One year ago I packed my GI and took a plane from England to South Africa, without a hint of what was waiting for me there. Would there be any grappling at all? If so, what would be the level? Were those guys training like in Europe or North America? I did not know, but adventure is my middle name, so I decided to take a risk and went there for a month. If worse came to worst, at least I would surf Jeffreys Bay, one of my dreams since I started surfing, so I was amped anyway.
My first stop was in Johannesburg. The city is about 2 thousand meters above the ocean level, the temperatures are mild but the air is so dry that lip balms are a must. I arrived there and was introduced to some guys that were teaching there. My first questions were simple: how long have you been training grappling, how big is the scene here, and so on.
As a pleasant surprise, they have been training for longer than 5 years and the level was very good, but a lot of basics were missing in most of the students. Not surprisingly, considering the fact that they were training without access to real black belt coaches. My task was not difficult, but a lot of work needed to be done. I stayed 2 weeks in Johannesburg and worked along with my new students to improve their basics and training methods. The outcome was excellent, and in the end I had not one, but 3 clubs working together under the Rio Grappling Club banner. It was time to travel further south and look for waves at the coast…
I arrived in Port Elizabeth expecting to see the same as in Joburg, but unfortunately the scene here was a lot smaller, there were small groups training in garages and judo clubs, but as a personal goal I decided to spend my time here building the club from scratch. Things not always work out, as people sometimes have different priorities in life, and one expecting to make lots of money in BJJ should first invest time in learning it properly and then move to America, cause Africa, like Brasil, is not rich and is a mission to survive from the sport. Only people with love for the grappling can really keep it going.
Anyway, I did not realise all of it then, in my first trip I was so charmed by the beauty of the place and its waves, that I decided that I would come back.
I Also visited Cape Town, aka the Mother City, as it was the first european settlement in South Africa. 2 days were not enough to feel the vibe of this gorgeous place, but the interest in my classes were not there, so I was back to Joburg in time for some more classes and fly back to Europe.
In November I came back and revisited Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, and things were happening fast, all my coaches had improved a lot since April, and the numbers increased even more in Joburg. I had more time to know our students there, learn about their lifestyles and goals, and a strong bond was cementing the base for a solid growth of our club in the biggest city of this country, so different and so similar to my own in many aspects.
The arrival of Marina Veronese, a brazilian brown belt that came to SA to work as an engineer and was training with my students, also helped as she brought a very technical game. Things in Joburg could not be better, our group in Northcliff under Wiekus Swart was shining with so much talent. Ryan, Dennis, Brad, Sergio and Liam received their purple belts then.
The main fact that made our people in Joburg improve was the cooperation between the 3 coaches. Bobby, Wiekus and Nathan are not worried about each other and so help all the students as if they were their own. This is only possible when people are sure about their own capabilities and what make our groups so strong. RGC Joburg is actually 3 different groups, but their strenght is their ability to work and train together, putting differences aside and bringing the level of everyone up. I am confident that this will reflect not only in the results in local and national grappling tournaments, but ultimately bring South Africa to the highest level.
In the other hand, things barely improved in PE from my first to my second trip, numbers were the same, politics were playing along, and there was not much I could do. Expecting things to happen in the future, I spent time training a few guys there, and since I was hosted by him, I made friends with Jan-Hendrik, a heavy surfer that was starting to learn BJJ.
JH is a unique guy, that kind of person you either love or hate, very amped about the things he is involved with, from sculptures to paddle-up surfing, and he wanted to learn all about BJJ in a week. Of course this is not possible, but we made a video to coach him through the basics of the sport, and I left PE promising that if he studied the video thoroughly, we would have a great chance to get his blue belt in my next trip.
When I was back in Europe, winter has already started and soon I was back in Brasil. During my stay, I asked Robinson Machado to come with me to SA, in order to help me coaching and have an opportunity to see this beautiful place and catch some waves. Plans were made, and last month me and Robinson came together to Africa to work and train our guys.
I arrived a bit earlier and did a No Gi seminar in Johannesburg for 35 people, and 3 days later Rob came and together we moved between the clubs, doing classes and training every day for 10 days. My impression in Joburg is that everyone enjoyed training with my friend, he speaks little english, but makes up for it with a big smile, a great attitude and patience to correct people when sparring. We packed our things to go down to PE.
Things have changed for worse there, because the guy I trusted first to be the coach in PE was not interested in teaching at all. Soon he realised there was not much money to be made without investing a lot of time and effort first, and without passion for the sport, things were going so wrong that I did not know what to do. My friend Robinho noticed that and told me that changes must be made, in order to keep the spirit of our association alive. Robinho was one of my first students, he knows me very well and shares my vision, and opened my eyes. It always hurts when we realise that someone we taught and trusted is not worth of it, but it is part of life, we must deal with that in the best way. Luckily this guy realised himself he was not welcome and asked to leave, making things easier for us in the long term.
On the other hand, JH has brought along some of his friends and a small but dedicated group has started since November. Also, in Jeffrey’s Bay some of his friends just put down mats in their garage and a new seed has germinated. Things are starting to happen, and with time this small plant will become strong like a Baobab, that huge tree found in the bushes of Africa.
Putting everything together, I do not regret a single moment I spent in Africa, I see that grappling has a bright future in SA, with people like Wiekus, Bobby, Nathan, Sergio and Jan-Hendrik, we shall grow strong and I am looking forward to come back next year for more.
Our organisation is looking for grapplers in Durban, Cape Town, East London and other places in South Africa to help us bring our martial art and its benefits to more people, but their attitude must be the same as ours, we are not interested in arrogant, bullys or proud people, and even less in the ones that think they can become rich in one or two years. BJJ is a commitment for life, and unlike most organisations that charge crazy fee, the Rio Grappling Club is committed to excellence, and only people with the same vibes are welcome here. We are still learning, but we are also teaching all we learned without holding back anything.