In their own words (a retrospective project blog):

In the wake of our project visit I have asked for reflections from the team. I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I did – they repeatedly underline the purpose and value of what we are doing!

 

Devesh Verma and Pankaj Jain (FairFight local instructors)

This was powerful for us because it was the first time any WKF competitor had visited in the history of Uttar Pradesh, and so the first time we could train with someone at the peak of our sport .

We loved the warmup techniques, drills and so many swipes of Alton Brown. Our chief instructor, Sohan sir, was really impressed with the bean bags drills and has already introduced these in his own dojo.

We were happy to see the Disha girls mixing with the girls from more privileged backgrounds. As with last year’s FairFight seminar, the girls were really pleased to meet other girls learning karate and seemed delighted to catch up again. Our Disha girls dream is to be a WKF fighter like Alton Brown;  they really absorbed the learning from Alton with enthusiam.

We all felt really inspired by Alton Brown and believe it will help us improve our competitive skills for the future.

A special memory of the visit would be the signing of an official collaboration between ISFKUP (our association) and Fairfight. It meant a lot to have Ginie (chair of FairFight) visit the project after 3 years since she was part of the team which began it in 2016.

The future of Fairfight is very bright in Varanasi because empowering girls through martial arts is effective. Through martial arts we can create self confidence, respect, independence, self discipline and many other things in girls as well as cultivating the skills of self defence. ISKFUP is fully dedicated to the FairFight outreach.

Nivedita Sarveswaran (project evaluation)

Most powerful moment

Sitting in on discussions between our project co-ordinators and the school administrators at Sunbeam Bhagwanpur and Project Mala. To hear how enthusiastically the schools identified with our vision of female empowerment, and how valuable they considered future collaborative workshops for their students’ wellbeing, demonstrated a huge level of respect and trust in the Fairfight mission.

 

Future film directors? We like the girls to command the narrative

Given their experiences as martial artists and educators, Ginie and Mary were highly persuasive regarding the importance of youth development. I’d also like to particularly commend them for their consistent sensitivity to differences in economic and cultural context between Europe and the countries Fairfight operates in. It’s been truly inspirational working with them!

 

Most unexpected response you had

The girls loved looking through photos on our phones. They often asked about our family members and friends, and they were adorably delighted to see that I dressed up in a saree once in a while! They also got hugely excited seeing the photos we had taken of them training over the course of our visit – we were so used to sharing the photos through the daily blog posts, but only then did I remember the girls don’t have access to any online platforms. It was a nice reminder that social media still has some positive elements, allowing us to share these stories globally.

 

 

Most overwhelming moment

Definitely receiving the handmade thank you and happy Diwali cards from the Disha girls on our last day. I remember the first time I met the girls, they asked me if I was Indian or spoke Hindi – when I said sadly not, there was a small flicker of disappointment and I was worried we would struggle to connect. Fortunately, after spending a lot of quality time together during our daily visits and a full weekend of karate training seminars, we learnt a lot about each other. I can’t wait to see them flourish in each of their special ways. 

 

Funniest moment

This one has to go out to the evening the Fairfight teamplayed Jungle Speed! After a whirlwind few days acclimatising to the new project, and the first half of the weekend seminar out of the way, I was ready to pack it in for the night. I’m sure sensing my weakness, Alton decided this would be the best moment to introduce us to a card game that depended on quick reactions. Soon the delirium and competitiveness kicked in  a cutthroat but hilarious bonding exercise!

 

 

A special memory with any of our Disha girls

Id really been looking forward to interviewing the girls as part of the project evaluation; I wanted to take thisopportunity to learn more about their individual personalities, aspirations and how karate may have helped their personal growth. The most telling response came when I asked the girls how they’d felt about their past belt gradings and the future black belt grading  a daunting moment for any martial artist.I was so proud to hear that their few worries were outweighed by their excitement for the challenge! Developing this mindset early on is something many fellow martial artists credit for their successes on and off the mat, and I’m so happy to hear it has taken a hold of our girls too!

