Mobilisation of Community Through Martial Arts

Mobilisation is critical to the survival or in the very least, healthy functioning of our communities. More importantly, mobilisation around activities that are fun and superficial. Activities outside of the realm of politics and formal proceedings. These activities can be weekly card games at the local hall, monthly youth events like sports and music or simply getting together to organise an event for the elderly twice or more times a year. Uniting and engaging in such activities as communities  is instrumental in fostering empathy, discipline and significantly, group action. It is through mobilisation or group action that people start lifestyles and culture. Sensei Monwabisi Njomba, a trained martial arts teacher, is using the lessons he learned from his craft to cultivate discipline through mobilising the community of Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township.

Mobilisation in Khayelitsha community through Njomba Fitness Academy
Sensei Monwabisi Njomba and his community are mobilising to make changes through health and fitness training. Photo: News24

Before moving to Cape Town where he now runs a dojo (a martial arts training centre), Sensei Njomba got his start in karate, kung fu and other martial arts as a young man in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape. The discipline and fulfillment martial arts instilled in him coupled with his lifelong passion for the youth led him to open a gym where he could bring young people together through health and fitness. He then used this opportunity to teach the young people of Khayelitsha self-belief, respect, focus and responsibility.  Sensei Njomba says that his training has helped him keep his head high and wants to impart that to the youth in his surrounds.

Sensei Njomba has established the Njomba Fitness Academy to encompass the varied courses he facilitates to draw more people from his community. He also teaches basic self-defense to women, aerobics, organises fun runs and “fitness explosion” showcases. The variety of activities offered at the academy has also made it popular amongst the older residents of Khayelitsha. The academy is currently supported by generous residents and donors and is open to any funding or support.

Sensei Njomba’s story is not only one of a local good Samaritan. It is also an example of how we inspire the changes we want to see. Mobilisation is key is affecting those changes, especially at a larger scale. Most of us want our communities to be safer, united, healthy and prosperous. However, embracing these ideals is not enough. People often only act or give their support when they feel reflected or considered in a cause.

The sensei could have lauded the ideals and message in his heart on a platform which might be more visible or honoured. His audience might have respected his platform and the status or education that afforded him that platform and then leave just as they came. On the other hand, Sensei Njomba realised that for youth to do rather than just know what is right, they have to associate those ideals with their lifestyles. The sensei did just that by taking martial arts, a discipline that is a huge part of popular culture, and relating it to life lessons and ethics. Mobilisation teaches us that a message, no matter how good or pertinent, is received more effectively when it reflects its audience.

Grannies Destigmatising Mental Illness in Zimbabwe

Mental illness is extremely misunderstood and carries a heavy social and personal burden for those suffering from it in our society. People from poor backgrounds suffer disproportionately more from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses compared to class-privileged people, yet they are the least attended to when it comes treatment and awareness.

The Friendship Bench Project, a project headed by grandmothers in Zimbabwe, is addressing this treatment gap and is destigmatising mental illness in Africa.

Doctors in Zimbabwe say there are only 12 psychiatrists for the country’s 16 million people. Added to this, people suffering from mental illnesses seldom seek help as there is still a lot of shame and superstition attached to mental illness.

Local grandmothers employed by the city health authorities of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, are helping to treat and empower Zimbabweans with mental illnesses through strategically placed Friendship Benches. These Friendship Benches are placed outside state-run health centres and are open to the public during business hours. The grandmothers are equipped with a few weeks training on how to counsel the clients. This is something they already do for their families and communities and therefore provides a sustainable and safe option for those going for the treatment.

The treatment is basic problem-solving therapy centred on empowering the clients through their day-to-day struggles with mental illness. The grannies have helped people who have been isolated because from loved ones because of their mental illness, failed marriages, women who have been thrown out by in-laws because of dead husbands, people with suicide ideations and other social problems that exacerbate mental illness.

Since the project started, more than 27 000 people have sat on the friendship benches.

