Mention the names Khaya and Kevin Groth, Bokang Matsake, Loagonyana Phefo or even Ofentse Bakwadi and people will think karate, gold as well as silver medals.
However, there is one other name that is synonymous with these karate success stories, Sensei Mpho Bakwadi.
Sensei Bakwadi is not only the youngest highly ranked karateka in the country; he is the instructor and the force behind all the above mentioned names.
For Bakwadi karate is not just another sport; it is a way of life ÔÇô a lifetime sport. According to Bakwadi, his journey into karate dates back to 1986 while doing his first year at Naledi Secondary School.
Forced to defend himself against bullies at New Stance and Bontleng locations, he decided to take self defense classes to protect himself.
“I joined boxing but they (other boxers) were too good for me. However I knew that if I used my kicks as well as my hands, I could beat them, so I quit boxing and joined karate,” he tells Standard Sport.
These incidents, though not good, landed Botswana one of its most gifted karateka ever. His love and passion for karate was so good even hardships did not deter him from active participation in the sport.
“When I started, there was karate at school but I believed it was just not good enough. I then joined Sensei Socca Moruakgomo’s karate club. Back then, it cost P30 a month to join the club and I sold returnable bottles to pay for my club fees,” he recalls.
This was not the only hurdle in Sensei Bakwadi’s path. His mother was not keen on his son joining contact sports, but lucky for him, his father was supportive and this enabled him to continue his involvement in karate.
As a karateka, Bakwadi’s achievements speak volumes of his passion and love for the sport.
Though he has achieved a lot in the sport, the one that stands out has to be the 1994 Shuko-Kai World Championships in Japan, where he emerged a champion.
“It was amazing,” he tells Standard Sport. “When I got back to the hotel where I was staying during the championships, people were lining up to get my autograph, but when I got home, there was no one to even welcome me back home,” he says.
The soft spoken Bakwadi credits karate with shaping him into the person he is today, disciplined, respectful and patient. Once disqualified from the All Africa Games for nearly knocking the lights out of an opponent and causing him to vomit in the ring, Bakwadi knows how dangerous karate can be if its practitioners are undisciplined.
He holds a Fifth Dan Black Belt, a grade he shares with his former instructor Sensei Moruakgomo as well as Sensei Million Masumbika. He is also the chief instructor of Botswana Hayashi-ha Karate Union and the coach of the Botswana’s Karate National Team.
In his more than twenty years involved in the sport as an athlete as well as an instructor, Bakwadi has seen sport karate become perhaps one of the most successful sporting codes in the country. Results for the country have however not brought the sport the recognition it so richly deserves. According to Bakwadi, Karate has not yet received the funding needed to help it achieve its potential.
“When we went to Zimbabwe for the Zone 6 Championships, the athletes were each given $60 (equivalent of P600) and I as the coach was also given the same amount. What can you do with that amount?” he asks?
According to Bakwadi, this shortage of funds restricts the growth of karate as they cannot afford to send as many athletes as they wish to elite competitions to give them the necessary exposure.
Due to this lack of funding, karate may not be able to send athletes to the coming Commonwealth Games, despite the sport continuing to fly the country’s flag high on the international stage.
Whilst decrying the lack of funding faced by karate, Bakwadi is also cautious of the harm that may be caused by commercializing the sport. He says due to chasing money in the name of karate fees, the quality of competitive sportsmen produced suffers as many are pushed through grading to keep them happy. He says while he does charge monthly fees, he gains no profit as the money is channeled into gym rentals which are as high as P150 an hour. As part of giving back to the sport, he has volunteered to coach two clubs, one in Old Naledi and another at SOS Children’s Village without getting paid.
Despite karate not being an Olympic sport, The National Karate Team coach is optimistic that soon the sport will be allowed at the Olympics and he believes once admitted, Botswana will get medals.
Bakwadi’s optimism is not unfounded. If he continues to produce as many youngsters in the mold of six-year-old US Open gold medalist, Bokang Matsake, and the Groth brothers, the sky may be the limit for karate sport in Botswana.