East African Martial Arts

During the recent ‘Battle of Champions’ kickboxing show I bumped into a gentleman called Ernest Olayo, 4th dan WTF fighter and national coach for Uganda. Ernest agreed to share his past exploits in the martial arts, and his great vision for the future of TKD in East Africa with me. In a region where feeding one’s family is a priority for most, Ernest faces an uphill battle to put the martial artists of East Africa on the world map.

Peter Brook: Ernest, how old are you? Ernest Olayo: Thirty-four.

What grade are you?

Fourth dan.

How long have you been training? Twenty-one straight years.

Only TKD?

I’ve trained in Kickboxing and I’ve coached kickboxers as well.

Who graded you for your dans? I received my dan grades from Master Mogg Yoon, 9th dan, founder of TKD in Kenya and Chief Instructor and Patron of the Kenya National Association. Also Master You Kuen Han, 7th dan and former Great Britain WTF TKD National Coach, who came back to Kenya five years ago to concentrate on developing the art here.

How about competition?

I’ve been Kenyan lightweight TKD champion several times. I won a bronze medal at the All Africa Games in Nairobi in 1987. In 1988 I became

African lightweight champion at the second Africa TKD championships, which was also held in Nairobi. Later that year I attained my international instructor’s certificate and took over the Kenya National Federation, as there were no overseas instructors at that time, (previously we had around seven or eight Korean masters teaching in Kenya). I competed in the TKD World Cup in Cairo where I was captain of the Kenya side.

I’ve fought in Iran two or three times as well and I was also with the Kenyan National side in Hong Kong for the World Cup. As part of my TKD competitions I have visited Britain, France, and Italy among others. In 1997 I attained a refereeinq grade from the WTF in Korea making me a recognised 3rd class international WTF referee.

How did Kenya fair on the world stage? They didn’t win anything but the experience gained was invaluable. However in Africa, we are becoming quite a force, competing with the serious nations such as Egypt, Ivory Coast and South Africa, in fact in 1997 at the last all-African Championships in South Africa, Kenya won the gold medal, which is quite a feat to finish ahead of the Egyptians who are truly a world force in the WTF.

What is the history behind TKD in East Africa? The first country in the region to start TKD was Uganda. In fact they were quite a force and took medals from the early world championships that were held in the 70s. There was a Korean master called Kim who was very active in TKD promotion, but he left for the States when the political upheaval started in 1977. After that it pretty much died out.

You’re a Kenyan who has had much success representing your country, so what brought you to Uganda?

A few years ago I used to get students coming to my classes all the way from Uganda (that’s a twelve hour cross border bus ride). They were good, but lacked exposure. They visited me regularly to train and fight in competition. Eventually they persuaded me to travel up to Kampala to try to resurrect TKD in the country.

Why, what had happened to it? As you are aware, Peter, Uganda went through major political turmoil during the Amin and Obote regimes. There was a lot of TKD and other martial arts in Uganda prior to this era, but once the trouble started, all the organisations seemed to disappear and there was no structure at all. On arrival in Uganda two years ago, I found many clubs and many martial arts practitioners, but there was no club structure, no national organisation and as far as WTF goes, Uganda had not paid its dues to the organisation for over a decade.

I am sure the WTF are sympathetic to the cause though.

They were very kind and we are just waiting for one more letter from the Uganda Olympic Committee for Uganda to be able to rejoin the WTF. They (WTF) have also written off the majority of the old debts.

What standard did you find when you got here? There was a lot of talent for sure. Unfortunately, a lot of people had tried to learn various martial arts from books and action videos. The martial arts are like riding a bike, you have to get on and build experience and you can’t learn from a book. There was a real lack of discipline and respect as well, and a lot of people misused their limited martial arts skills. So you had a bunch of half baked martial artists running around the place saying that they were a Kung Fu man or Jeet Kune Do expert, when they really didn’t have anything at all. They were enthusiastic but had no form.

I agree, from what I see enthusiam is not a problem, a lack of structure is. Where else has the martial arts taken you?

I attended the World Peace/Martial Arts Federation gathering in Washington DC. They called senior martial artists from all round the world to meet there. Only two people came from East Africa, myself and a leading Karate exponent, also from Kenya.