 

A takeaway from the seminar

The importance of testing your opponent early and to always keep looking for opportunities throughout the fight! It was so cool hearing about how athletes reach that level of consciousness but still manage to stay relaxed – something to aspire to! Also loved the beanbag exercises for reaction training…I’m so not planning our Jungle Speed rematch.

 

 

Why you’re missing the other team members

Another special moment at Ashish Café, we realised the trans-continental background of our group – India, France, Netherlands, Ireland, UK, Jamaica, Norway, Australia and Sri Lanka all represented. Despite the diversity of our life experiences, we shared a set of values taught through martial arts training that helped us both endure hard times and motivate our accomplishments. To have been surrounded by a group of people so full of strength and kindness is something I’ll cherish forever.

Alton Brown (Seminar leader, Jamaican Olympic hopeful, all-round awesome team player)

Funniest moment(s)

My funniest moment was Dheer getting well into the training session. He was so competitive with the beanbags.

Most powerful moment(s)

Speaking with the young people at Disha, the school, the editorial team/assembly, and absolutely the advanced seminar on day 1

Most unexpected response you had

A big thing for me was how hungry to learn all of the Disha girls were. That blew me away. They were so keen to get a turn and learn more. Usually you get that from 1 or 2 people but it is rare from such a large group.

Most overwhelming moment(s) you had

Seeing first hand how the girls live, sleeping arrangements etc. Training bare foot on the roof top etc. I found that overwhelming.

Breakfast at Disha

A special memory of any one or more of our girls

Our selfie moment on the roof taken by Harald, after our karate and dance session. That was pretty surreal and a great memory.

A takeaway from the seminar.

I just wish I had more time to share. It was great to see some of the girls really get to grips with certain drills and movement patterns and one thing I took away is how much potential there is to really impact their growth through the sport.

Alton teaching Pooja how to disguise her hook kick

And: why you’re missing the other team members both from India and elsewhere.

It’s just great being around people who are keen to make a positive impact on others. It’s rare to be surrounded by like minded folk so getting home was actually a bit depressing. Took me a couple of weeks to readjust.

Alton’s welcome party at the airport

Harald Herland (Director of Applaus films, Norway)

I am a guest on the team, but I feel like one of the gang! It was lovely to come back and be welcomed by everyone I met last year. Based on my visit in 2018, I have written a script and been able to work purposefully with what will be a great documentary about being a girl in India in general and about martial arts and FairFight in particular. There is only hard work and fundraising left! I arrived dizzy and a little confused to the hotel after 30 hours of traveling and the first one I see in the lobby is Alton, and I thought “hm – he looks familiar” and then I heard Mary laugh and I was deep inside a grizzly bear hug! Wonderful welcome. 

The first workout that night, on the roof of the Dishahouse with disco party afterwards – made a strong impression. All the girls have grown and everyone has developed very much as karate athletes. I am touched that they remember me from last year – “have you got the drone?” asked Menka!


 As last year, I have to think about how open and trusting the girls are and how confident they appear. 
One early morning I got to walk around the Dishahouse with camera from the girls waking up, and it was nice to see morning rituals – tooth brushing, breakfast, how they help each other to arrange their hair until it glows and not a single strand of hair is wrong. They really care for each other, I can see that.  
I followed them to school as Anjali waved them goodbye, and the principal at school told me that he can see that the girls train in karate because he said, “they walk in a confident way of their own”. 

