Nothing in her appearance suggests that she may not be the right person to pick up a fight with. Looking a bit chubby and always cheerful, Hajia Zainab Saleh, immediate past president, International Women Society, IWS, is as tough as a nail. Having engaged in active martial arts training for over 35 years, she told Nseobong Okon-Ekong that she has the knowledge to seriously injure anyone who tries to attack her and why she has instituted a self-styled international women Karate competition

The motion of flying hands and fists stabbed the space between us frequently during the interview as she gestured to drive home her point. Everything she was saying converged on one spot: Love drove her to do it. Love for the sport that has taken her over since she was 10 years.

Hajia Zainab Saleh, immediate past president, International Women Society, IWS, is a woman of many parts, but every activity of hers is securely anchored on her passion for Karate. It is the one thing that she has firmly put her name and sought to perpetrate it beyond a lifetime. Like many children her age, at the time, her 10 year old mind was impressed by the quick action and assumedly invincibility of martial arts icon, Bruce Lee. Saleh lived then in Mexico City with her father who was a diplomat. Convinced she wanted to be like Bruce Lee, she approached her father and told him. Her request was obliged. Along with her brother, they were enrolled in a Karate school in Mexico City. And thus began a lifelong romance with the sport.

The alertness was not only observed in the quickness of her hands, there was vigilance in her eyes. She was attentive to the reporter and yet she was alive to her environment. We were in the restaurant of Check-In Hotel in the Wuse area of Abuja. She had earlier excused herself from a meeting to field my questions. As we continued to talk, a few persons wanted her attention. Without getting up or truncating the discourse, she simply acknowledged their presence with a nod or a wink and continued talking.

Saleh may not be as active as she used to be when she was younger. With more responsibilities in her work place, she does not have as much time to train. As she began to number a few of the executive caps that she wears, one could not help but wonder at how she was able to cope as Managing Director of Brains and Hammers Facility Management Limited, Managing Director of File Right Limited and Executive Director of Check-In Hotel. But she has not stopped training altogether. Her commitment is far greater. For as long as she lives and enjoys good health, she will always find the time to train. There may be interruptions in training, but she can never let go of the sport. More importantly, she has taken her interest in Karate to another level with her passion to develop the sport in Nigeria.

As the daughter of a diplomat, Saleh was privileged to see the world, travelling as frequently as her father was posted. Today, she is even more appreciative of the privileges that Karate has afforded her. Being the Chaperon for the Nigerian Karate Team and also a member of the technical committee of the Nigeria Karate Federation, she made quite a few trips. She is the Technical Director of the Karate Association in Lagos State, as well and a continental referee in Karate. It is particularly a thing of pride for her to be recognized in Africa for the sports she loves.

With her love for Karate, Saleh has broken the cast of the typical woman from the conservative Northern Nigeria. She had been primed to do this with her secondary education at Queens College, Lagos and the United Kingdom. She would later earn two degrees in Bio-chemistry and another in English Literature from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Such amazing diversity in academic pursuits is one of the things that make Saleh intriguing. “Oh, I have always been arts and science inclined,” she said laughing. It is even more fascinating to hear her confess that she has done nothing with those degrees. Rather she has found herself working in the hospitality industry. She is also into facility and document management.

Beyond her nine-to-five jobs, in 2014, Saleh decided to have an all-female Karate championship in order to address her belief that female sport tend to be a little bit more underdeveloped than their male counterpart. “We don’t compete together, but we may train together.”onised over how to develop female karate in Lagos and in the country at large. A big burden of responsibility was lifted off her mind the day she decided to sponsor a female karate event which would be internationally acclaimed; and would follow international standard. So far, there’d been two editions and she is happy and proud with the outcome. “I have single handedly sponsored these events. We are going into the third edition. Every year, it increases in attendance and participation. This year, we decided to add a little twist to it by bringing in a Japanese master who is a Fifth Dan in Karate. That is endearing the practitioners of the sport to try as much as possible to come to the event, which is taking place between June 3 and 5 at the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos.”

Karate has transformed in many ways since the early days. She explained the change. “There is a big difference between sport Karate and traditional Karate. In those days, you were always taught to make sure that your stances were correct, your hands movements were correct, but as you go into Sports Karate, some of these stances have to change, in terms of your goal being to win your competition. Sometimes we see some differences in terms of techniques.”

With incidents of rape and other forms of physical abuse against women on the rise, Saleh would encourage females (and also encourage males) to get serious with Karate for many reasons. Number One, it is a sport; two, it teaches self-defense; three for the discipline; four, for its exercise value. “It is such a disciplined sport that you don’t get up anyhow and say that you are going to practice your Karate on anybody because of the discipline in the way you are taught to perform your art. It is a sport like any other; like football, like judo, like basketball. As a sports person, I would encourage everybody, especially females to try and do something. I know what I have gained from it.

I know what people can gain from it. I would definitely encourage women to practice Karate. It is important because you learn to defend yourself. Because you have trained over and over again, it comes naturally to you. If I find myself in a dire situation, there are certain things that would just come naturally to me; quick movements here and there, it is because I have done that over and over again, it has become part of me. As you train over and over again, you would be able to defend yourself against rapists, if they attack you. It is a sport to encourage. It is a sport that I would encourage anybody, especially women to take an interest in.”

