a history of disqualifications and injuries both inflicted upon my opponents, with me getting my own share, I do not have an impressive competition kumite record. Kata was, and still is my thing. I must mention though that, in my opinion, Lemmy Ngambi (late) was the most formidable fighter we had in Zambia during my time.

5.BM. We know Raymond Mbazima and Wycliffe Mushipe as some of the generation you might have started off with. How good were they back in the day? And, importantly, as Stephen has alluded to Wycliffe being the highest graded Jindokai African student, what was he like back in the day?
SC: Both Raymond and Wycliffe have always been good in their own ways. Raymond as the ever happy and smiling Karateka/ Sensei, but incredibly deep and thoughtful, poetic in talent and movement. Wycliffe ever cool and seemingly unassuming, but what speed, power, and focus when situation demands! Both are excellent teachers with solid academic and professional backgrounds.

Wycliffe and I first trained together (1978-81) at the former Trinity Karate Club, then run by Sensei Bonar Noble. The latter is, in my view, the original father of Zambian Karate. He was the first of the few Zambian Martial Arts experts of European origin who went out with the deliberate intent to teach Karate to indigenous Zambians. Mr Noble was also adept at Judo, and he taught a select group of us senior grades of the time, rudiments of Judo falls, throws, locks, as well as body movement and placement in space. I would think it safe to say that these Judo extra lessons lay the foundation for the subsequent Toide and Ju Jitsu we would learn in Seidokan, and now Jindokai.

6.BM. You have known Stephen Chan most probably longer than most of us. Describe the Man in as many words as you want.
SC: Despite him being a really big man of the world with a lot of power and influence, affecting the lives of many, many people in many different ways all over the globe on a daily basis, Stephen Chan has the unique ability to make me feel like I am the most important thing whenever I communicate with him in any way, on any subject matter. I get the feeling that Stephen Chan is one of the few good men around me who have an idea as to how my madness works. The man has seen me fall; he has helped me rise on my own. He has helped me to, on my own, hold my back straight, and hold my head high in victory.

It may sound strange, but it’s not Karate I have learnt from Stephen Chan. It is Diplomacy, as well as the concept and practice of loyalty I have learnt from the man. Karate training has only been a means to get there. If I couldn’t learn from him in a proper academic setting, I could as well get it on the training floor. Worked for me. Stephen was, therefore, the natural first recipient of my Chilembo Warrior Moves Waloba Award in 2011. The award is in memory of my father, and is awarded to men who, among other things, constantly inspire me to work to be a better person tomorrow than I was today.

7.B.M. The parting of ways between Stephen Chan and Roy Jerry Hobbs (you have also known both men for a long time), why Jindokai and not Dentokan?
SC: When the split came about I had already retired from international Karate for several years. Jindokai brought me back to life.

8.B.M. You have been overseas for a very long time. In which areas do you think African Karate has stayed in one place, improved and overtaken Karate in the 1st World?

SC: The extent to which African Karate has or not stagnated, improved or not improved, is, in my view, in relation to the general African condition. Africa will indeed improve and do well in certain areas, but will never surpass the so-called 1st World. This is more an attitudinal thing than about material endowment.

Africa has yet to learn how to break away from what I call the Dependency Syndrome. What I mean is, for example, learn and understand how things work, relate them to your own circumstances, innovate, create a new and unique better functional expression of the old, move on, win and rule.

I’ll postulate that Americans started doing things to Karate and other Martial Arts forms already in the 1960s, with the Europeans following close on about the same time, certainly from the early 1970s. I, with confidence, hereby state that Japan does not own modern Karate any more. Some of the very best Karate practitioners and brains are found in the Western world today.

Well, Africa is, as always, on the periphery thriving on handouts from often well-meaning 1st World patrons. Somebody in Durban, South Africa, said to me three years ago, “You need a Japanese under your wings to be somebody in Karate!” Load of bull, if you ask me. With my Chilembo Warrior Moves Karate Development, I will show that good Karate can be as African as can be.

There are crucial 1st World success pre-requisites though: Discipline, total commitment, focus, sacrifice, ethics, morals, long-term view, strategic and critical thinking, Health & Wellness, etc. How optimally can a Zimbabwean/ Zambian Karateka sustain Peak Performance capacity if he/ she pays little attention to strict dietary regimes of top competition training requirements established internationally? And, Jeeezus, what about those litres of Castle/ Mosi after training? Sometimes even before training?

9.B.M. Where do you see Jindokai, the International Organisation in 5years? 10years time?
SC: Difficult to put a time perspective. But speaking in general terms, like many other good organizations before it at any level, Jindokai will at its own pace develop to be strong, popular and dominant. Jindokai will produce the finest all-round Martial Artists, Sensei, Coaches, and administrators. When the organization reaches a certain level of maturity in time, it will then outgrow the founder, Stephen Chan in this case.

From personal experience, I know that an organization has reached the level of outgrowing the founder when, at worst, mutinies arise. There is no set pattern of events or members’ behaviour; but, often, the most senior and once most loyal will gang up with relatively newer and less experienced members to question the integrity of the founder/ leader. It’ll be about anything from leadership style/ power to knowledge and understanding of things (i.e. training concepts, history, relevance of current syllabus, adaptability to changing times and circumstances, etc.). I’ve always found this to be a most fascinating dynamic stage because this is where men/ women are made or broken; this is where organizations are rejuvenated or destroyed; this is where dictators mark themselves from progressive democratic players. I read many years ago somewhere that “Pioneers get hanged and burnt!” But then again, Phoenixes will always rise from the ashes.

10.B.M. You have had periods in your life where Karate has had to take a back seat, or sometimes completely not train. Does it get harder to get back to training? And at what point does one not completely think about the way if not training?

SC: There will always necessarily be times when one needs to take a break from Karate. It could be for a myriad of reasons; and it is the specific nature of the reasons that will often influence how hard or not a come back will be. I think health related reasons are ever the most challenging, whereas it is relatively easier to come back after a short/ long break as a result of need to give priority to studies, job, family, and other life’s practical considerations.

December 2011- June 2012 was the longest-ever break I took from any form of physical exercise training since I started to train seriously non-stop and goal-oriented at the age of twelve, 1972. For reasons I won’t go into, I had become extremely tired both mentally, spiritually, and physically much of year 2011. I felt I needed a break from my normal routines for a while so as to clear my head, re-asses my feelings about things, work my body in unfamiliar ways. I thought a personal six months leave of absence in South Africa would do me good; and it did. Working hands-on with the continuing construction of my new family home was a very uplifting and most educational trip. It was a thrill to work so very differently, and relate to people (builders, etc) as differently. Now I know that if I could start all over again I’d study Architecture.

It was very hard to take up training again because I had gained at least 15kg during the six months of inactivity. There were a lot of emotional issues I had to deal with in the process. And when you are 52 years old, the body does not restitute as fast as when you were 22 years old. A very painful ride indeed. This is when I appreciated the strong mental training I got from the formative years of my Karate playing.

11.B.M. Which of your students showed great potential and came through? And one that surprised you completely, and doing very well?
SC: When you are Sensei you learn very early that people come and go all the time. You enjoy them while they are here, you don’t miss them when they are gone. When they are gone, you hope though that they take with them happy memories, and that the people skills they’ll have learnt during their stints with you will help them make decent human beings of themselves out there in the real big world.

©Simon Chilembo, 2014

When Daniel Sønstevold stopped training after 3-4 great years of superior junior competition results in the Oslo/ Eastern Norway Karate circuit, I missed him dearly, though. There was something unique about his approach to training and competition for one of his age. This in spite of a health condition that would under normal circumstances knock out many a tough player, regardless of age.

Several years later, Daniel makes a come back. He is like 10 times bigger than the last time I had seen him, and he has just come back from a successful compulsory national youth military training/ service stint. In my state of positive shock, given what I know of his physical health challenges, I ask him how it was possible for him to do a complete military service training tour. “It’s all in the head, Sensei!” he says. Daniel is a shining Jindokai Super Star in my eyes. He crowned it all by getting a job with the Norwegian Martial Arts Federation. In 2013, Daniel Sønstevold became the third winner of the annual Chilembo Warrior Moves Waloba Award.

12.B.M. Which of your Teachers has had the greatest influence on you? And which of the teachers you trained under was the one you aspired to get to his level of proficiency one day, and why?

            SC: All the teachers I’ve had the privilege and honour to work with have each influenced me greatly in different ways. I am a synthesis of all of their respective works with me. Lefty, mentioned above, introduced the concept of humility to me. My first-ever Black Belt Sensei, Tom Banda, emphasized physical and mental power; he used to say, “If you are strong you can do anything!”

©Simon Chilembo, 2014. JB Noble, Sensei. Wycliffe Mushipi, Sensei, on my left.

After Tom Banda, Sensei Bonar Noble introduced the concept of “… use your head when you train. Do your kata with all of you!”
But the most valuable thing I got from Bonar Noble is the act of devotion to one’s students. The wild two, Sensei Anver Bey and Ajit Mangali, simply took what the others had taught me to even higher levels. Anver and I would eventually become close friends; he emphasised the importance of reading and research in order to know more about Karate and training in general. Sensei Ajit taught me the rawness and brutality of fitness training and kumite, as well Kata execution.Legends Today, Ajit and I are good friends, and I awarded him a Chilembo Warrior Moves Karate Development Go-Dan degree in year 2010.

In between, at our old Trinity Karate Club in Lusaka (Noble, Anver, Ajit), Sensei Eugene Moody would drop by in his then Jim Kelly look. He was the fastest, most powerful big kicker I ever saw. Eugene never taught me directly, but he once led a mean kumite session from which I knew I wanted to be as good a kicker as he was then.

And then came Stephen Chan, who refined the rebel in me, and made a diplomat out of wild I. I’m not sure if he’ll agree with me, but I learnt diplomatic diplomacy, as well as rebellious diplomacy from him. In my world, diplomatic diplomacy wins friends and allies in times of peace; rebellious diplomacy is crude, breaks all the rules, goes against the storm, hurts people, sacrifices and loses friends, only because of the conviction that the cause is good and will benefit all eventually. Thanks to rebellious diplomacy, Seidokan was introduced, developed, and sustained in Zambia initially, and later, in Zimbabwe. Though the resistance was of a more subtle and speculative nature in Norway, I had to apply brute rebellious diplomacy with a smile to win, maintain, and sustain the then Seidokan Norway space that is now proudly and independently occupied by Jindokai Norway.

13.B.M. Who is Simon Chilembo during those Unza years and before? And who is Simon Chilembo today? Are the two separate? Given the rewind button, would Simon Chilembo of today travel the same path?

            SC: The Simon Chilembo of today is older, and much wiser after some hard life conditioning alone in Europe. The Simon Chilembo of the UNZA days completes the story of today’s Simon Chilembo. We travel the paths we land upon, and do what we have to do from what we know, or do not know, about life and things there and then. To the extent that I have no regrets about the choices I’ve made, or not made, in my life so far, I would happily travel the same path again. Though I will occasionally complain about lost millions of dollars in business, betrayals, women, children, dogs, cats, etc., life has been good to me; my life is good.

14.B.M. Which Zambian would you pick to be the man who has dedicated his life to Karate, and done so selflessly over the years?

SC: I cannot answer for the years after 1988. But from the mid-1970s, perhaps earlier, to the time I left Zambia in 1988, it is my opinion that Sensei Bonar Noble was the lifeline of Zambian Karate. Always there, never complaining. Asking for nothing in return.

15.B.M How big is Jindokai in Norway and what role did you play in having this established in Norway

SC: As far as I know, Jindokai Norway comprises the two Karate clubs I started and led in Norway over the years. I had no role to play at all in the establishment of Jindokai in Norway. This is because my former students had already outgrown me when the process started. I have taught, and I teach, my students to be strong and independent. This is an example of Universal People Empowerment at work. Africans can also do it for Europeans in Europe, see?

16.B.M. How many languages do you speak fluently and what were those early years in Norway like?

SC: I speak 15 languages fluently, and communicate satisfactorily with another 5 or so.

It’s important to remember that I first came to Norway to study business only. It was never my original intention to stay in the country after my studies. My ultimate goal was further studies in either the UK or USA. After that I’d return to Africa with a mean PhD in Economics, land myself a big transnational job, make serious money, marry 10 wives, make hundred children, and live happily ever after.

For Karate, and later for love, I chose to stay in Norway any way. No Oxford/ Havard Economics PhD, no big job, no serious money, no wife, no children, but lived happily ever after with Karate. I stayed 5 years unemployed, as the authorities couldn’t quite make up their minds as to whether or not allow me to stay in Norway for Karate and love. The latter was a challenging emotional exercise; Karate worked and kept my head above water. Karate produced some of the best Karateka in the land; some of current Norwegian Youth Karate International Super Stars have gone through my hands. Love had to sink and drown eventually, and I swam further with Karate up until June 2012, when Karate outgrew me. I still live happily ever after.

17.B.M. We hear of stories of you and an Italian twin. Tell us about this relationship and who this individual is.

©Simon Chilembo, 2014. Showing off our trophies after Paolo won the Zambian Nationals in 1985. At Ridgeway Hotel, Lusaka.

SC: Paolo Piccinini was my first-ever serious mentee. Stephen Chan assigned me to help him, Paolo, attain a Sho Dan in 1983/4 or thereabouts. Paolo and I had earlier trained together at the old Trinity Karate Club in 1979/81 if I’m not mistaken. When I look back, I now understand that it is the work I did with Paolo, which made working with Jimmy Mavenge later on so easy and such fun. Actually the ambition was to get Paolo to beyond Sho Dan as quickly as possible before he’d return to Italy to do his military national service there. Paolo just worked and worked, both at the dojo and privately at his home every day. We’d have these long and hard training sessions at his home on Saturday and Sunday mornings. He learnt and perfected new senior kata faster than any one I know to this day. It goes without saying that a deep and close friendship developed from working this closely together. When he beat me to second place to take gold in the Zambian nationals in 1985, I knew I had done one hell of a good job with this guy. I had been Zambian kata champion 1981-84.

Paolo’s Karate prowess became recognized and acknowledged almost as soon as he began his national service duties in Italy in 1985/86. He has been teaching Karate and self-defence as part of his job since. One of the finest Karateka, and human beings I know.

18.B.M. Teaching and Training overseas, did you ever feel like you had to prove to people that you were as good as any Teacher?

SC: I have a very inflated ego. Such that when I know I’m good at something, I’m good at it. That’s it. Take me or leave me! So, I’m not into proving to people that I can do things that I already know I can do well. I just do what I have to do to the best of my abilities there and then, here and now. If it’s fun, I perform even better. The results of my work will speak for themselves and for me.

            But the question is a very important one to the extent that in the eyes of many ignorant people in Europe and elsewhere in the developed world, when we come to their world we are non-resourceful under-dogs. To this day, I from time to time still meet people who do not understand that I was already a university graduate, and a 3rd Dan Black Belt holder when I first came to Norway. No one could teach me anything new in Karate in Norway. That’s how I decided to form my own clubs. So, if I had anything to prove, it was that I was better than many teachers. But then again, let the results of my work speak. I know I’m good at what I do; it’s all that matters to me.

19.B.M. Which Teachers in Okinawa have you trained under? And how many times over the years have you trained there?
SC: I’ve never been to Okinawa. Initially never could afford to travel there. Later, felt no need to after all. There’s so much good Karate out in the wider world these days. If ever I visit Okinawa it will be more for historical and sentimental reasons than anything else. I’ve had the pleasure and honour of meeting Sensei Shian Toma, the former and late head of our earlier Seidokan affiliation in Okinawa, on two occasions in Salamanca, Spain.

20.B.M. Finally, Sensei, tell us what your plans in future are Karate wise. And is the form and sharpness still there? Or is there something that you will be working at to show us in March (2013) in Lusaka?
SC: I will come back to teaching Karate actively again soon. It’ll not be at the same level of engagement as before. Youngest Karate KidsI love working with the smallest children; that I’ll continue to do. I’ll, however, want to devote more time and energy to potential instructors. Although competition is fun and good for PR, I’ll let the instructor team I’ll groom to take care of that aspect of training.

            When I come to Lusaka in March (2013), you’ll find my form and sharpness still intact for a man my age and size. Those who’ll have seen me in action before will find me much more powerful in my moves. The latter is because of better understanding of body mechanics from Tai Chi, and some Yoga training. This may well be the knowledge I might want to share with all, then.

 21.B.M. Thanks, Sensei!

            SC: Pleasure.

Simon Chilembo
Welkom
South Africa
January 19, 2014
Telephone: +27 717454 115

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4 Comments

  1. […] get to my suburbian house refreshed and inspired. In the evening I go out to train and teach Karate. After Karate it’s Isidingo, Generations, and Muvhango. Then office work till way past midnight, […]

  2. Colin Gale says:

    As A student Of Sensei James Bonar Noble, I found this a great read, Sensei Noble also has a website dedicated to some of his works,
    http://jbnoblezambia.com/

  3. Thank you for your kind words, Colin! And special thanks for Sensei’s website link. Made my day! 🙂

  4. […] Regarding the main subject of the article, Stephen Chan, the tone the article has taken is as it emerged from my heart, without fear or favour. That, in line with how my mind has interpreted the execution of his Martial Arts teacher and Godfather role towards me over the years; in four countries, Zambia, UK, Norway, and South Africa. […]

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