What I remember as particularly touching was when Anju said that “I have always wanted to be interviewed, but no one has ever asked me”. So then I had to ask, and she happily said yes to an interview. And it turned out that she is reflected and has thought a lot about being a girl in a society where men decide and women have to stay in and do housework and look after children. 
Anju at the seminar
Of the fun experiences is probably the cowfie competition that it was impossible to win against Mary who has such a strong competition instinct that you almost have to give up before you get started. Elephant .. I didn’t see it coming! 
On a trip like this, we in the team are connected to each other. There are many impressions, there is a lot of hard work and we have time to talk to each other in a completely different way than what we do at home. Mary and I became very good friends last year. Niv I have been so lucky to get to know in Norway, and she is nice to be with – with her always-good mood and serious approach to the tasks. Alton has to be the nicest and fastest man I’ve met in a very long time. And Ginie, who was really nice to meet, makes me realize that FairFight is built on a solid foundation of strategy and hard work. I got a lot of good help from Dheer during the week and it was nice to see Moyee again. I really didn’t want to go home from Varanasi, and I really hope I can join Team FairFight to Varanasi again!

Juliett Guiot (Act and Help/AshaDiya Foundation)

At the beginning I did not see the girls interested in karate. But as I thought sport is good : « un esprit sain dans un corps sain ». Maybe some girls would continue and like it .  Who knows ?

3,5 years later, it is just phenomenal. They are all interested in karate. Some of them have green belts, others are orange level.

Some of our girls had a very difficult start in life. When I first met them (3,5 years ago) they still had strong stigmas. Now they have blossomed and karate has helped them a lot.

Karate, and the FairFight crew who follow them very closely. They also offered  them the possibility to meet and work with amazing people : last year with Guy Shpak, and the this year the cherry on the cake: smiling 2X world champion Alton Brown.

I feel very close to Mary Stevens because she is a mother in her private life as I am but I think she also has 20 daughters at the other end of the world.

I am also very thankful to Ginie who never gave up with all the discomfiture we had to face.

Ginie Servant-Miklos (chair of FairFight)
When people ask me “how was India?”, My response is usually: “intense”. I can’t find any other conveniently concise phrase that can encompass the insane intertwining of people, moments and ideas that occurred over those two weeks. For me this impact visit also had a surreal quality of familiarity – though I only spent 2 weeks in Varanasi in 2016 to set up the project, there was definitely the sense that I’d been there ever since, everything and everyone was so familiar, probably in large part thanks to Mary’s epic blogging skills over the years.
What struck me about our team is just how it fitted together. Everyone was there for a purpose, and everyone delivered in spades with professionalism, the required flexibility (given… Well… Varanasi!), and still took the time to make everyone else on the team feel validated. That’s really a rare thing. Put 5 superheroes in a team and the chances are they’ll be ego-battling it till the cows come home (which, in Varanasi, is every night, I guess?), but that’s not even remotely what happened here. The team was so good that unfortunately, I will now judge all other teams, anywhere, against that standard!
I have to say one key illustrative moment was on day 2 of the seminar, when we’re all revved up and ready to go and suddenly we get dragged out for a photo opp. And we’re all kind of sweaty, sitting in this air conditioned room with muzak playing in the background, and I’m quickly (and perhaps not as quietly as I would have liked) losing it inside because I can see how flammable a situation this could become. Literally any other martial arts sensei I know, let alone a 2x world champion, would have walked out there and then, and that would have done incalculable damage to our relationships in Varanasi, and our ability to bring more Shihans to the project. But Alton just went with the flow, walked up that stage, delivered a speech like he’d prepared it for weeks, and then walked back to the seminar and just picked up where he left. It takes a seriously special man and martial artist to look at that situation, evaluate it for what it is, in the context of Varanasi, put all ego and expectations aside, and just roll with it.
Alton giving an impromptu inspirational speech to 300 students
This trip was interlaced with human moments, from the moment Menka came running up to me on the first day, grabbed my hands and asked “Didi, do you remember my name?” (And the smile that ensued when she saw that I did), to the tearful good byes, it feels like we’ve plugged in parts of ourselves into Varanasi, which is possibly why the return home is so much more difficult than for a holiday.
A final word on my team mates, I raise a glass to Mary, her superhero qualities and very English humour, to Alton, for being such a dude, and destroying us at jungle speed, to Harald, for his cinematographic dedication and the very Scandinavian jokes thrown casually from the back of rickshaws, to Niv, for providing exactly the support we need, exactly when we need it, and making me feel better about my sweet tooth.
Onwards, upwards!

