Report #6 From Abyssinia: First Night: Opening New Vistas

*This is the sixth 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 first day of the East African Aikido Seminar is packed with last minute details and adjusting to the endless stream of changes: flights from Kenya and Djibouti are cancelled and need to be re-scheduled, visa problems for Tanzania students, finalizing room and board assignments for out of town students, transportation for westerners from hotel to facility and back, the truck bringing the mats has broken down, new negotiations needed for the facility fee, bathrooms don’t work in the women’s dressing room, and on and on. This doesn’t indicate that planning and plans were left to the last minute; our team and Tes’ Ethiopia team had spent countless hours mapping this out. It’s just that we, the ‘we’ being us westerners, are receiving first hand training in the old saw that the map is not the territory…no matter how good you are at Google spread sheets life takes over, especially in the mysteries of Abyssinia. Tes and his team move fluidly from one breakdown to another without panic or hysteria, the spirit of aikido ever present in the way they blend with change.

We set the Dojo up in the Ras Hailu Gym which is about a 15-20 minute drive from our hotel depending on traffic, and a 45 minute walk depending on how much time you want to absorb the street culture. The cavernous gym has not yet officially opened and the seminar will be the first to initiate it, except for a loft of pigeons that have already taken up residence in the upper rafters.  As the evening unfolds four unplanned and distinct inflection points spontaneously occur, reflecting the future shape of aikido in East Africa.

First, before the seminar begins a woman in colorful native dress regally officiates the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony just off the mat. There is a brazier with heated coals billowing clouds of frankincense along with the aromatic richness of Ethiopian coffee wafting across the dojo; cut marsh grasses are spread along the floor. Whenever you enter someone’s house in Ethiopia a coffee ceremony will take place in your honor. The aikidoka from across East Africa and America are being honored in this ancient way. To her right is the One Love Band playing Rock and Roll, Reggae, Pop, World, Ethio jazz, and contemporary Ethiopian music. Tes has lived and played with these musicians since he was a teen-ager in his music studio in Hawassa and they were original members of the One Love Band and Theatre group and the newly formed Aikido Ethiopia a decade ago. Now they are famous throughout the country and have come to play for us on opening night and for the party we will have two nights later. This is an eye-popping first for the beginning of any aikido seminar anywhere, and it signals this being truly an African event run by Africans.

Second, the elders are late and we are not sure why and not even sure they will appear. As we collect to revise our plan people spontaneously step on the mat and begin to train with each other. There is no formal bowing in, or a teacher leading, or an announcement about a change in time, or any customary protocol at all. It’s as if the mat is a magnet collectively drawing all the aikidoka into a whirling, dynamic spiral where they begin to joyfully and collaboratively practice together. There is a grace and beauty present that is moving us without instruction or the usual formalities of how a class or seminar should be conducted. This is a collective energy shaping us that is larger than all of our plans or considerations. The incense and coffee filling the air, the music guiding our pace and rhythm, the pigeons gliding overhead, students laughing, tumbling, pinning each other as if governed by forces that are unsaid and unseen, where a spirit of oneness truly becomes a living reality. There is rigor, love, and a deep pulse that is moving through the entire Dojo. I squeeze the trembling in my eyes so the tears don’t roll and say to Tes, “It’s happening. The seminar has begun. It’s bigger than us now.”

The third inflection point is probably the most significant and the one that will most likely, and hopefully, have the largest influence. Without announcement or display the five Elders quietly enter the Dojo. Everyone in the room stops what they’re doing and stands and turns to them and we all clap in unison as they walk in. These are the elders and their representatives from the Amhara, Oromo, Tigray, Sidamo and Kore tribes. They line up facing the students and guests and the Aba Geda from the Oromo tribe blesses the seminar with a chant that fills the entire space and sends chills up our spine. This is radically significant in that this is the first time that the younger generation sees these tribal elders all in the same place at the same time. It’s a monumental historic first. This was Tes’ brilliant idea when he saw the opportunity for a new image being presented to the younger generation of these tribes who are all present tonight (remember that over 65% of Ethiopians are under twenty-five years old). This generation and previous generations have never thought it a possibility that these leaders would all come together in a cultural exchange. In addition Tes, and Demelesh and Tariknu are from traditionally warring tribes and they themselves also present this model of working and creating together without animosity. We framed this as a cultural exchange so we weren’t simply showing the virtues of aikido in creating a more peaceful society, but learning from these Elders how they have historically dealt with conflict. Furthermore, this was the first time that these elders had ever been in the same room together. This was new to them as well. This was just the beginning as the next two and half days and nights we would be sharing the same space allowing this image to find fertile ground to grow and flourish in our psyches.  The Elders then seated themselves behind a table and watched us begin the inaugural East African Aikido Seminar.

The fourth inflection point arrived when a black out occurred during Linda Holiday Sensei’s class. The darkness was immediate and we could barely make out the figures moving in and out of the gloaming. Linda moved gracefully with the situation presenting it as a practice of blending yet cautioning everyone to be even more attentive. There was a real concern that someone might inadvertently get hurt. We continued but moved slowly when inexplicably a shard of light appeared and then a bit more and then it became apparent that all the visitors, including band members, were standing at the edge of the mat pointing the flashlights from their cell phones at the mat. A globe of light appeared at the center of the mat from this collective spirit. No one lead it, there was no instruction of what to do, there was no one organizing it, but rather there was an energy that began to move everyone into a positive, generative action that served the whole. Then someone opened the doors and shined the headlights of a car into the building. While the rest of Ras Hailu Gym was in darkness a luminescence emanated from the mat.

There was an emergent process that become apparent when everyone spontaneously began training without a declared beginning, and then again when people stepped forward unprompted to shine their flashlights into the darkness. It made me think of the fireflies on the Mae Klong River in Amphawa, Thailand that blink on and off in unison without any central, hierarchical command. There is a nuanced, powerful force that occurs when a group of committed, bright people in a shared practice, all face downfield together. Those of us on and off the mat were doing aikido in both manifest and hidden ways, moved by the music of a deep song of creation. What would it be like to have a community, an organization, a nation that evoked this living, embodied emergent process that organized life towards affirmation and generativity. When Tes bowed in to teach after Linda the lights suddenly came on with whoops of laughter and somehow signatory that this was a seminar to be led and taught by Africans guided by the ineffable power of aiki.