That must have been quite an experience for you, did you meet any famous martial artists there? Yes I met Chuck Norris and also had some close conversations with Don Wilson. He was a very interesting martial artist who had a great knowledge of many things including Pressure Points which really interests me. I also met a great man called Chi Chieng Chang who has been practicing several martial arts for many years and has organised several of these gatherings since. He was so kind to me and has been in touch ever since. In fact, recently he asked me to take a team of martial artists to America to compete in a world open championships he is organising there. He truly was a good man. The whole event lasted two weeks and I took the chance to meet as many of the attendees as possible.

I met artists from Korea, Japan, Brazil among others. I have a hunger for knowledge when it comes to the martial arts and this was a feast for me.

Do you think you could raise a squad to take to these championships? Getting a squad is not a problem. I have an abundance of talented young guys. I’m afraid it’s finance that is the difficult part, we just don’t have the funds.

It’s a story I hear a lot on this continent, is there no help from the government? Honestly speaking, not a cent. It’s hard enough for the so-called ‘recognised sports’ like boxing and athletics to get State help, never mind small fry like us.

With that in mind, where do you think the future lies for the martial arts, and TKD in particular, in East Africa?

Martial Arts Illustrated 9 7 The fact that WTF has become an Olympic sport has helped raise the profile tremendously. Kenya has really raised its standard with the help of the Korean masters who returned to Kenya to improve the sport. However Kenya has run out of competition now, as they are far superior in skills to their neighbouring countries. Therefore it was my goal when I came here to build Uganda’s TKD federation and train its fighters to be able to compete with Kenya. Also a former instructor of mine, Master In Duk Park, has gone to Tanzania to try to do the same. This way East Africa, as a region, will become a TKD powerhouse and the Kenyans will have the competition they crave for. At the moment Kenya’s only opposition on the continent is from Egypt, South Africa and the Ivory Coast. It’s just not practical to try to arrange competition as it is out of our financial scope. However, if Tanzania and Uganda are on a level, then the regional tournaments are much more realistic for us. This makes the potential for a strong East African force in TKD.

Let’s talk about you again Ernest, what does the future hold for you and how can you improve and further your knowledge of the martial arts?

At this moment in time people from this region look upon me and call me a master. I am by no means there yet. Honestly speaking, I am not happy with what I have. I have, until two months ago, earned my living from teaching the martial arts. Recently I became a manager of an advertisement company and that has given me a totally different outlook on things. I have discovered the Internet and have been able to keep in touch with my fellow martial artists around the world, people I have met and want to learn more from. I down-load material from the web which is something we in Africa could never have dreamed of being able to do in the past. It has opened up the world of martial arts to everybody and

I intend to use that to further myself in the arts. I also intend to study in the soft martial arts.

What do you mean by ‘soft martial arts’? Well you have the hard contact arts of Karate, TKD and Kickboxing. These are external. I want to discover the softer arts such as Tai Chi and certain soft forms of Kung Fu which are internal, within the body’s hidden strengths. I am very much interested in Pressure Point work and intend to study this so I can write a thesis on the subject when I one day take my 6th dan, hopefully in Korea.

This is really interesting because a great number of my former martial arts colleagues have gone down this path. They are cross training and often start a martial art as a beginner despite being a senior grade in another art. The human body has many hidden secrets and the martial arts can bring these out. It is an area I intend to study heavily. The more you study the martial arts, the deeper it becomes. You think you have reached the end sometimes, just to be put right back at the beginning by someone, or a certain incident in your life or martial arts career.

And the next step for TKD in Uganda? We have the National Championships on July
7th-8th and I am bringing some teams from Kenya to support the event. I hope you will come and cover the show, Peter.

I’ll be there. Do you have any other stories for the readers? I have a student in Kenya who was featured in Time magazine last month. He has started a programme to teach street kids TKD in Nairobi. It met with a lot of resistance from the government and police, saying the last thing they needed v/as the street children being able terrorise people with their new found art. George Mureu. The instructor, persisted ai the programme has become a hug success. It has brought the kids o…. street and taught them discipline and self respect. Many have gone on to compete on the TKD circuit and in doing so have found ways to get themselves off the streets and back into society. I am very proud of him.

Great tale, Ernest, let’s hope for many more. Thank you so much. I hope that the exposure you get in Europe from this interview will put the martial artist of

East Africa on the world map. How do people get in touch with you? They can e-mail me on eolayo@hotmail.com.

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