REMEMBERING A WARRIOR GRANDMASTER:
JAMES BONAR NOBLE, SENSEI,
DECEASED August 11, 2018.
- This is a very personal tribute. It’ll describe a special relationship that I had with Sensei Noble during the years 1978-88.
- I write with the kind of clear conscience that he taught me about. Furthermore, I write with the have-no-fear sense that he instilled in me. I write with the selfless attitude that he demonstrated in working with me individually, and as part of the broader Karate collective in Lusaka. That said,
- I write neither doing anybody a favour, nor expecting any favours from anybody. I write out of the sense of devotion he showered me with. The kind of devotion I have for, and have striven to show to my own Karate students, has been an attempt at replicating Sensei Noble’s Karate-Do spirit.
- I have not had any direct connection, at any level, with Sensei Noble since I left Zambia, in June 1988.
- Situations and events that are necessarily going to be mentioned in this piece are done so to the best extent my memory serves me. Any inaccuracies arising I apologize for in advance. Names of people mentioned are also done so with but only the best of intentions, and respect. If any inaccuracies arise here, or any insinuated malice is detected, they shall not have been intentional on my part. For that, I apologize in advance as well.
In 1986-88, my relationship with my fellow senior students of Sensei Stephen Chan is at rock bottom. We were the core group of the recently formed All Zambia Seidokan Karate Kobudo Renmei, headquartered at the University of Zambia (UNZA) Karate Club, in Lusaka. The issues were around mutual misunderstandings vis-à-vis organizational and club leadership roles. They were also around stylistic interpretations, and expressions of our new Karate style, Seidokan.
My biggest sin, though, was to decide to unilaterally take on Zimbabwean, Jimmy Mavenge, late, under my tutelage. I had trained the latter, and subsequently graded him to Sho (1st) Dan Black Belt in Seidokan Zambia Karate. The goal had been that he would, upon his return to his country, take Karate to the people, de-racializing the sport in the country in the process.
I was, inwardly, a devastated man during that time. One day, after briefing my mother about my difficulties with my Seidokan Zambia colleagues, she says, “Why don’t you leave these people, Buti? You cannot fight them alone; there is no need to. You can always form your own club, can’t you? Do that, for your own peace of mind, man!”
“Sure, ‘Ma, forming a new club is not a problem. But, you see, taking them individually, these people aren’t too much trouble, really; they are all driven by group power. However, I still have one person I think I can rely on. That is Sensei Noble. If I have him on my side, then, all these people can go to hell. However, should he side with them, then, I’ll quit.”
Jimmy Mavenge’s rebellious Black Belt grading took place during the middle of the second half of 1987, if I recall. The Seidokan Zambia Black Belts I had invited to witness the event weren’t, of course, willing to be part of the grading panel. That included Sensei Noble. They decided to take up positions on the mezzanine in the UNZA Sports Hall. So, I carried on solo.
In superb fitness state, his former guerrilla mutinous spirit tuned high, Jimmy ran through his gradings’ required routines like a possessed man. He passed with flying colours. Awarding him his diploma, I took my personal black belt off me and passed it onto him.
From the mezzanine, Sensei Noble exploded, throwing his arms up in the air in exasperation, “Did you see that? Did you see what he has just done? Now, it means we cannot annul this grading!”
Before he would turn and walk away, Sensei Nobles’ eyes and mine met ever so briefly. However, I didn’t see the intensity of negative emotion I had expected. His facial expression radiated a sense of wonder that I had seen many times at training with him before. At the same time, it was like he was saying, “Sorry, Semmy, but you are on your own now!”
And, I thought to myself, “Well, this is it, I’ve lost my trusted ally! But I ain’t quitting before my job is done. I owe it to Jimmy to help him make a smooth transition into Zimbabwe. And, I have to use the 1987/ 88 academic year to revamp the UNZA Karate Club (UKC).”
The club had almost collapsed following the squabbles of the senior Black Belts. At some point, only Jimmy and I would turn up for training. When he left for Zimbabwe, a few weeks after the gradings, I was left alone.