Saleh further explained the difference in the various types of martial arts -Karate, Jijuitsu, Taekwondo. “It is a question of where they originated from. Karate originated from Japan, while Taekwondo originated from Korea. At some point in time, the Japanese were the colonial masters of the Koreans. What happened is that they took their traditional sports and taught it to the Koreans, especially to the military, when the Japanese left, they did not want to have any association with the Japanese, so they remodeled what they had learnt and that is how Taekwondo came about. You find that in terms of how they execute certain things-like how they stand and their kicks, they differ from ours. We are more traditional in ensuring that our kicks are proper, our stances are low; whereas in Taekwondo, they are always up and they use their kicks a lot.”

Fortunately, Saleh has never had to use her knowledge of Karate to defend herself. “That is where the discipline comes in. Even if you are challenged and you know somebody is looking for a fight, you walk away. We have been taught that if anything threatens you, the first thing you do is to run away. If you can’t get out of that situation, then you stay and fight. Everything we learn is a potential danger to an opponent. I can crack his ribs. I can remove his eyes. I can sprain his neck or his back, from certain movements that we do. Hardly would you find a practitioner of martial arts involved in a street or domestic fight. They won’t. They are disciplined enough to ignore or walk away from that situation. They are that deadly. They can cause serious bodily harm if they have to stay and fight. I have never had to fight anyone. I thank God that I don’t have to and I pray that I won’t have to.”

Saleh grew from traditional Karate to Sports Karate. In her younger years, she used to go for various competitions to represent Queens College and her club. But Sports Karate has developed. “Majority of the time when we were going for competition, we made sure that whatever attack or defence we were using was properly executed and they were more based on traditional techniques. In traditional Karate if you make a punch, you expect that your punch goes straight, but when you are fighting, you don’t take all that time to ensure a punch is straight. It takes too long to execute in sports. In traditional, they want to see the movement and then you bring it back. You can see the difference if you are somebody who is quite observant. There are differences in how you are expected to execute your techniques.”
Saleh espouses a pan-Nigerian vision that does not restrict her sports development effort to her home state of Borno. “It is difficult to develop the sports there. The best I can do is to encourage our athletes to attend the various programmes.

For example, this particular championship is not just open to Lagos State, it is open to everybody in the nation. What we try to do is make sure that we get the message out. The only way we can develop the sport is to make sure that we have enough competitions for people to take part in. That is what we lack. We don’t have money. It is a general problem for sports in Nigeria. If you are not football, nobody wants to hear. To get money from the ministry is difficult. Nobody wants to give you anything. We have to rely on individuals and some organisations for sponsorship. When I was very active in the Karate Federation of Nigeria and we were trying to look for sponsorship, I went to an organisation and they asked why they should sponsor Karate. They wanted to know what they would get out of it.

They thought Karate was not a viewer sport. The question is how many people would go and watch Karate? The problem with that is, if you don’t reach out to people to let them know what you are doing, how do you know that they are not interested in Karate? In Nigeria, we haven’t really marketed ourselves. In other countries around the world, everybody talks about Karate or Taekwondo or some sort of martial arts. They try as much as possible to let people know what they are doing. This is one of the things that we lack. The more we are able to get the information out to everybody, the more people are going to come to the sports. If we are able to set up competitions that are of international standard, that is one of the best way that we can develop that sport of Karate in the nation. We need the competitions. A lot of people who practice Karate are not from affluent homes.

That is also a problem in other sports as well. Majority of practitioners can’t buy tickets to train abroad. Who will give them the money for ticket, accommodation and feeding? To travel out of the country now, you are talking about over N500,000 for a ticket. Where would they get that kind of money from? That is another part of my thinking. If we can’t go international, let international come to Nigeria. That is the essence of this competition and I have named it after myself because I am the sponsor and I want it to be kept within the principles of what I want to achieve for that event, that is to ensure development of the sport and that it meets international standard and to make sure what is due to the athletes get to the athletes. If you don’t cut corners, it helps the coach. It helps the referee. It helps the official and, of course, the athlete. These are some of the reasons I am quite guarded about the competition. I am not saying I don’t want sponsorship, but I want to have a little bit more control. I have seen how things work in this country. Whether we like it or not, I am just saying the truth.

It upsets me to see what these athletes have to go through. It is because of the love I have for it. I have seen what people go through because they want to excel in a particular sport. Nigeria has talents. The truth is there is nobody to develop them. They are thinking of what to put in their stomach. They are thinking of petrol. They are thinking of kerosene. They are thinking of light. They are thinking of how to send their children to school. These are distractions and then you are talking of sports.”

Saleh shuttles between Abuja and Lagos frequently. Her partner lives in Lagos.
She had encouraged her daughter to love the sports. But after a while her interest waned. The youngster appears to be more fascinated with swimming and tennis. And that is fine with Saleh who also swims very well and plays squash. “With age, I have become more conscious with how I exhibit myself in public. I will swim if it is a private pool.”