Dubai jiu-jitsu instructor empowers orphans in Zimbabwe

Cezar Takeyoshi Ikeharara travelled to Africa to teach children about confidence

Cezar Takeyoshi Ikehara, 50, is a long way from his Brazilian jiu-jitsu school in Dubai.

He is at an orphanage on the outskirts of Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, but is totally at home.

Mr Ikehara’s academy in Motor City has a Zen vibe and is an oasis of calm. The floor is lined with white mats, the walls with Japanese paintings and there are potted plants throughout.

In Harare he is using old judo mats laid out on a football pitch, surrounded by uncut grass and bordered by rusty, net-less goalposts.

In Dubai he trains bankers, investors, computer programmers and traders. In Harare he is training orphans, many of them left parentless by the HIV epidemic that has swept the country.

“Jiu-jitsu is amazing,” says Mr Ikehara, a Brazilian who has called the Emirates home for the last eight years.

“Look how happy the kids are and look at how it connects us.”

A ticket out

Mr Ikehara, a black belt and former world champion, has come to Zimbabwe with the sole purpose of using jiu-jitsu to empower orphans.

The next world champion could come from Zimbabwe. There is so much enthusiasm here, it’s incredible
Cezar Takeyoshi Ikeharara, Jiu Jitsu instructor

“This has brought me back twenty years,” says Mr Ikehara who, before moving to the Emirates, used to run a charity project in his native Brazil, teaching jiu-jitsu in the favelas.

“Today kids from that project are teaching and competing all over the world,” he says.

“When I teach the kids, I tell them a black belt is a passport to the world, they can go anywhere.”

Mr Ikehara first moved to the Emirates to train the nation’s military, but it is clear his gift is in connecting with children. Boys and girls, ranging in age from 4 to 19, crowd around him and hang on his every word. Even though many don’t speak English they are drawn by his enthusiasm and passion.

“I give my heart to teach you,” Mr Ikehara says at one of the sessions.

“I promise you I will do my best to keep coming back.

“We [jiu-jitsu] are a family. We teach discipline, respect and community. We all help each other.”

Cezar Takeyoshi Ikeharara tell the children he teaches that jiu-jitsu could be their ticket around the world. Photo: Tim Albone

Finding a better path

In Brazil Mr Ikehara helped steer children away from a life of crime. In the favelas drugs, gangs and violence are a way of life. He saw how jiu-jitsu could give children purpose, resilience, opportunity and community.

While Zimbabwe doesn’t have the same gang and crime problems that Brazil has, the southern African country does have its own difficulties. More than a quarter of all children under 18 in Zimbabwe aren’t living with either parent, most of them have been abandoned or orphaned, figures compiled by Unicef show.

Many of those orphaned have lost parents to Aids. Zimbabwe has an HIV infection rate of about 12 per cent, one of the highest in the world.

To start his sessions Mr Ikehara picks the smallest child and asks them to perform the ‘balloon sweep’, a move in which they have to throw the 85kg Brazilian over their shoulders and into a forward roll. He calls it the ‘superhero’; it builds immediate trust and breaks the ice. The children clap as Mr Ikehara falls to the mat, slapping his hand down loudly as he breaks his fall.

A broad smile crosses his face. “With jiu-jitsu anything is possible," he says.

"What is so perfect about it is that it engages the body and the mind. Whenever I am stressed, I do jiu-jitsu, it is my Prozac.”

A way out of grief

Mr Ikehara knows the healing power of jiu-jitsu after it helped him to cope with the death of his son.

“I was happy in Brazil, I had my own academy, my own house and never thought about leaving.”

When his son died, aged 13, he stopped jiu-jitsu for a year and became depressed. When he returned to the sport, he found it helped with the pain. It was also the death of his son that led to him leaving Brazil and ultimately ending up visiting Zimbabwe.

“I know jiu-jitsu can help,” he says, “It helped me.”

While Mr Ikehara is only in Zimbabwe for a week, he spends time training local teachers so they can carry on his work after he has left. His dream is to build a non-profit school in Harare where disadvantaged children can train for free.

“The next world champion could come from Zimbabwe,” he says, “There is so much enthusiasm here, it’s incredible.”

Updated: May 13, 2022, 3:35 AM