What you need to know:
- One of the world’s greatest exponents of shotokan karate, Hirokazu Kanazawa visited the club to grade the members, some of whom formed a Kenyan Shotokan Karate body
- Situated bang in the middle of the capital city’s Central Business District, the club was popular with many youth in the 1970s who found it easy travelling from their homes and places of work to train there.
- The club produced many black belts but at the height of its power lost its home along Kenyatta Avenue to development. The building that housed the club’s dojo was brought down to make room for the ICEA Building, marking the start of a slow death of the much loved karate club
In 1979, development came upon us, displaced us from our home and started us on a nomadic life that peeled off member after member at each shelter of rest until there was none of us remaining. We died.
That is why my thoughts and prayers have lately been with members of Mwamba Rugby Football Club as they look for a new home after they, too, were visited by development.
Railway Club, their home of four decades, is being converted into a bus park fronted by a double-decker road. I wish them good luck in finding a new home. I also wish them a long and prosperous life.
In our case, we wore the badge of Nairobi Judo College with pride and confidence.
We were the pioneer shotokan karate club in Kenya and to underline our prestige, our home was in the middle of Nairobi’s Central Business District. Our dojo – as martial arts gyms are called – was at the present day ICEA Building overlooking the Bank of India along Kenyatta Avenue.
It was on the mezzanine floor above where the ground floor premises of the National Bank are today. The majestic stone lions and awe-inspiring pillars of McMillan Library flanked the dojo a short distance away.
We shared the dojo with the judo club after which our club was named. The face of the judo club, and it was a forbidding one, was a hulking barrel of a man, a gourmet chef named Rolf Schmidt. He was well known in the city as the proprietor of the Red Bull restaurant which was one of Nairobi’s classiest.
One a few occasions I dined at Schmidt’s place, first on Mama Ngina Street and later at Karen Shopping Centre and I never at any time forgot to be of good character – not that a disciplined karateka like me was wont to behave otherwise.
Nairobi Judo College was an old building. Its roof of corrugated iron sheets, which must have once glittered in the sunshine of the city, was now scorched and had turned a pale brown. Pigeons had colonized its eaves.
They fluttered ceaselessly on the large windows as we rent the air inside with kiai, the short burst of sound karateka make when performing an attacking action. Maybe they are the ones that did a short migration flight to the nearby Jamia Mosque when our building was no more.
We loved everything about Nairobi Judo College – its size, its wooden floor, its changing rooms, its large bay windows and, of course, its instructors. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening between 5 and 7 o’clock, we were there, training hard. We would kick, punch and yell while making sure our stances were correct using the large mirrors on the wall.
We were trail blazers, too. One day Mike Scollay, our senior instructor, announced that our next grading exercise would be conducted by none other than Hirokazu Kanazawa, to this day one of the world’s greatest exponents of shotokan karate, a 10th dan black belt by the time of his death at the age of 88 in December 2019.
(A shotokan karate beginner starts as a 10th kyu white belt and works his or her way upwards through white, green and brown belts up to first dan black belt, the highest rank in vertical progression. From there, one embarks on a horizontal promotion journey within the black belt rank starting at first dan, the lowest, to 10th dan, the highest, a pursuit that takes a life-time and one that is achieved by very few people. Reaching first dan black belt alone is a notable achievement. In karate terms, a person who attains 10th dan is virtually superhuman – and Kanazawa truly was.)
When Scollay told us Kanazawa was coming to grade us, we were stunned. I went to McMillan Library next door and was lucky to find a book about karate that had much to say about him.
Moving Zen: One Man’s Journey to the Heart of Karate is written by C.W. Nicol, a Briton who went to Japan to study karate and I found it hard to put down until I finished reading it. It was absolutely engrossing.
Kanazawa conducted a two-week course for us at the end of which he put us through the grading test. Our instructors, Mike Scollay and Ali Iqtidar, earned their second dan black belts while I became the proud holder of a 4th kyu green belt. One more stage, and a brown belt would be mine.
Learning under the legendary master was unforgettable. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life but one which I speak little about.
At Kanazawa’s urging, the leadership of Nairobi Judo College and other practitioners formed the Shotokan Karate International of Kenya (SKIK) and hit the ground running by inviting two accomplished karate instructors from Britain to conduct a two week course in Nairobi.
The instructors, Steve Cattle and Peter Heal held fourth and first dan black belt ranks respectively.
SKIK became an affiliate of Kanazawa’s Shotokan Karate International.
Scollay said: “SKIK will continue to bring high grade instructors with an international reputation to Kenya to conduct courses and uplift the standards of Shotokan karate in the country. We must admit that our standards are low. But world class instructors will change all that.”
Rigorous training session
We were on a roll, or so we thought, until the day after a rigorous training session when Scollay said he had an announcement to make.
“The ownership of this building has changed and the new owners have decided to demolish it,” he told us.
“That is going to happen soon and so we must vacate the building. But don’t worry. I have looked at several alternative places for our club and will inform you of our new location soon.”
We first moved to Jamhuri High School in Ngara and that alone robbed us of about half the members. Commuting connectivity – office, club, home – was the challenge.
To save the club, Scollay hastily returned us to town, this time to Moi Avenue Primary School. But the place was run down and there was something about the primary school atmosphere that didn’t sit well with us psychologically.
None of those who had left earlier returned and a few more peeled off our ranks. Next stop was a facility called the Mme. Zerkovitz School of Dancing in town which was nice but cramped.
It didn’t match the grandeur of Nairobi Judo College but it was in the same league. I believe we could have rebuilt our ranks there but for reasons unknown to us, we couldn’t stay much longer. And off again we were on the road searching for a home.
Scollay finally announced that he had found us a place at Nairobi Primary School. It is at that stage that I fell off the wagon. It was also somewhere in its tenure there that Nairobi Judo College breathed its last. It died quietly; no trumpets sounded as they do these days when one sports bar after the other closes in a cacophony of nails being yanked off doors and hacksaws cutting through metal.
Our Nairobi Judo College just silently stopped to exist. I reunited with Ali Iqtidar at The Standard Group, he in the Finance department and me in Editorial. And with great sorrow, I learnt from him that Mike Scollay had died some time back.
The distress of mourning a teacher long after he had departed was poignant in a special way.
Five years after the move to Nairobi Primary School, I bumped into my old colleague, James Opiyo. He had now started his own club and to my great admiration, he was going strong. We had joined Nairobi Judo College at about the same time and we had moved up the grades together. But now he was a first dan black belt.
“Why did you leave training?” he asked me.
“I changed jobs,” I said, “and my hours of work also changed. They coincided with those of training. But I miss the class.”
“You don’t,” he told me firmly. “If you did, you’d still be with us. I think you just lost interest.”
“No way.” I countered. “Job comes first. No matter how much I loved karate, work came first.”
I was talking to myself. Opiyo worked, too, and he still found time for karate. Deep down, I knew I was making excuses. And Opiyo, mercilessly but in a spirit of friendship, offered me no respite.
He said: “It is not the time you are lacking. It is the will. If you are interested in training, you will train. If you are waiting for problems to end before you start training, you’ll never stop waiting because problems will never end. I’ll tell you what I do. I carry my problems to the dojo like this…” He held out his hands apart as if he was carrying a bundle of something between them.
“When I get to the dojo, I put them down…” He bent down and put the imaginary bundle of problems on the ground.
"Then I train to the best of my ability. When the session is finished, I pick up my problems...” he ‘picked’ them up, “and go away. That way I keep fit. I never let problems get into my way.”
The result was that he was now a black belt while I had frozen at green. Obviously, he was right and I was wrong.
In the field of sports and recreation in Kenya, the term development has often portended death. Quite often, it has foreshadowed the conversion of a playground into a collection of dimly-lit, multi-storied dwellings with a chronic water shortage and a sewage system that fails repeatedly.
The regular Kenyan developer seems to have an innate hatred for open and green spaces which to him must be filled up with concrete without any loss of time.
Sports and recreation has often been left holding the short end of the stick in this state of affairs.
Without safe open spaces in which to play, many people contest the road with boda bodas, matatus and reckless private motorists often with dire results.
But not all development is negative and much of it is indeed desirable. We lost Nairobi Judo College but I don’t recall the building having a heritage value like the Bank of India Building or say, Khoja Mosque two streets away. A public bus stop at Railway Club seems to me quite fine but a double-decker road is something different altogether.
Anyhow, my hope is that Mwamba RFC shall escape the fate of my eternally beloved Nairobi Judo College.