Empowering girls through martial arts in Zambia’s toughest slum

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Nayombe was flying karate kicks and waving fists at a very sensitive time for her and her unborn baby.

‘I earned my first karate black belt when I was 19, and 18 months pregnant,’ chuckles Nayombe Muliyunda, 38, recalling a proud moment that was also terrific.

Muliyunda, is a mum of three, a former Taekwondo competitor, and now an instructor, who uses the discipline of Karate to guide girls (8-to-19 years old) back into education in Chiboyla, Zambia’s toughest slum. Chiboyla compound is the most deprived and violent township in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia.

‘Even police are afraid to drive there,’ Muliyunda says, describing the toughtest slum in Zambia’s capital city: a place where illicit drugs, underage drinking, transactional sex work, and violence flourishes openly in the streets. Here, the harshest impact of deprivation makes the precarious access to food, healthcare, and schooling worse for young girls.

Zambia, a nation of 18 million residents and lying in the southernmost part of Africa, is fairly poor despite its immense copper wealth and top-drawer wildlife and safari forests. The country's GDP is just $1,120 per person and violence against women in Zambia means more than a third of all women and girls in Zambia are said to have experienced physical violence in their lives.

Muliyunda grew up in privilege in Lusaka’s upper-class suburbs in the capital until her mother died when she was 11, and her prospects suddenly turned bleak. Her life crumbled and she found herself living in Chilulu slum, another tough township in Lusaka.

She tells Missing Perspectives of suddenly battling to adjust to her new reality: ‘I didn’t know other kids walk barefoot to school. So, I had too much anger on landing in a slum.' She says she almost fell apart, until a friend introduced her to the discipline of karate 'Taekwondo.'

This is a moment that she says: ‘I released my anger in training and found peace.’

Her Taekwondo path got her to meet Professor Stephen Chan, a karate ‘Sensei’ and respected Professor of World Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Professor Chan, an avid karate athlete, visits Zambia frequently and conducts karate sessions in tough townships to motivate young people and help them find a purpose in life - on a volunteer basis.

He told her about FairFight International, a global karate charity that funnels disadvantaged girls into schooling. FairFight also operates in Marondera, Zimbabwe and Varanasi, Sarnath and Lucknow in India. In addition, it will be running a project at home in deprived communities in Rotterdam in the Netherlands starting in 2023, Ginie Servant-Miklos, co-founder of Fair Fight International, tells Missing Perspectives. FairFight tailors its financial support to each programme individually. So for instance, its programme in Zambia gets significantly more financial support than its programme in Varanasi, India, Miklos explains.

‘However, Chibolya, Zambia is such a deprived community that we currently need to pay rent and cover transport costs for teachers there ourselves. FairFight currently contributes about 3,000 dollars a year to the Zambia programme,’ says Miklos.

Participants in the FairFight Zambia programme.

‘We think every girl deserves a chance to reach her full potential. And we believe that martial arts can give her the tools to do just that. With every girl that grows stronger, so does her community. Our mission is to provide access to quality martial arts and self-protection training to girls from underprivileged communities - in India, Zimbabwe and Zambia.'

Muliyunda was quickly sold on Fair Fight International’s goals. ‘I thought, why can't we have something similar of sorts in Zambia?’ says Nayombe, reflecting on how her life was beginning to take shape after a time of upheaval.

So, after 10 years of working in marketing in the corporate world in Zambia, Muliyunda quit, realizing karate was her true life calling. ‘I could not resist the fire that was growing inside me, despite the glamour of a corporate job in the business world,’ she says.

She set out to identify the poorest girls of Chibolya slum to introduce them to the life-transforming benefits of Taekwondo, the sport that had brought her inner peace.

‘Training girls from these deprived slums it’s close to my heart because I passed through something,’ she says charting how life had taken her through the twists of joy and sorrow. ‘From a privilege to slum life.'

‘I told them about martial arts that it’s not a discipline only for fights, kicks, and fists. It's courage, it’s respect for humanity,’ she says.

The young girls were enthusiastic and asked Muliyunda lots of questions about how to leave slum life. ‘I gave them two conditions,’ she says. ‘Be consistent in coming to your karate training. Second, get back to school. If you have dropped out, we’ll help you to get back to school. We now have 30 girls. They have taken it like fish to water.’

The Chibolya slum is harsh on girls’ lives, says Muliynda. She describes a forgotten township that receives little core municipal services but features prominently when it comes to police violent raids.

‘You find a 19-year-old is still in grade 9 (primary school), a 15-year-old in grade 5,’ she says of some girls she is currently mentoring.

‘Most are orphans; some are from broken homes, facing stepparents’ hostility. All the issues are there – including period poverty. Chiboyla slum is an area where they see a girl child as an asset because marrying them off is more lucrative than taking the girl to school, so families would rather get this lump sum of money as marriage dowry, so we are talking about underage marriages, teenage motherhood.'

Miklos, the Fair Fight International Co-Founder, adds that for girls from deprived communities, karate is a chance to reconnect with their bodies, to gain a sense of self-confidence, self-respect and self-mastery. It is also connected with a life philosophy of striving for more and never giving up. Practicing karate also connects the girls to a global community of practitioners, giving them a glimpse of life’s opportunities beyond the township, he says. Through the power of role modelling black belt women, the girl can see what opportunities lie ahead with hard work and persistence.

‘These are girls with a zeal to go back to school,’ Muliyunda says of the determination of girls under her mentorship. ‘For it shows they want to make something out of their life. Fair Fight is about changing the direction of their lives. I can’t describe the pride that I feel when I look at them today.'