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4:13 2020 … bright horizons

Niv has a reputation for eating several times her body weight so it was no surprise when she opted for double muffins at our final coffee and cake ceremony.

We were delighted to be joined by Juliett and especially enjoyed hearing about her unconventional wedding.

Disgusted to report that, despite her happy anticipation, Niv failed to finish her second cake. Her magic powers are fading, I think.

We said a warm goodbye to Pawan and his family. Ashish feels like the home of FairFight India – so much strategy and so many chocolate banana pancakes over the years!

Work has now begun to clear the flood debris from the ghat. One man and a hose. Could take a while…The cattle are impatient to have the steps back too.

A few hours into the job and some of the silt was on its way back to the river. A last walk down the familiar alleyway…

And off to the airport. Niv and I are now waiting in Delhi – 8 hours until our Heathrow departure. I forgot to bring a coat or jumper with me, so had to buy a shawl in the market. 6.45am in Heathrow is going to feel pretty chilly tomorrow.

Moving between Varanasi and Oxford was a very difficult transition initially. Now, however, the connections made with the girls and our Varanasi friends are not brutally torn when I leave. There is a sense of calm and continuity. I will be back because what we are doing is precious, and important, and it’s working. A fantastic summary has been written by Ginie – please check out her blog post for a super overview. I’d like to thank you for following the fourth season of the blog and look forward to welcoming you back in the spring. Delhi out.

4:12 Paws, Applause, Pause.

Today’s first visit was to the lovely Bahubali – Heifara’s Rottweiler puppy. He’s grown a little since I saw him in March. Niv now has a new favourite dog.

Then the parting of the ways with the Norwegian superstar. Harald needed plenty of cake and coffee to prepare for the long trip home.

As always it was a team effort.

Back home, Georgia and Esme are helping daddy Alton settle back in with some yoga. Here’s their OM:

Ginie is also trying to recreate the Varanasi vibe with ginger tea.

I’m going to miss the many animals to be found tucked in every corner. This dog was happy to chat.

I was honoured to be invited as a special guest to Sunbeam’s Sun City campus for one of their Annual Functions (a speech day/founders day) The level of confidence and composure that they nurture in their students is phenomenal. I was also hugely impressed with the standard of the pupils preparation and performances.

I placed the value of creativity at the top of the tree. One advantage of being very tall!

On our return, evening was falling and the light was peculiarly Indian. Maybe the rickshaws cast a spell:

The final activity with the girls was one I have been planning for ages. The tech set up was a gigantic team effort but we managed to show a large screen Captain Marvel dubbed into Hindi. We overcame every possible hitch to make it to the end … using two different computers, a small projector and the sort of cabling that would make a firefighter wince. But it was all worth it.

I’d also brought a stack of jelly beans and jelly babies for the girls as a movie treat. We won’t mention the bag that went missing (Alton). They really loved the film. Especially seeing a defiant female flying planes. Ritu really wants to be a pilot so that was her favourite bit.

Then it was goodbyes. Niv became chief photographer for this. Although Alton now lives in the Disha basement as well as on the roof 🤣

We were presented with a lovely handmade card which will be treasured. Thanks so much to Juliett, Anjali and the girls for this.

I was also deeply touched by my notebook from Bharti:I also love this from our big Kajal who has a special place in my heart as one of the less confident students. Definitely one to put on the wall where I can see it every day. We can’t get enough of the FairFight logo mixed with Durga (Hindu goddess of female empowerment). Lovely Anita also made her own card for us both:

And our very late arrival back to base was greeted by my favourite cow – a recurring character in this blog.

