Bendza teaches in the facilities of the Gabonese Wushu Association
Every year, the legendary Shaolin Temple in central China's Henan Province welcomes scores of visitors eager to master the skills of kungfu, ancient Chinese martial arts. Among them is Babila, a young man from Cameroon, whose desire to learn kungfu goes back to his childhood, when he first got hold of a martial arts magazine. In the magazine was a photograph of an African man wearing a white robe and holding a sword.
From that moment, young Babila, just like many other African young men, became fascinated by the Chinese martial arts.
The man at the source of Babila's inspiration is kungfu master Luc Bendza, from Gabon. He was the first African to come to Shaolin Temple to learn kungfu. Bendza fell in love with the Chinese martial arts when he was nine years old, after watching the Hong Kong kungfu movie The Big Boss. He soon became obsessed with these impressive flying heroes. At only 14, he made up his mind and left for China to seek his dream. In less than 20 years, he became a world champion of traditional martial arts and one of the well-known kungfu masters.
Gabonese film director Samantha Biffot spent five years shooting the documentary The African Who Wanted to Fly, which tells Bendza's amazing story. The documentary was awarded the Special Jury Award at Gabon's 10th International Documentary Film Festival last year, and will be presented at the Seventh Beijing International Film Festival next year.
"Bendza's story illustrates that where there is a will, there's always a way. This is the role model I am looking for, and I want to use his story to set a good example for African youth," said Biffot.
After winning the top prize at the Second International Shaolin Kungfu Championships in 1992, Bendza became a hero and a role model to many young kungfu aficionados like Babila. Since then, he has taken parts in more than 10 films and TV series such as Charging Out Amazon and The Legend of Bruce Lee, fulfilling his dream to become a kungfu star.
Bendza, still fascinated by Chinese martial arts, has set himself a new goal: he hopes to popularize kungfu around the world. "Even though kungfu originated in China, really, it belongs to the world," he said. Over the last 30 years, he has made tremendous efforts to achieve this goal.
Promoting kungfu back home
To better promote kungfu in his home country, Bendza decided established a kungfu association in his own country. But during the process, he encountered countless difficulties. Many government officials in the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Leisure of Gabon used to practice taekwondo, judo and karate, and they did not care for Chinese martial arts. When Bendza - after countless efforts - finally managed to convince the Minister of the Chinese martial arts, a new minister took office, and he had to start all over again.
But his efforts were not in vain. In 2006, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Leisure of Gabon finally agreed to set up Gabonese Wushu Association (Wushu means martial arts in Chinese) as well as the first national kungfu team, for which Bendza helped to select the members.
After a one-year training program under the leadership of Bendza, the new team took part in its first competition - the Ninth World Wushu Championships in 2007. The results were disappointing at first, however, the team managed to significantly improve its performance over the years. In 2013, they came fourth in men's nan quan or southern-style kungfu at the 12th World Wushu Championships held in Malaysia.
"I was very pleased. After so many years of efforts, we finally achieved something. It's not a big success, but it has been a major breakthrough in Gabon's sports history," said Bendza.
Today, more and more Gabonese have become fond of kungfu. As of now, over 500 are engaged in formal training, including more than 100 at the professional level.
To make sure students are doing their very best, Bendza has put in place a reward system of his own. When students win a national championship, his association grants them the opportunity to undergo kungfu training in China, where they can learn and exchange with their Chinese counterparts.
Around the globe
Bendza's continued quest to spread Chinese martial arts has extended far beyond the confines of his native country.
From July 24 to August 1, Bendza was invited by the Tunisian Wushu Association to give a training session of taichi (a Chinese martial art practiced for both its defense training and its health benefits) and qigong (a system of coordinated body postures, breathing, and meditation). Over 100 participants from all over the world attended the training in Tunis.
Bendza and his students practice taiji
Bendza taught the participants a special medical gymnastics routine created by Zhang Guangde, Professor at Beijing Sport University. This routine, which includes meditation, breathing, self-massage as well as theoretical knowledge, is said to prevent and cure diseases and to prolong one's life.
One of his students was Christine Dubois, a film editor from France. The eight-day training program has been a life-changing experience for her and brought her health benefits.
Before joining the training, she knew nothing about taichi and qigong. Despite this, she decided to give it a try and sign up for the program. "I've never tried so hard to do one thing. I feel this is my own breakthrough, and the training has changed my views on many things," she told Bendza.
After the training, Dubois' neck pain was significantly reduced and she felt more relaxed - both physically and mentally. Bendza gave her a symbolic Chinese gift at the end of the session to encourage her to keep practicing.
"It was beyond my expectation that so many people enrolled in our training session. I am very pleased to see that after the training, my students had a deeper understanding of taichi and qigong, and they became more confident and wanted to challenge themselves," Bendza told ChinAfrica, adding that many students said they would keep practicing in the future.
The Tunisia training session is just one of the many kungfu training programs Bendza gave this year. As the Vice Chairman of the Traditional Wushu Committee of the International Wushu Federation (IWUF), every year he travels around the globe to promote and popularize the Chinese martial arts, with the full support of the General Administration of Sport of China, the Chinese Wushu Association, and BSU.