Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa


I started taking karate lessons with Sensei Jim MacDonald when I was six years old.  He embodied all the paradoxes a Sensei is supposed to: wise yet open-minded, powerful yet gentle, serious yet flexible.

True karate is supposed to enhance your mind, body, and soul.  To improve our souls, Sensei would begin each class with a speech regarding a moral or social topic.  Sometimes he’d discuss the usual things kids need to hear such as “Don’t bully others.”  Other times the topics were more complex.  It took me years to realize the full significance of many of his lessons.

One of his lessons came back to me last week:

My colleagues and I often walk to the grocery store during lunch.  If no one else wants to go, I often walk alone (despite their protestations) just to get of the office for a while.

In this neighbourhood, men talk to me and I ignore them.  Sometimes when a man says hello and I don’t acknowledge him, he’ll yell “Hee Haw” as I walk away.  I’m not sure what the donkey braying is supposed to mean – my colleagues won’t tell me – but somehow I doubt it’s a compliment.

There’s one man who always hangs outside the grocery store who particularly enjoys yelling “Hee Haw” at me.

Apparently the intern I took over for used to get in confrontations with this guy.  She’d yell obscenities at him while he brayed at her.  My colleague told me, “I’m glad you don’t seem to care.”

“Why would I care?” I asked.  “I’m not going to let some stranger affect my mood.  He’s not worth it.”

Sensei used to teach us Shotokan karate to protect us from physical domination, but one of his lesson topics focused on emotional domination.  He told us that people would try to control us using different techniques – that unfortunately a lot of people need to oppress others to feel powerful.  He said that the easiest and most subtle way for someone to control you is to affect your emotions.

He’d use examples that children could understand.  For instance, by letting a bully’s taunting affect you gave him the power to make you sad.

He told us we needed to be stronger than these insecure people.  Ultimately we control our own responses: you can’t pick a situation but you can always control your reactions to it.

Part of me wants to pity the man with nothing to do but yell “Hee Haw” at strangers.  Mostly, however, I don’t waste my time thinking about him.

When life gives you lemons, I prefer lemon merengue pie to lemonade.


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