Grace Snoek is a domestic worker. She lives and works in a block of flats in Killarney, Johannesburg. During the day you will find Grace hard at work. But in the mornings and evenings Grace is nowhere to be found.
In the mornings Grace goes running. And in the evenings Grace goes to classes — karate classes. Grace is training for her black belt, the highest grade or class, in karate.
When we got to Killarney, a small woman was waiting. ”This can’t be Grace,” we said to ourselves. But as we walked to the flats she stood up and smiled.
“Hi,” she said, “I am Grace.” Grace did not look like a fighter. And when she spoke, she did not sound like a fighter either.
NO WOMEN, NO BEGINNERS
“I used to go to the Rio cinema with my friends,” Grace said. “We often saw Bruce Lee films there. I thought Bruce Lee was great. I told my friends that I wanted to learn karate. They laughed at me. My friends said that women do not do karate.”
But in the Bruce Lee films, lots of women do karate. And Grace thought, ” If they can do it, so can I.” So she went to a karate school in town. The people at the school said, “No beginners.” But Grace did not give up.
One day when Grace was going to town on the bus, she saw people doing karate outside a hall. She got off the bus and asked if she could join. That was three years ago. Now Grace is getting ready for her black belt.
BLACK EYES AND BLOCKING
We asked Grace if men were frightened of her — like would her boyfriend hit her? Grace just smiled and said no. “But,” Grace said, “many people think that he does hit me.”
“Quite often I get hit in the face when I am training. Then I get a black eye. I can see everyone thinking, ‘Shame, her boyfriend gives her a hard time.” I just laugh.”
Grace did use her karate once. She was coming back from a karate class one night. She had to walk through a park. On the way, a man grabbed her and pulled her into the bushes. ”I gave him one hard kick,” said Grace. “And then I ran. I never saw him again.
“But karate helped me a lot.” Grace said. “I never feel scared anymore. I am free to go where I want, when I want. I know that I can look after myself.
“Karate made me sure of myself. Karate also made me more patient. Before, I used to get cross very quickly. Now I can take people’s rubbish. I don’t like to fight anymore.”
We asked Grace how she trains. Grace held up her hands. “I must make my hands hard,” she said. “Sometimes we break bricks and wood with punches and kicks. If your hands are soft, it hurts you.”
We looked at Grace’s small hands. They didn’t look like hands that break bricks. But then we felt the edge of Grace’s hand. It was very hard. Grace also has a broken knuckle. Someone stopped one of her punches too hard.
Grace did not only learn how to stand, kick, punch and block. She also learnt the names of these things in the Korean language. The kind of karate Grace does is called Taewokdo. It started in a faraway country called Korea.
“In the begining,” Grace said, “I found all the names very hard. I couldn’t even say the name of the leader of Taewokdo. But now I can. His name is General Chong Hong Hil.” We felt very shy but we had to ask Grace to spell it for us.
FROM WHITE BELT TO BLACK BELT
“The worst thing with karate is doing grades. Grades are just like exams at school. But you do not write, you fight instead. And if you pass, you change classes. You get a different colour belt.
You start with a white belt, then a yellow belt, all the way through to a black belt. “When you do your grades, you can forget all the Korean names. They tell you to do something and you don’t know what to do. You are not allowed to talk. So you ask your partner with your eyes. It is difficult but I have never failed a grade.
KARATE MAKES WOMEN SAFE
“More women must do karate. Then they will also feel safe. Karate changed my life.”
Then we asked Grace the question we wanted to ask for a long time. Has she ever given one of her madams a karate chop? Grace looked at us as if we were mad. “Never,” she said.
We asked Grace if her bosses know that she does karate. We wanted to know if her bosses were careful when they spoke to Grace. Grace just laughed. But we felt that she thought we were very silly. For Grace karate is no joke.