This project has also been beneficial for other reasons. The grandmothers who run them say they prize it because it makes them feel needed and useful in a world that discards old people as soon as they start collecting their pensions.

Masizame is Creating an Inclusive Community

When first entering Tarkastad‘s Zola township, one’s eye is met by a prominent gated yard decorated with a small building near the back corner and a spacious neatly-tended food garden. This place belongs to the Masizame Disabled Centre. Masizame exists to be a sanctuary for people living with disabilities in Tarkastad’s townships.

Masizame was formed in 2010 by a group of individuals with disabilities in Zola. “We were encouraged to start this initiative by people in our community who have supported us,” says Roy April, the Chairperson of Masizame. “We were then able to establish this centre that we have today through the backing of the Department of Social Development”. Winki Beyi, a long-time member of Masizame, remembers how they struggled in the beginning. The group seldomly gained members for a considerable period of time because they did not have a physical space in their name. They moved from house to house for meetings and were sometimes turned out of these houses by the owners.

These experiences did not discourage the group, who continued to strive until their community and DSD started to take notice. The rest, as they say, is history.

Roy says that the intention behind Masizame is to provide community and refuge for people living with disabilities in the townships who are frequently at the receiving end of abuse, violence and exploitation. Members meet five days a week on weekdays for discussions, encouragement and general work on Masizame’s grounds. Mthetho Maneli, a member of the group, notes the positive effects membership in the organisation has brought for him. “You start feeling right and complete as person when you enter this space. The attitudes and negative behaviours of the outside world are drowned out by the positivity and encouragement we give each other.”

The Masizame Disabled Centre is organisation catering for the community of people living with disabilities in Tarkastad
With a sign that reads “Nothing Without Us” and superbly-kept grounds, the Masizame Disabled Centre has become highly visible force of change and inclusivity in Tarkastad. Photo: Loyiso Gxothiwe.

Masizame members almost all agree that attitudes towards disability have changed over time, albeit at a sluggish pace. Winki says family support would go a long way in unlearning stigma and misinformation around disability, specifically mental illness. “Sometimes people on the outside only start supporting and seeing us as human when our own families start treating us with respect and dignity,” she adds. “One of the problems we have is that people see us as objects or ATMs – to be used and disposed at convenience. CWP has also supported us by hiring some of us. Now, some of our members have families or intimate partners who take their hard-earned CWP wages or their grant money and send them back with nothing. This exploitation also becomes more prevalent when people with disabilities abuse alcohol for relief as they become easier targets for abusers and thieves.”

Despite these issues, the organisation has had a supportive relationship with the wider community. “The people in our community have given us a lot of support because they see the progress and wonderful things that we have been able to accomplish in this space,” says Roy. The support ranges from food donations, equipment and supplies for the work from community stakeholders. More than material donations, the support that is given by the community is mostly in the form of encouragement for the group not to stop the good work it is doing.

Masizame makes it explicitly clear to anyone who enters its gates that it is not looking for hand-outs and pity-donations. “We sew, do beadwork and some of us who do not have disabilities severely affecting our limbs tend the food garden or do catering,” adds Winki. “We are not asking for material donations. Do not give us fish. Teach us how to fish. When you give me the donation of a fish, I will eat it and then go bother someone else when it is finished. Rather than give us your old belongings, teach us how to sew so we can make clothes for ourselves and to sell to you. As a matter of fact, we can sew beautifully and have been able to sell our creations even though none of us have had formal training.” Winki says that they also have their community supporters to thank for their sewing skills.

The main support that the organisation is asking from the community and stakeholders is skills training, whether it be in the form of informational material, equipment or artisans who are willing to volunteer to teach their craft. Sydwell Felane, who is heavily involved with the garden work, says the group strives to create employment and income generation opportunities for people with disabilities in the township. “One of the things I would personally like to happen is to have art training here,” says Sydwell. “I love art and would like to learn from a professional.”