In a nondescript room below the Hillbrow Theatre, Roberto Orlando has been teaching inner-city children judo for the past few months. The dojo is filled with bright red and yellow judo mats. The flags of countries such as Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Angola are draped on the wall. It has become a meeting spot for South African and migrant children alike.
Orlando, originally from Italy, has worked in Ethiopia, Somalia, the DRC and now South Africa, teaching the principles of judo to as many children as possible. He said that through the sport, people can forget about their differences and learn about each other.
Judo for the World is a programme aimed at community upliftment, crime prevention and social cohesion. Orlando recently organised a workshop in which South African schoolchildren spent the morning with a judo class made up of mostly migrants.
Coming after the latest wave of xenophobic violence in September, when 12 people were killed, Orlando said the Judo for the World school outreach programme hopes to break down misconceptions about migrants.
“It is critical to start at a young age,” he said. “Our aim is to never give up. In particular now, in Johannesburg, we have seen some very gruesome, very bad events in relation to xenophobia. We have to work more with schools and use judo as a platform for children to come together. Xenophobia should stop at school level because that is the first interaction of children. That is where we can do something.”
Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Orlando has developed similar programmes in many of the countries in which he has worked.
“The main idea … is to use judo as a social cohesion platform for refugees and host communities in South Africa. Judo has the power to bring together people from different backgrounds, as well as to transfer a moral code to the youth,” he said.
Judo’s moral code is built around the principles of self-control, discipline, respect, honour, courage, friendship and modesty. “They are all values we transmit on the mat with the youth,” said Orlando.
One morning before school holidays, with the help of the Outreach Foundation in Hillbrow, Orlando arranged to bring together a class from an inner-city school of mostly South African children with a group of mostly migrant children from his judo dojo.
One of the mothers of a child from the DRC made traditional Congolese food that includes spiced fish, cassava, fumbwa (wild spinach), rice and plantains. Through judo and sharing a meal, Orlando and Michael “Bra Mike” Mkhwanazi, a facilitator from the Outreach Foundation, taught the children about migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and encouraged them to think carefully about questions of belonging.
“When you are watching, it looks like a violent sport. But it is about learning and discipline. The reason we are here is to unite the nation, unite the world, but especially, unite the continent,” Mkhwanazi told the children attending the workshop.
He worked carefully with the children through ideas of who is a migrant and who isn’t, asking each one of them where they’re from. “The word ‘foreigner’, when it comes to your mind, what does it mean?” he asked the children, with many of them answering with variations of “someone who is not from here”.
“So a person who comes from the Eastern Cape or KwaZulu-Natal, are they a foreigner?” he asked. The children almost unanimously answered no, with one child explaining: “The Eastern Cape is not another country. Foreigners are people from other countries, not other provinces.”
Food as unifier
The children already seemed to have deeply held views. Mkhwanazi tried another tactic, using food. Earlier, while the children shared a meal, some children from Zimbabwe remarked how similar fumbwa was to muriwo (a Zimbabwean equivalent).
“What are we learning here?” he asked. “It tastes the same, but it is different. What are we learning out of this? Food from Congo is no different to food from Zimbabwe, and it is no different from what we know here as spinach. Now you understand that there is no difference between the food. And there is no difference between us.”
One of the older boys from the DRC commented in response: “We all come from different places, some Congo, some Southern Africa, but we are all one. We all come from different places but we are all one. There is no foreigner.”
Mkhwanazi then asked the children what a refugee was. Many of them or their parents came to South Africa as refugees themselves. The children’s understanding of what a refugee was and why some people were forced to flee their homes wasn’t something Mkhwanazi had to spend a lot of time on.
The conversation was starting to break down notions of “foreignness”. Both Mkhwanazi and Orlando said this was just the first step to changing attitudes around migrants.
While wrapping up the morning, Mkhwanazi asked: “Can a foreigner be a friend of yours?” to which all the children resoundingly answered “Yes!” It looked like success, but Mkhwanazi and Orlando agree that more needs to be done to find common ground between people.