Young students of the Chinese Wushu School in Monrovia prepare for a show piece. (Photo provided to China Daily)
Chinese discipline of wushu bringing hope and happiness, as well as greater self-confidence, to some of Liberia's most troubled youngsters
It's a little over two months since the Chinese Wushu School was officially opened in Monrovia, capital of the West African nation of Liberia, and its impact is already becoming apparent.
Several students, mostly from high schools, have already signed up to learn Chinese martial arts as the school seeks to share both the physical and cultural aspects of wushu.
Headmaster Pewee Russian says he is proud of the school, which is teaching discipline and hard work, steering youngsters away from delinquency.
"There's lot of challenges out there, especially for kids growing up in homes with a single parent, either their mother or father. It's a traumatic situation and a burden on them," says Russian, a former wushu champion.
"I do a lot of talking after training to give them courage, because most of them don't have courage or self-esteem.
"Most of the parents who bring their children to the school tell me that wushu is actually helping their child - based on the fact that their son or daughter wakes up in the morning and does household chores."
The value of wushu lies in the discipline it offers, which serves as a way of humbling those who learn it. A lot of benefit comes from physical training and discipline, building self-confidence and self-esteem, says Russian.
Introduced to Liberia in 2011, wushu has taken its place among several martial arts in the country. The new school, funded by the Confucius Institute and the Chinese embassy in Monrovia, trains and recruits young Liberians.
Liberia's Ministry of Youth and Sports believes the establishment of the school has strengthened cultural exchanges between the people of Liberia and China.
"The intention here is to bring our two countries closer together. Wushu is a major part of Chinese culture. The Confucius Institute is also helping to teach the language and culture of the Chinese people," former Liberian sports minister Saah N'tow said at the opening of the school in Monrovia in early January.
So far, the school has enrolled more than 30 students. Although a few are irregular attendees, many are showing commitment to learning the sport.
Euphemia Deemi, a 16-year-old college student, has been attending wushu classes since the school opened its doors. She came to love Chinese martial arts through watching movies from the age of 10.
"When I came to this school and started learning wushu, I became happy and every time I came for practice I saw the real me," she says.
"The reason I decided to join and practice wushu is because females need protection and learning wushu will make me be able to defend myself - not to physically harass people, but to be able to defend myself from bad people."
Another student, John Dehwen, 27, is upbeat that the school is helping him to adopt a healthy and disciplined lifestyle.
Dehwen recalls how watching Chinese movies inspired him to learn martial arts. Although he already has a black belt in taekwondo, enrolling at the wushu school is a dream come true for him.
"My love for Chinese martial arts is just exceptional and I have always wished that I could learn the Chinese culture and language," he says.
"One thing about learning wushu is the discipline that comes with it, because it encourages you to be non-violent, builds your confidence and makes you healthy."
Amos Sawyer, 20, started learning wushu in 2012, long before the new school opened. He's now preparing to graduate in March 2018.
In 2016, he represented Liberia in China at a major wushu competition and brought back two bronze medals.
"Wushu has taught me how to cultivate hard work and discipline and has made me a leader and a popular person," Sawyer says.
"I usually encourage people to join the class. I sometimes show them the photos I took in China and explain the importance of Chinese martial arts. Then they come to the school and join."
Sawyer and his friends are determined to see martial arts taught at schools across the country as a part of physical education.
Many Liberians will develop an interest in learning wushu if the sport is taken to high schools across the country, they say.
But the school does face challenges, including funding, before it can extend the program across the country.
"Thank God we have our new president who is a sportsman. I am looking forward to him using sports to develop our kids," says headmaster Russian, who is struggling to spread the word across the country due to a tight budget.
He is optimistic that cultural exchanges will play a crucial role in advancing ties between West Africa and the world's most populous nation.
"Chinese martial arts make you disciplined, helping you value yourself and other people. It is so peaceful and connects you with others, and I think it is helping Liberians understand China better," he says.
He considers himself a "living example of China's contribution to Liberia" after having studied at Henan University of Technology and Shandong Sports University and having visited the Shaolin Temple.