In October of 2008, I travelled to Awassa, Ethiopia, to offer aikido training to Tesfaye Tukulu, a very talented martial art instructor with a background in Karate, Tai Kwon Do and Wu Shu. A year earlier he had come to Cyprus for “Training Across Borders”, an event organized through Aiki Extensions. This event brought Israeli and Arab martial artists from across the Middle East to train together in the peaceful art of Aikido.
Tesfaye’s gentle, powerful and respectful demeanor drew the attention of several of the teachers presenting there. Aikido ignited Tes. After the summit, he immediately began Aikido training in earnest and opened the first Aikidodojo in Ethiopia.
Several teachers, including myself went to Awassa to teach aikido to Tesfaye. Tes was co-directing the Awassa Youth Project (AYP), a tiny community center he had co-founded in the heart of the city. When I arrived, the center was bursting with activity. Kids of all ages migrated between a very small aikido dojo, an even smaller music room, an art nook and an outdoor area with mats. They used the mats for dance, acrobatics, and theatrical rehearsals for their circus show. Their travelling troupe raised awareness about aids and social justice issues as they performed around Africa.
The first night after landing in Awassa, Tes and a few of the other organizers took us out on the town. After some tibs (a traditional goat dish), chororsaa- (spicey beans) and injera (Ethiopian flat bread) we went out to a bar to dance.
My son, Sam was with us. Already a masterful tap dancer at 19 years of age, he had brought 20 pairs of tap shoes with him so that he could teach dance to the children at AYP. Also proficient at hip-hop, salsa, and other forms of dance, Sam, a tall strapping redhead was used to having all eyes on him when he got on the dance floor. This night, as Tesfaye stepped out, all we could do was stand and stare at this young man who danced so joyfully, powerfully, gracefully and fully in his body.
Into the night we danced, tasting some of the local drink and having a lot of fun.
Then at one point, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Tes quietly escort two of the women that had come with us out of the bar. In close pursuit was a very large, muscular man. Something didn’t feel right to me, so I followed them at a discrete distance. Tes ushered the two women into a taxi and as he turned around, this very large and now angry looking man stepped up to him. I could not understand what was being said, but the tone and posturing of the big man was clearly confrontational. Later, Tes translated what had transpired in English for me.
Once outside, the man accused Tes of getting in the way of his advances toward one of the women. Clearly trying to provoke a fight, his voice grew louder as he took off his shirt and exposed his rippling muscled chest and six-pack. Looking on at this spectacle, my heart began to race. I had studied martial arts for 30 years and reflexively began to ready myself if I was needed. In the face of this menacing posturing, Tes, surprisingly calm, looked at him and said in a clear and genuinely curious manner,
“Wow! You are really built. Where do you work out?”
The angry look on the man’s face shifted to one of surprise. Somewhat dumbfounded, the man just said, “What?”
Tes said, “ I was wondering where you work out? You’re in incredible shape and I am looking for a new gym to work out in too.”
At that point, the man’s demeanor began to soften as he responded to Tes’s genuine interest in something he clearly valued himself. The subject soon changed to workout regimes and it was right about that point, I went back into the bar.
Tes walked back in to the bar and did not know that I had witnessed the interaction. When I asked him what was going on, he said amicably,
“Oh nothing, I was just talking to a new friend”.
My aikido teacher, Sensei Koichi Barrish, once said to me:
“When someone attacks, you surround them in kindness, a ‘ki‘ field” and he/she will have nothing to resist.”
In that moment of impending conflict, Tes’s practice kicked in. He allowed his embodied learning to lead. Creatively listening with all his senses, he waited for a moment of clarity to guide his intention into action. The above story reflects his ongoing commitment to a way of peace and the recognition that we are all in this together.