A morning ride for Ginie as she headed to meet with our instructors and catch up on their progress and plans. It was also a chance for her to meet with Uday, who manages AshaDiya Foundation in Varanasi and oversees the progress of the girls living in Disha House.
Here’s Ginie’s ride to the meeting:
And here’s the team:
Long time readers of the blog will remember the early morning yoga and chanting which begins on the ghat at 5am. After the floods, the ghat is no longer a hub of local industry. No boat men recruiting tourists. No snake charmer. No pots and trinkets for sale. And no homeless congregating to beg and look after each other. It is a desolate wreck. Clean up is underway but meanwhile Ginie will not be woken by the laughing yogis.
This is what the ghat looks like today
I took this in the same place one year ago.
Ginie is thrilled to catch up with the girls and they are enthusiastic to learn some new karate while she is here. Tonight she taught them some kata on the roof:
and she is astounded by how much they can now pick up. Their focus and technical skill is phenomenal.
I’m very much looking forward to see them on Thursday. For now, my packing is more theoretical than real but when I go I’ll be taking the gifts and love of so many supporters. A special mention to our resident blog artist, FairFighter Katie Alexander. She’ll be adding her drawings to the blog as it develops. Here is her ink of last night’s light and hope picture. A good place to press pause until tomorrow.
Welcome to all new readers and welcome back to regular followers of the FairFight India blog. Although the UK team do not leave until Wednesday, our intrepid FairFight chair, Dr Ginie Servant-Miklos is already in Varanasi after a … taxing journey.
Here she is queuing to leave Amsterdam:
Luckily her fortitude is well-established (I was going to say patience as well but after the 30 or so texts from various security/immigration/check-in lines between Holland, Dubai and Delhi I have revised my vocabulary). Anyway, she made it to Varanasi after a very long trek and is ready to assess the status of our work.
She’s started by assessing the team favourite: Pawan’s chocolate banana pancake; a long-running feature of this blog.
And here are the usual suspects : translation, coordination and logistic squad Dheer and Moyee with the king of Ashish cafe, our wonderful host Pawan.
Back here in the UK, packing is underway and our seminar superstar Alton Brown has been getting his typhoid, diphtheria and hepatitis vaccinations for the visit. Good job he’s tough!
As we have reported previously, Varanasi has been incredibly badly affected by the recent flooding. Although the river has now subsided, it has left devastation in its wake. Currently the only path to Disha looks like this:
I’m sure it’s passed all the relevant risk assessments though!
Ginie brought crochet hooks and wool for the Disha girls who were thrilled to see her and happy to get to work with a new skill.
As often happens, the electricity failed so we cannot show you how keenly they showed Ginie their karate skills but I will be updating on this as the blog goes on. Here, they lit a lantern together to celebrate the launch of this project visit. Thanks for joining us on this journey and we hope it brings you AshaDiya (the name of the foundation which runs Disha – Hope and Light) 🥋🙏 More tomorrow!
Countdown is now on for our most ambitious project visit yet. If you are a regular reader of the blog, feel free to skip the intro. For new readers, welcome! Here’s a summary of what Fairfight India is all about.
FairFight is a Dutch non-profit organisation dedicated to using martial arts to empower vulnerable young people in developing countries. To learn about our Zimbabwe project please check out our website http://www.fairfight.nl. This blog is concerned with our work in India and is written by Mary Stevens, project coordinator. I’m based in the UK; I am a martial arts instructor and I write children’s fiction for OUP.
After a fragile start, the project in Varanasi is growing rapidly and our main focus now is consolidating our links with the local community. Our core programme has been running for three years; it’s based in a safehouse on the banks of the Ganges. Here, 22 girls live under the protection of AshaDiya Foundation which provides them with an education, future opportunities as well as a loving home. These girls have been placed in Disha because their families cannot afford to educate them. Varanasi is a centre for sex and drugs trafficking; the outcomes for girls like ours can be very bleak indeed without the intervention and protection of other agencies.