I do not recall if I ever did get to have a formal position in the then Zambia Karate Federation (ZKF) Board of Directors cabal. But I got to coach the Zambia Midlands Karate Team in 1986-88. That meant that, although the Zambia Seidokan deliberately excluded me from certain events, Sensei Noble and I would often meet in connection with our ZKF work. The Sensei was the active patron of the ZKF, then. In the ZKF domain, our relationship was as amicable as ever.
I shall take the writer’s prerogative and postulate that I have sat 10 000 miles with Sensei Noble in his car; all in ZKA related training and administration matters in Lusaka, and between Lusaka and Kitwe, in the Copperbelt Province. That would also include a trip to Harare, together with the Zambia National Karate Team, in 1981.
Sensei-Student bonding does not take place on the training floor. In the dojo, the Sensei and his students just want to kill each other, whilst, at the same time, the former’s job is to constantly remind the latter that “life is good, people. Love it, preserve it!”
Although I had no idea of it at that time, my Sensei-Student bonding with Sensei Noble took place in those 10 000 miles I’ve sat with him in his car.
“You have upset many people, Semmy. Stephen Chan Sensei is not happy with you at all. You have infringed upon Sensei Chiba’s territory. No good, no good at all, Semmy!” Sensei Noble said to me during one of our trips. This was sometime in early 1988, about six months after the Jimmy Mavenge gradings scandal. By then, I had already been to Harare to check on his progress.
I responded, “I’m well aware of that by now, Sensei. That withstanding, the work that Jimmy has already done since he got back home is amazing. It’s one of those occurrences that, to be believed, they have to be witnessed personally. I’m, now, even more convinced that we did the right thing.”
I went on to explain how Jimmy had started to train children and youth at Harare’s Mbare township, where the not so fortunate people lived. He had also started to teach Karate at an orphanage run by a close friend of his. All for free. On the other hand, Sensei Chiba ran a private dojo in the city centre, catering for the paying middle class, predominantly white. Efforts to reach out and pay a courtesy call to the senior Japanese sensei had been futile.
“Alright, Semmy Sensei, I will give you that one. But the others don’t know what you have just told me. We have to do something about this, then.”
I’m not quite sure now, but I have a vague recollection that, not long after I had left Zambia for Norway, Sensei Noble did drive out to Harare to check on Jimmy. On the trip, he had taken along one of my absolute meanest detractors. The rest is history.
While giving him the report on Jimmy, what I did not tell Sensei Noble was that my work with the former was, in a large measure, influenced by his off-the-mat teachings.
Sometime in the first half of 1979, tensions at our former Trinity Karate Club had become extreme. A point had been reached where either Sensei Noble or the bunch of new young lions Sensei had to go. If I recall, it was after the last training session that he would lead at the club, that he offered to drive me home to Chelston. The latter is nearly 20km on the opposite part of the city, in relation to his residence at the Andrews Motel, about the same distance away from the mentioned reference point
“You see, Semmy, everybody wants to lead. But people don’t realize that leadership is something you grow into. I’m really not sure if those guys are ready to lead the club. However, they want it, so they can have it. My conscience is clear, I have taught them only the best of Karate available in the country, if not all of Africa. If they now feel they know more than I do, fine by me. They’ll soon find out that real Karate is not found in books. Books guide. They don’t teach. Lasting knowledge is learned man-to-man,” Sensei Noble said.
He continued, “People don’t know that I have nothing to prove. I have no need to want to prove anything. Do these guys want me to break their bones to prove that I am stronger than them? Do they want me to jump and fly like a teenager to prove that I am a good Karateka? Rubbish, if you ask me!”
The Sensei was in his forties at this time.
With his left hand, pointing at his head, and tapping on his left side of the chest, Sensei Noble went on, “The point is, Semmy, I have it all in here. I can’t fly, and I have no desire to, so you know. But I can teach you how to fly. By the way, as from this coming Sunday, and subsequent ones, until further notice, I’ll be teaching special classes to interested Brown Belts and above. That’ll be at the Evelyn Hone College. We start at 9 o’clock. Feel free to join us.”