Will wind up tonight with Ginie’s Diwali picture. AshaDiya: Hope and Light. Keep bringing it. Last blog tomorrow but for now: Varanasi out.

4:11 ‘Where we’re going, there are no roads…’

Morning scenes in the street as we headed to our first appointment of the day. We were visiting Project Mala – a charity which is educating 1500 children from the poorest families. They have six schools within reach of Varanasi and we were to visit one high in the hills of Mirzanpur. Remote is not the word. The road became a track, the track became intermittent and then eventually there was simply a vast hilltop populated by herds of goats and cattle.

Turn left by the third brown cow to find a new track.

Then we had to stop to fill the road in to get past the deep holes. The children walk miles to attend the school. These are some settlements we passed on the way.

Then we arrived.

The pre-school children don’t speak Hindi – they speak a local dialect. Here they’re playing ’12 stones’ – a strategy game frequently drawn in the dirt and played outside. It’s like early chess.

The children are encouraged to be creative and to play. A huge problem with the massive attainment gap between girls and boys is the malnutrition and under-stimulation of girl children. Although educating both sexes, the Project Mala schools are for academically gifted children or those with potential. In order to provide access for girls as well as boys they have had to employ many strategies to accelerate development of their female students as well as lowering the baseline entry requirement for girls. A pre-school class for drawing, toys and games is a great way to help the girls along. Niv was enjoying the playdoh.

The school has no electricity other than some solar panels. Water is also an issue sometimes but here the kids are filling their water bottles at the pump.

All the classes were studying hard – we saw English, Hindi, and maths.

Here’s lunchtime:

I’ve never before visited a school where children are lost to snakebites walking to school. Here is the board listing the deceased:

We are extremely grateful to Project Mala for this fascinating visit and hope we can collaborate with them on strategies to raise female attainment in the future.

A dash back to Varanasi to train with our own girls.

Here’s Anjali working her basic punching.And her chop blocks:Susmita always focuses well:And Kajal continues to flourish too. We saw some excellent kata:

And there was a rapt crowd for the kumite.:

Niv was prevailed upon to fight with Pooja which we all enjoyed:

Their progress is a delight. Harald filmed it from the sky with his drone:

He also snapped two monkeys but did not risk the selfie:

But I leave you tonight with the dramatic news that our cowfie battle is finished. It’s game over, Mr Herland. You’re not topping this:

Goodnight all! Varanasi out.

4:10 Cowfies and chess

For Niv and myself this has been a valuable day of recovery, planning and prioritising for the last two days of our visit. Meetings and paperwork don’t make for great blog pictures though so here’s some fun pictures from the project. You’ll remember Pooja’s hook kick from the seminar:

Here it is beautifully inked by Katie.

Harald’s cowfie quest continued around his documentary filming work today.

Although he needed Dheer’s help to recruit the cow.

Dheer didn’t want to be seen in his sister’s helmet so naturally he won’t mind if I post this:

Niv and I walked to Disha and stopped to chat with this little guy doing his homework in the street:

And we had plenty of cowfie opportunities. Niv was rather more reluctant than I was though. Especially when some of our cowfies were potentially bullfies.

And I’ve gone further: the goatie. Your move Mr Herland!

Niv and the girls enjoyed board games while I was meeting with Uday. Here she is with Menka.

Harald is still finding the girls want to be behind the camera as much as in front of it. Alton has made it back home to the family and gone straight back to work!

Here he is showing off his magnets from Dheer, now in his kitchen.

Ginie arrived back to Amsterdam after 31 hours of travel. Her family will be delighted to see her too.

And I leave you with unedited pictures taken of Alton hitting pads last Friday on Disha roof. So fast the camera literally couldn’t catch him 😳

Looks like a ghost! Hopefully means that some of his fighting spirit remains on the Disha rooftop. Tomorrow we investigate the rural schools of Project Mala as well as training with the girls at Disha. Goodnight all!

4:9 Happy birthday; sad goodbye; fierce young women; games and hugs.

Doesn’t everyone like to get up at 5.30am on their birthday? Alton, sporting to the last, was ready for the early morning boat trip at sunrise. First the monks on the ghat welcomed the (invisible-because-clouded) sun.

Then we picked our way carefully across the muddy mountain of silt to a boat summoned by the Genie.

Alton was immediately on the selfies:

But we didn’t ask for a selfie with the driver because it didn’t look as if he would welcome being Insta-famous. The ghats are always impressive. Dheer explained the history to his attentive audience.

And I enjoyed watching the boats and the pilgrims to the holy river. The crematorium always seems to be in action. The dead are brought quickly to be burned before sunset.

Harald was busily recording the experience.

And we returned to see the yoga on Assi ghat – all before breakfast.

We said goodbye to Ginie and Alton with cake. We even managed to dig out a candle to sing happy birthday.

And Dheer managed a present too.

At Disha the girls ate cake in his honour and made a banner:

Niv caught Harald and myself in contemplative form after saying goodbye to Ginie and Alton.

Then it was onwards to Sunbeam School for our self defence seminar. This was a project I had put a lot into personally and as part of a great collaboration with Jamie Clubb. Jamie is a well-respected trainer in the world of self defence and the author of children’s self defence manual ‘When parents aren’t around’. He and I worked on adapting his material (for UK teens) into the female Indian context to produce a helpful and relevant workshop for 16-18 year olds.

The girls were brilliant in their attitude and focus and despite initial reservations they rapidly absorbed the concepts and techniques of awareness and threat evaluation.

The school is really fuelling the positive momentum of the equality movement in India and I sincerely hope this is something we can develop more in the future.

Then we went for a quiet catch up at Disha. They didn’t know we were coming so it was especially touching to find them all deep in the games donated from the UK. I enjoyed some chess with Menka and Ritu.

Harald chose Ludo with big Kajal. And Niv was snaffled up to play UNO. All the games seem well received and children were playing them all over the house.

I’ll leave you tonight with an exciting new trend Harald has begun here in Varanasi today. Welcome to the world of the cowfie. More of these tomorrow! Goodnight!

4:8 And the top podium spot goes to…?

Great to see Alton’s visit celebrated in the local paper today.

Alton has faced many challenges in his time but an impromptu inspirational speech to an assembly of Indian secondary school students was a new one. He carried out the role of ambassador to karate with excellent presence of mind and encouraged the students to work hard towards their goals.

The second day of the seminar was busy and fun. There were some excellent drills to improve timing and scoring potential. I was delighted to see how Arti has learned to move forward smoothly:

Dheer is the Genie – pictured here in between stints of translation and logistical management.

Alton worked closely with the Disha girls to fine-tune their distancing. Here he is working with Kajal.

Due to popular demand he also taught a lot of sweep techniques. Here he is teaching how to sell the finishing punch.

Niv was not totally thrilled with her role in this drill with the enthusiastic girls.

Ginie leaves tomorrow and will be much missed by the girls.

And they’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting Alton and will no doubt be working their drills on the rooftop at home. He also leaves tomorrow.

Our instructors Pankaj and Devesh have picked up a lot of detail from Alton. Here is Devesh stretching his punch.

She blows in like a hurricane – our friend Heifara arrived to say hello and share some kata. Alton dug deep to accompany her Tekki Shodan over our ginger tea.

Tonight’s cliffhanger: it’s been raining again today. We planned to get up at 5.45am to see the sun rise over the Ganges before the team splits – half for the airport and half for the self defence seminar. So tomorrow there may be some spectacular shots. Or maybe not.

Either way I’m sure Alton will take it in his stride. Here is his evening relaxation after delivering two days of seminars. Holding out for some WiFi to connect to home, our prospective Olympian has coped with 5 power cuts today already (3 while teaching) Sitting on the floor of a backpackers cafe, he gets a gold from us.