The girls are aged between 6 and 17 and the difficulties they have experienced before coming to Disha are significant and, to most of us, unthinkable. Training in martial arts has given them physical and mental confidence, a sense of pride and value, and an ability to focus which has improved their educational prospects as well. We are so impressed with the amazing progress they have made, and the resilience they show in their approach to life.
Here are some recent shots of the students – attending karate seminars and some passing their green belt grading – an excellent achievement.
Back in the UK we have been working hard on the fundraising to follow through with our goals for the expansion in India. Here are some of my students taking part in a seminar led by Jamaican Olympic hopeful Alton Brown who will be joining us to share his skills with the Indian teaching team this October.
For more about Alton Brown please check the previous blog entry – an interview and mini-biography. Plenty more on him to come in future posts too!
I was also joined by the lovely Katie Alexander at a fundraiser kindly hosted by David Lloyd Oxford.
Katie’s work with the girls at Disha helped to inspire their flexibility training. You can see here that some girls have taken this very seriously indeed: here’s Ujala showing off her hard work 😲
The team for October will be made up as follows:
Ginie Servant-Miklos NL – chair of Fairfight. She is returning to the project having not seen the students since they were white belts. In addition to catching up with the team on the ground and meeting our new colleagues, she will be coordinating the formal structuring of FairFight as a local organisation and also delivering a workshop on female empowerment to students at Banaras Hindu University.
Sushma Sing NL – treasurer of FairFight. Sush is visiting the project for the first time and will be in charge of recording seminar footage and running the social media/outreach for the visit.
Nivedita Sarveswaran UK. Niv has visited the Zimbabwe project and will be joining us in India as project evaluation. As a diminutive black belt currently working on her PhD she’s also an ideal role model for our students in India.
Alton Brown UK/Jamaica – presenting a two day seminar on competition karate which will be a fantastic opportunity for our girls and all the local karate students connected to our partner club ISKFUP. This will be based in Sunbeam Academy where we have begun FairFight karate classes for the boys in the hostel. Our local instructors believe that in addition to teaching girls how to avoid being attacked, we must also teach young men not to harass and attack, an approach we wholeheartedly endorse.
Harald Herland (from Norway) will also be returning to continue recording his documentary about the lives of the Disha girls and their karate training.
I will be leading the team and coordinating our busy schedule with the help of the local team at ISKFUP and our Indian coordinators Dheer and Moyee. There may be more than this, especially given that India is often full of surprises. I am hoping to raise enough money to access more equipment for the students. Every single penny makes a big difference to us, so if you have been considering a donation please get involved!
As always – the blog will be updated daily with all the sights and sounds of the vibrant streets of Varanasi. Thank you for reading and I hope you will be coming on this journey with us. Project starts from 13th October!
An ambassador for karate, for the arts and for living with purpose: Alton Brown is taking time out of his Olympic preparations this year to help our special project in India. Here’s some insight into the man himself!
The transition to representing Jamaica in karate has been a roller coaster of a journey. That said, it has proved to be the most exciting, rewarding and meaningful journey I’ve ever been on. To think, karate would reconnect me with my roots in the Caribbean and take me all the way into the Gleaner offices in Kingston Jamaica, the Jamaican newspaper I used to run out to the shops to buy for my dad as a child. Alongside my new team mates, we’re on a mission to put Jamaica karate on the map, and provide opportunities for the next generation that just never existed before. That’s what gets me up in the morning.
What’s been the highlight of your competition career so far?
The highlight of my career has and always will be the first time I won the European championships as a junior athlete.
I’d broken my jaw not long before the event at national selections and was taking a huge risk competing. I’d had the worse pre-training camp ever in terms of my performance, was battered left right and centre by team mates, but the result was a dream come true.
Why have you become involved with Fairfight?
Who wouldn’t want to be involved in something like this? It’s a bit of an honour to have the opportunity to use my skills and my art form to support the ambition and development of others. Personally I’m all about supporting the development of young people, providing new opportunities to gain new insight, raise aspirations and have more control over their journeys. I’ve done this for the last 15 years through my career within arts education, as well as through my sport in the UK.