“Oh, thank you, Sensei, I’ll be there. Of course!”
“I know that public transport is a problem on Sundays. So, don’t worry, I’ll come and pick you up. And, do, please tell your parents that I’ll bring you back home safe afterwards, okay?”
“Yes, Sensei, thank you! You are very kind.”
“A sensei is like a father, Semmy. When you are good, he’ll be good to you. Always remember that!”
One year later, Trinity Karate Club was in such leadership crisis that it had to close down.
Indeed, my work with Jimmy was a well thought out venture. I did it with love. I believed in the man and the cause he pursued, in that regard. My conscience was clear: I had no pecuniary, nor power interests; I was simply doing what my heart told me was right; I believed I had acquired sufficient knowledge to empower Jimmy to shake up the then racist Zimbabwean Karate establishment, and it worked; although I felt no need to prove it, I knew that I was strong and skilful enough to give anybody a good fight should the situation degenerate to that level. I would have been just too happy to break an enemy’s bone or two, actually. All this I had learnt from Sensei Noble’s way of Karate.
I do not recall how long the Sunday morning training sessions lasted, but it was many, many Sundays. True to his word, Sensei Noble would come and pick me up from, and take me back home. No complaints. No demands. Just training. I used to find it strange that this man, who also taught children at the Lusaka International School on Saturdays, did not take even a Sunday off in order to be with his own children and wife.
More than twenty years later, Martin Rice, a very special, Sensei Noble’s younger protégé from Ireland, is visiting us in Norway. Naturally, we begin to talk about our experiences with the legend. I mention the Sunday sessions, and the lengths to which our grand Sensei went to accommodate me.
“But, Simon, on those Sundays, after dropping you off at your home, he would, then, come home to me for another two hours of private lessons!”
Sensei Noble’s devotion to the Zambian Karate community that he raised single-handedly, at least in the Midlands, up until the 1980s, has made a lasting impression on me. That he even had the extra capacity to work with the select few of us in the manner that he did touches the softest of my emotions to this day.
There has been a time I asked Sensei about his level of engagement in Karate. He replied, “Well, Semmy, funny that you should ask. You know, once the spirit of Karate gets into you, it consumes you. But, each time you see the good things Karate does for people, and, by extension, society, you can’t stop it. You can’t live Karate half way. You can’t teach Karate halfway. People will come and go. But you have to be there all the time. One day, a student of your calibre, Semmy, walks into the dojo, and you, then, know that there is no way you can let this talent down. And, so, you just give and give. It’s such a joy, Semmy. My family understands that Karate is an important part of my life.”
Back in Zimbabwe on a normal civil servant’s salary, Jimmy no longer had the kind of cash he used to have whilst on his diplomatic tour of service in Lusaka. He couldn’t afford to pay for my visits to him. I visited him twice during the first half of 1988.
In his humorous way, Jimmy had a brilliant idea, “Shamwari Sensei, you mean after all these years together you haven’t learnt even just a bit of diplomacy from me? Soften yourself, be nice, go down on your knees and ask the Seidokan Zambia people to sponsor your trips here. We have already crossed the Zambezi, anyway, and Seidokan Zimbabwe is here to stay. So, they better work together with us now!”
I had already started to make my own money then, “No, no, no, Shamwari Sempai, Senseis sponsor themselves and their students, you see!”
Through working with Sensei Noble, I learned that a Sensei must be self-sufficient. A Sensei that depends on sponsorships and donations cannot do his work effectively.
On a drive from Kitwe to Lusaka, Sensei Noble is cruising at between 140-150km/ hr. A Mercedes Benz overtakes us like it was a bullet, and soon disappears from our sight up ahead. Perhaps 15 minutes later, we approach a road accident spot. The Merc had overturned. It had rolled several times, apparently. Totally wrecked.
“Yes, that’s what you get when you drive at a speed like that on roads like these, Semmy. Karate teaches us to always be aware of our surroundings in relation to the actions we wish to undertake. From that, we can calculate and predict likely outcomes. I knew that that car wouldn’t reach Lusaka, driving at that speed,” Sensei Noble spoke wryly as he drove past the accident scene. We would learn later that the driver of the Merc had died on the spot.
The grand Sensei has told me that when he first came to Zambia in the early 1950s, he had only the amount of pocket money a fresh university graduate from Scotland would have in those days. Not much. He landed somewhere in northern Zambia, somewhere around Lake Bangweulu, if I’m not mistaken. To pay for his hotel stay there, he offered to hunt game for the establishment. That’s how he started off in Zambia, a place he had come to with no intentions of living in permanently.
From that experience, he has said something like, “You see, Semmy, as you get older, and you start travelling the world, you’ll soon discover that there is more to you than who you think you are: your race, status, education, and the like. You’ll find that you get to places where none of that counts. So, in order to survive, you have to look for solutions in things that you never even knew about before. That’s how a Karate man’s mind works. Just like people fight differently, you can beat anybody with the same techniques, but adapting them to the kind of man attacking you. That’s how life is, the essence of you does not change, but your attitudes can, and have to, according to where you are, and the circumstances you find yourself in.”
I applied that Sensei Noble’s philosophy in Norway. Whilst in a place I was not supposed to be, for an act I was not supposed to commit, a colleague saw through me, “You Simon, I know your type. You are a survivor. Don’t tell me that you are a Massage Therapist because that’s a career path you had planned all along. I know you are good at what you do, but you chose to study Massage Therapy out of survival pragmatism needs, given your life circumstances in Norway. You are cut out for greater things, and I know you know that!”
Yes, Sir, I do. But until the greater things come my way, I’ll do what I gotta do to survive here and now, as per my Sensei Noble’s teachings.
Whilst in Harare with the 8-man Zambian National Karate Team, in 1981, I was singled out to join Sensei Noble as he joined two other Zimbabwean senior Black belts (whites) to tea at the home of a Japanese diplomat. I do not remember the name of the diplomat. Present were also the dreaded Sensei Chiba, and two other Japanese Judo Sensei. I was a not so sophisticated, little 20 year old schoolboy, then. But the grown up, senior Budo masters were real nice to me. I recall Sensei Chiba advising me to use whatever nature provides to train with, if I cannot go to the gym. “If you do not have a punch bag, there is always a tree to punch!” he said.
Driving back to our hotel, Sensei Noble said, “You were highly honoured today, Semmy. High-ranking Japanese don’t just invite any strangers into their homes.”
“Hoss, Sensei!” was all I could say.
An aspect that is not spoken much about is that, in his pioneering work of opening up possibilities and teaching black Zambians Karate from the late 1960s, Sensei Noble was, actually, treading on thin ice. That’s because, in my view, that was a time of numerous state coup d’états across the African tropics countries. White mercenaries, whom the media romanticised as Martial Arts experts, led many of these coups. “Mad Mike” Hoare is the first name that comes to mind here. A reliable source has disclosed to me that there were concerns that some of Sensei Noble’s Karate students could be enticed to join the lucrative (for those who don’t die!) mercenary bandwagon. So, relevant Zambian State Security organs closely watched him, and the whole lot of his prominent senior students.
I am sure that there are many others in the Zambian Karate fraternity who’d concur with me that Sensei James Bonar Noble gave us, individuals, and the collective much more than we could ever ask for. He, like other ordinary mortals, was not perfect. I, for one, am not in a position to cast any stones. Unfortunately, by the time the roses in my garden bloom in the spring, I’ll have relocated to another abode.
My heart felt condolences to the Noble family in Lusaka. The same applies to the Zambian Karate fraternity, if not the nation, for the coming to an end of a life of an illustrious service to the people through the Martial Arts. Many of Sensei Noble’s students and their own protégés continue to tread upon the selfless path of humility, giving, and devotion that he started. Their impact is felt across the cross-section of the Zambian society. Some are also forces to reckon with in various parts of the world.
Sensei James Bonar Noble may be gone, but he shall never be forgotten. His legacy is just too deeply engrained in the psyches of many of us. May his soul rest in eternal peace!
August 13, 2018