Bolzano. A fly does not fly. Thirty little girls and boys, boys and girls aged 5 and over, real estate. Legs apart, arms extended forward with closed fists. Eyes fixed on the master. «Ishal back straight, open those shoulders, don’t hide – shouts him, the teacher – Show who you are.
Diarrhea she will be eight years old, her hair gathered in a black braid: she raises her head, puffs up her chest proudly: “Yes master.”
Thursday afternoon. PalaMazzali in viale Trieste, top floor, a large room of 30 square meters covered by yellow and orange tatami mats: karate lesson with Papadame Diop, worker at Iveco, former national trade unionist from his country of origin, Senegal. He is 52 years old but looks 20 younger. Lean, muscular, supple but also hard as stone. With one hand he could knock out a bull. The boys look at him as the eternal goddess. They wait for commands. Order the “Kata”, the series of moves to be performed in synchrony, in unison. Today the training consists in Taikyoku Shodan, a fight with imaginary opponents: we defend ourselves from an attack, using basic techniques. “Oi Tsuki,” Papadam yells. The whole group turns with their torso. The pupils throw their right fist turned on the knuckles. They bring the left elbow to the height of the belt ready to strike again. A terrifying “Ki-Ai” starts in chorus. It serves to release energy and charge the shot.
“And now let’s make the parades. If someone attacks you from the front what should you do? ”.
Vummm: the rustle of the raised forearm to protect the face.
Diarra looks seriously at the phantom opponent, then hits the air with a straight jab in response. Afro braids with beads dance across the face.
“Well done, that’s just how it is done.” Diarra smiles, opens wide white teeth and eyes as black as obsidian.
At a nod from the sensei (the teacher), all sit in a circle, kneeling or cross-legged, according to the rules of dojo (the training gym), which prohibits “relaxed” positions that are not in keeping with decorum and discipline.
Papadame shows another move to dodge the attack. Then he calls the move: “Zen Kutsu,” he shouts. It is the alphabet of karate. The pupils get up, get into position. They deliver (without hitting) a side kick with the leg straight, the toes arched, on the side of the next partner. To check that everything goes smoothly even in the rows behind it is the master Daniela Gaidano of the “Ren Bu Kan” of Meltina, who lends a hand when he can.
«Clyde! – Diop yells -, higher that foot ». Diop approaches. He shows him how to do it: he gently presses his plant number 48 into the boy’s back.
“Do you understand Klajdi? Here you must put it … ».
Klajdi seriously repeats the gesture. «Yes master, understood».
The hour is over but everyone wants to do the Kata, the sequence, once again. And off to the last shot in the air of kicks, punches and parries. The training ends with a greeting bow. A sign of respect for the master, his companions and a millenary art. Then free everyone. It’s up to the adults. Many women who learn self-defense.
A popular gym
«This – explains Diop – is a popular gym in the sense that sport is a lever of social inclusion here inside. A right that must be guaranteed to everyone, like the air to breathe, especially for the little ones. Between the ages of 8 and 11, practicing sports is essential for healthy development of the body, cardiomuscular efficiency and self-esteem ». Membership costs a tobacco pipe, just to cover costs and insurance. Workouts three times a week: Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. “But if a family can’t pay, and there are many, that’s not a problem. We come to meet, we get the kimono, we make a discount. There is no such thing as someone giving up because they have no money. For many of these kids, sport is also a way of life. We cannot deny this possibility to anyone ».
Speak with knowledge of the facts Diop. For him it was just like that: karate saved his life. “In my city, in Senegal, I grew up in a very dangerous neighborhood. You could have been a victim of assaults or robberies, but also ended up on the wrong side: joining a gang, becoming a criminal to survive ». Diop started as a child. «Karate has taught me discipline, respect, awareness of the body and my means. Not to be afraid without becoming arrogant. To manage anger and aggression. To weigh the risks, to defend myself. I trained hard. It took three years to be able to harmonize technique, mind and spirit. Then I felt protected, safe ».
But that is not all. Like in a movie by Bruce Lee, the gym is a second family, indeed, more: a school that “teaches brotherhood, mutual help and solidarity”.
The teacher is a very important figure, an example, a point of reference. It is not by chance that Diop gave his name to his school “Papadam Karate Academy”. A further assumption of responsibility. Just take a look to understand the meaning. A kaleidoscope of colors and origins: children and young people from the Oltrisarco, Europa and Don Bosco districts, who are unjustly denied the “jus soli”, because they live suspended between two languages and two cultures. Italian-Africans, Italian-Pakistani, Italian-Asians … «Whites, blacks, yellows … what does that mean? Nothing. On the tatami they are all the same, there are no distinctions of class, ethnicity, skin, religion. They are also canceled by the white kimono that is the same for everyone ».
It is evident that many of them, once off the mat, every day have to deal with preconceptions, more or less veiled resistances, with a reduced range of opportunities, and also with that mix of anger and fear that one feels in an often hostile world. . And we return to the sense of this school. “As he saved me – reiterates Diop -, karate will help them too”.
Punctuality, training, silence, respect for the opponent, and even competition “are a formidable tool for education and growth”. Martial arts keep away from the street, from the playstation, from the compulsive use of TikTok.
Of course, a lot also depends on how you handle your body which somehow becomes a weapon. “But that’s not the purpose of karate. The goal is self-awareness, spirit, control. Learn a method and values that will serve you throughout your life. In karate, goodness, empathy, altruism are signs of courage, not weakness ».
Values that Papadame Diop also practices outside the dojo. In the summer he holds free gymnastics courses in the parks. It was he who brought plogging to Bolzano, the race that combines jogging with the collection of waste thrown on the street. In winter, together with his wife Ndella Mbye, he collects clothes and basic necessities that he distributes to the homeless hidden under the bridges and between the pillars of the A22. Twelve months of the year he helps the boys disembarked from the boats to obtain a permit, a job, a bed. And every Sunday, after the neighborhood race in Europa-Novacella open to all, he and Ndella always host a dozen migrants for lunch at their home.
A mission of civil and social commitment, carried out with a dedication that also comes from the Islamic faith, experienced as a key to knowing and helping, and not to exclude. Like karate.
Text: Luca Fregona
Photo: Andreas Kemenater