What are the benefits of karate, in your opinion? Instead of answering this question in the traditional way, I like to think of the opportunities and experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have as a result of karate. As a young boy aged 11, karate gave me a real sense of ownership over my destination, and how much I could achieve in life provided I put in the work. It also gave me an opportunity expand my horizons and get out of East London, to travel the world, meet new people from countries I’d never heard of (still happening) and has taught me resilience in a way that has supported success in every area of my life. Those are the benefits of karate.
Girls of Disha House, Varanasi, India. This safe house provides a home and education for impoverished and vulnerable children. They learn karate with FairFight to build their confidence and resilience.
What keeps you going when you want to stop?
Depending on which day you ask me this, you’re likely to get a different answer. It’s a combination of things but the most important parts are: My wife and two daughters, memories of my little brother Dwayne, absolutely my faith and the fact that I actually enjoy hitting and being hit – I know it sounds strange, but hey – it is what it is. I like to think I’m here for a reason, and that’s to do something incredibly positive and inspiring with the tools that I have.
Name 3 things you like to do to relax?
I love chilling out in coffee shops (just discovered a nice place on the 1st floor of the National Portrait Gallery), dreaming whilst awake again preferably in coffee shops and doing things that take me a step closer to achieving my dreams.
Apart from your family, what would you rescue first in a house fire?
Notebooks. I love a good notebook and very much addicted to buying new ones. I’d also grab a team Jamaica track top to remind me just how far we’ve come, wow!
What’s your favourite pizza topping?
I love a BBQ sauce base on a pizza and definitely swapping out the bitter green peppers for the sweet red ones.
What music do you listen to?
I love a bit of chill out/ easy listening. Currently well into Chronixx, but also love Ben Howard, Amos Lee and a lot of gospel. Although if the kids are around it doesn’t matter what music I like, it gets replaced with cartoon soundtracks. I have to say though, we love a good dance off in the kitchen at least 3 times per week. My eldest does a serious robot dance impression!
What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?
If I answered this now I’d offend too many people, so I’ll skip this for now. Wait for the autobiography. Lol!
What animal would you be?
Squirrel because they’re quick, crafty and my daughters are fascinated by chasing them.
What setbacks have you had to overcome in your life to get to where you are now?
The death of my father when I was 19 and the death of my 21 year old brother have by far been the toughest setbacks I’ve had to overcome in life. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’ve overcome them, but definitely found motivation, inspiration and meaning in them. I continue to do what I do to the best of my ability in tribute to them.
What’s one thing people should know about you that would surprise most of us?
I almost died in a fire aged 4, which I actually set myself trying to burn a flyon the sofa. At my church they call me the boy who walked through the fire. It should be the boy who set the fire and was lucky to get out!
How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?
Success for me is running my race, achieving great feats with the tools that I have and enabling others as a result of that work. In that regard I am absolutely successful, but I haven’t done it alone. There have been a lot of people who have helped me along the way. I’d consider these my role models in life/martial arts.
To name just a few, Joe Anderson & Terry Daly who made it possible for a young boy to train, travel and stay motivated despite the financial barriers, Wayne Otto whose input and mentorship took me to a whole new level, Raphael & Patricia from Veras Academy whose belief in what’s possible has had no limits, Natalie Williams who has consistently been a positive force since we were kids, William Thomas whose immense knowledge and experience have guided me greatly in recent years, and Nathaniel Peat who entertained a conversation about a dream, and has consistently given new life to that dream since. There are a few more, wait for the autobiography!
What are your ambitions after the Olympics?
Oh wow! That’s a tough one. Definitely dedicate much more time to my family, especially my wife and two children. They’ve made some serious sacrifices for me to continue within my sport – my turn to give back in the way I’d really like to. I’d also love to coach a national team and continue to develop young people and have real impact in supporting others to achieve their dreams. One step at a time.
Professor Stephen Chan is known to blog readers as the head of Jindokai – the international martial arts association which connected me with FairFight. A more- elegant Yoda, he tells me this is a long fight. Politely, he suggests I need more patience.
We are seeing real results now in Varanasi, but this visit has been about extending our work. Rather than fighting, we are planting seeds and it’s hard to leave before I can see which will grow.
