When Ide Oumarou hits the ground, drumbeats and chants in the Zarma language rise from one side of a crowded bleacher in the Palais du 29 Juillet, Niamey’s main sports facility. Skinny and physically smaller than his 14 years, Ide still somehow resembles his hero, Abdoul Razak Issoufou Alfaga. Red headgear lightly tied around his jaw, he keeps a serious expression, as if he’s looking at a distant place.
“His technique is good, but he lacks power,” says Mahamadou Maiga, his coach, sitting on a corner of the ring and never losing sight of the young athlete. The match is tense. Ide is often pushed out of the playing area by his adversary, a smaller energetic boy from rival club Dragon D’or. But at the end, technique prevails. Ide’s well-struck side kicks, the yeop chagi in Korean, earn him the game. As soon as the referee proclaims the winner, Ide kneels down and kisses the floor.
Alfaga — Razak to his friends; or Dogo, the tall man, to his former taekwondo companions in Niamey — walks back and forth on the opposite side of the gym. He’s the organizer of the “Coupe Alfaga” tournament, the country’s first international taekwondo competition. And for many in this unheralded landlocked country, home to the world’s youngest and second-poorest people, he’s a sign of redemption.
In 2016, the 6-foot, 9-inch-tall Alfaga brought home Niger’s second Olympic medal ever, a silver. In July 2017, he became the heavyweight world champ of taekwondo, a Korean martial art created in the 1940s that blends together different Asian fighting traditions.
Alfaga’s club is named “Club Cho” after master Cho Kyong Koo, the man who introduced this discipline in Niger more than 30 years ago. But it was “the tall man” who made taekwondo big time. After Alfaga’s victories, Maiga says, “everything changed. Parents understood the value of this sport, and a little support started to arrive from private sponsors.”
Now the coach has more requests than he can handle. Coming from all over Niamey, Niger’s peaceful capital city, his disciples are taught “respect, hard work and patience.” One day, Maiga repeats to them, they “could become the new Alfaga.”
A week after the tournament, I meet Alfaga in his family house in the Plateau, Niamey’s central district, which is now developing quickly. Rare paved roads outline blocks of irregular, intricate sandy streets. The champion’s first days of a hard-earned vacation were spent organizing the competition, and now he tries to relax and meet friends.
Often interrupted by his family’s enthusiastic puppy, the 23-year-old athlete tells a love story with taekwondo pockmarked by tragedy and defiance. His first experiences were at age 7 when he followed an older cousin, who later died after a match — an episode Alfaga would not discuss in detail. “My father forbid me to go on, and you know what happens with African parents,” he shakes his head. “You just can’t say anything.”
Sent to Togo to live with an uncle, Alfaga dabbled in soccer but slowly started back to taekwondo, hiding from his parents. He soon achieved so much local success that the government of neighboring Benin offered him citizenship so the prodigy could compete on its national team. “I couldn’t accept; I knew I was fighting also for my country,” Alfaga says. But when he got back to Niger, old prejudices were still alive. “I had to struggle with the idea, from friends and relatives, that taekwondo was just a way to scuffle in the streets.” Only when victories came, he adds, “I was able to prove that it wasn’t so, that if you dare, you can even become a world champion.”
Alfaga’s fist teenage hero was Cameroonian soccer star Samuel Eto’o, “an African that rocks.” But when he discovered taekwondo champions Daba Modibo Keïta from Mali and Anthony Obame from Gabon, he realized that they were aces as well. “They advised and supported me when lots of people were trying to put me down,” Alfaga says.
In 2015, Alfaga left his home and what he considered a lack of support to train in Germany. Three shifts of exercise per day, six days a week in Friedrichshafen, a tiny southern town on the banks of Lake Constance, nearly broke him. “Every night I cried in my bedroom.”
The work paid off when Alfaga won the African championship that year. Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou soon called and, Alfaga says, pledged to back him financially through 2020. “This gives me more confidence,” he says. But still not enough money.
Many Nigerien taekwondo hopefuls can’t afford to pay their own way to international tournaments, even when they qualify. Alfaga has recruited two young protégés to train with him in Germany, but that’s only a small dent in the problem.
“We listed 137 clubs all over the country,” says Soumana Sanda, chief of the Nigerien Taekwondo Federation. “We’re one of the strongest nations in taekwondo worldwide, but the government is not able to support us properly.” While Niger might never be a world power in the sport like South Korea, the U.S., Spain or Iran, taekwondo at least can provide an identity aside from coups, terrorism and poverty. “Taekwondo is an instrument of peace,” says Sanda, a stout man in his late 40s.
Personally, Alfaga aspires to retain his world title and then earn gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. For his country, he is a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the U.N. agency for child protection, and he urges parents — unlike his own — to get kids into the sport. Children like Ide Oumarou, wearing the white dobok uniform, are becoming a more common sight in Niger’s dusty streets by the day. One of them will become the next Alfaga.
Source: Photographs by Francesco Bellina
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