Report #4 from Abyssinia: Aikido at the U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa

Report #4 from Abyssinia: Aikido at the U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa

By Richard Strozzi-Heckler, Ph.D

*This is the fourth installment in a series of writings from the first East African Aikido Seminar and Cultural Exchange, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. You can find Report #1 Here.

The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa sits on a slight rise with an expansive view of the northeast section of the city and beyond to the distant Intoto hills and mountain range. We’re above the haze and traffic and I can taste the sweetness of the 8,000 feet air. This is an upscale part of the capital with wide streets, flowering jacaranda trees, and well-kept gardens. This is the fourth largest American embassy in the world and the largest in Africa and it sparkles with watered lawns, immaculate rose gardens, and a fresh polish of seriousness and pride. Compared to where we’ve been it’s eerily quiet, an anticipatory charge in the air that’s as ordered and fitting as the neighborhood itself. I imagine it’s the hum from the listening devices and cameras coming from the embassy. I’m not sure if it makes me feel more secure or more threatened. In Aikido we practice both an internalized security through cultivating our attention, focus, and presence, and the ability to center in even the most chaotic circumstances. We externalize safety by embodying martial skills for defending our selves, and defending those who can’t defend themselves. And through a depth of practice we learn that there is no other, there is no enemy, our perception of duality is an illusion. But being processed through the elaborate security checkpoint of the embassy is a real time challenge of living into this idea that Oneness is more than philosophical candy. However, the promise of an awakened state in which we live in a non-dual reality has long been the tradition of the warrior archetype. Yes it is a life long practice and one that is needed in these times more than ever; and bridges aren’t made of air, we know that this means taking on practices that bring this vision to life.

In the last year Tes and Lou have met with various staff at the embassy educating them about our project of cultural exchange and to ask if they would like to partner in the East African Aikido Seminar and the forming of the East African Aikido Association.  After a number of contacts the cultural attaché Li Ping Lo stepped forward with a genuine curiosity in the art and how it’s grown in Ethiopia and beyond. She suggested we do a lecture and demonstration for the ambassadorial staff and the Marine security detachment. So here we are: Demelesch, Rudy, and Tariku-our newly minted Ethiopian nidans- and Tes, Katina, Lou, Grayson James, a senior student and teacher at Two Rock Aikido, and myself are shown into the library where we all immediately notice that there is only a thin rug on top of concrete. While some of us chat with the staff the others drag a throw rug to put on top of the existing rug, but it falls woefully short of anything resembling a mat that one can easily fall on. The look that passes between us says, “OK, we make the blend”. We also know it will be best, actually mandatory, to smooth out the angles that exist in our falls so no one limps home.

Yvon, the director of embassy security, welcomes us and tells us that at one point he studied jiujitsu and had even tried aikido. I welcome him to the seminar and he gracefully bows out but promises to come if he can clear his schedule. I hand him a copy of The Leadership Dojo and he looks carefully at the title and then innocently says, “I’ve read some books by him” and then looks up startled, “That’s you!” and we all get a good laugh at the “shrinking world” and have a robust conversation ranging from martial techniques to walking a path of awakening.

The ambassadorial staff, the Gunnery Sergeant and five Marines from the Marine Security Detachment, the deputy ambassador, and Yvon, take their seats. I begin with introducing a brief history of Aikido and how Tes and I became connected through the Training Across Borders Seminar in Cyprus in 2005 and how he eventually came to live and train with me as uchi deshi (live-in student) at the Two Rock Dojo in California. Tes, with a prepared slide show and video, tells the history of Aikido in Ethiopia. Then the slide show breaks down. With all the marvels of technology assumed to be present at the largest U.S. Embassy in Africa, the seeming disregard for well-made plans in Ethiopia instantly dismisses us. The marvel of uncertainty, the alarming fluidity of Ethiopians to adapt to uncertainty amazes. Tes nods to the breakdown but doesn’t miss a beat as he continues and then moves into the demonstration itself. The audience heaves to life as bodies are suddenly flying through the air, thrown about, pinned to the floor, smile as they energetically jump to their feet to return the favor, nod in appreciation when a particular good move is executed. I’m reminded of what a beautiful art it is, as if I am seeing it for the first time through their eyes, as I did forty-five years ago in a quonset hut in the jungles of Kauai.

We complete with a question answer period in which the embassy staff suddenly comes alive with questions as do the stern faced Marines as they inquire into what they were seeing.  One of the Marines qualified as an instructor in the Marine Corps Martial Art Program (MCMAP) and another one has his brown belt and they’re keen to show what they know so we’re on our feet with them trading techniques and counters and feeling for openings and having fun. They’re intrigued that I helped design and implement MCMAP in 2001 and I’m folded in by the mystery that it’s in Ethiopia that some circle is completed as I tell them how it began as a vision from the Commandant General Jim Jones.

At the end of the demonstration, the deputy ambassador in attendance inquires about the possibility of one or more of the senior students from Aikido Ethiopia begin to offer classes at the Embassy. In addition, two of the Marine guards subsequently attend two days of training during the Aikido seminar; and Rudy, the 22 year old Nidan demonstrating, and first black Africa woman to receive a Dan ranking in sub-Sahara Africa, will present an Aikido demonstration and lecture during the U.S. Embassy’s annual Action Against Gender-Based Violence.

We walk to our car in the bright sunlight happy and tired. I look over at Tes and he has a big smile on his face.

Continue to Report #5 Here.