This morning I had the great pleasure of visiting Banaras Hindu University. It is one of the most prestigious universities in India, and has a campus of 30,000 students. I didn’t write that incorrectly. 30,000 students.
The campus is beautiful. We met with Dr Uphadhyaya and Dr Mishra to discuss gender equality and the psychology of self defence. We hope we will be able to link our work with theirs at the Peace Centre at BHU with seminars over our next few visits.
Here you can see Charlie with Dr Manoj and Dheer, our local coordinator, as they look at a potential space for seminars.
The university is working to create a positive culture of gender equality on its campus.
And then…packing time. Remarkably easy, as most of our suitcase space is now empty.
Menka drew me a Varanasi peacock to take home.
And at BHU we saw the real thing roaming comfortably in the extensive grounds.
As it’s so hot, there are fewer monkeys raiding the city. Here’s one engaged in the usual parkour.
There’s no shortage of swag in Delhi.
And as we wait for our flight home, I am once again like the snowglobe – brain is swirling with plans and potential. As these plans develop, I’ll share them on the blog. For now, thank you all for following this visit and giving us your support. Please look at our fundraisers for the development of this work: http://www.gofundme.com/fairfightindia2019 and also our fund for the awesome Alton Brown whose Olympic journey will surely inspire our students when he visits Varanasi with us in October http://www.gofundme.com/teamalton
I sat to reflect on what we are doing, soaking up this familiar view. I look forward to sitting there again and reporting on results. Project blog March 2019 complete.
The quiet season descends over the city as the temperatures soar. Adding honey to my ginger tea has never been easier; it pours like water.
I went down to the ghat to take treats to my favourite cow. She was hanging out close to the river.
I’m used to seeing these steps buzzing with life. Now the sellers are few, the homeless have gravitated away and even the boatmen can’t be bothered to tout as I amble past.
The cows are having a beach holiday.
This golden galleon seemed both bizarre and majestic.
A puppy was scrounging for scraps along the water’s edge.
And these cows had scored some tasty garlands.
We love their faces.
I’m still not ever likely to jump into the river (sorry Professor Chan) but if there was ever a day to be tempted it was today.
Others just needed the shade…
…wherever they could make it.
We’re flying tomorrow so tonight was our last chance to visit the girls at Disha. Charlie brought her bo to work on wrist rolls with them. Here’s big Kajal:
Then we had our now-traditional dance party in the basement.
Fittingly, our farewells were hit by a power cut so I can spare you the tears and sad faces. We love these girls and seeing them grow up at Disha: supporting each other; laughing, playing, training…it’s a privilege. I feel like those of you who read the blog really travel here with me and you see it too.
Tomorrow I wind up with the university meeting before heading to the airport. So this is the penultimate blog of this project visit assuming I don’t melt as the temperatures continue to climb tomorrow! Varanasi out.
The pace of this visit was always going to be fast. In truth, I’m not sure if I’m being swept along with the momentum or if I’m managing to surf. Either way, we’re getting a lot done. As the heat begins to rise in the city even the pilgrims slow down. The middle of the day brings an unusual peace to he ghat.
It’s never too hot for Pawan’s chocolate pancake.
My first meeting of the day was with another school and I’m very hopeful we will soon be able to proceed with our plans to make a strong local partnership to develop educational martial arts here beyond Disha. There will be more about this when every ting is confirmed.
We travelled to Disha for training and planning. I was entranced by this family outing complete with ice creams.
The great progress we have seen at Disha can easily be seen in today’s pictures so I will hold off on commentary and let them speak for themselves.
Team kata: Kajal, Pooja and Ritu.
Ujala sidekicking Pankaj
Pooja’s shuto uke
Rishika’s ready stance:
Susmita working on her kicking:
And in guard stance:
Anita practising kata:
Menka with Anandi. Menka’s suit is still coated in pink powder from Holi (the festival of colours).
Kajal has nearly finished her bear – just the head to go!
We had a rickshaw invasion on the way home: two little boys hitched a ride until our driver hollered at them.
And on the ghat, peanuts are being roasted for the hungry pilgrims who visit the Ganges.
All is going well here despite the jet lag. One more day to get things done, then Friday will whisk us back again. Current mood: