Master Charlie's Odyssey: Redemption, Resilience and the Healing Power of Martial Arts

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Despite the busy bar, bustling restaurant and carwash nearby, Master Charlie's studio is an oasis of zen, offering peace of mind as well as a strong body.

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Master Charles Sambare 'Arufandika', owner of JKD Lee's JKD Mirror Karate Academy posing for a picture in his dojo at the Courtauld Theatre in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Photo: Jacqueline Muchazoreka, bird story agency

Jacqueline Muchazoreka, bird story agency

Charles Arufandika Sambare, referred to locally as Master Charlie, lowers himself until he is sitting with his legs tucked under him, palms resting on the upper part of his thighs to form the Seiza position. Facing him, his martial arts students mimic his posture, ready to commence their late afternoon training session.

He begins chanting an oath, pausing so the class can repeat after him.

“I undertake... to be kind... and respect people... I promise... to be thoughtful... and considerate... and never to strike in anger... I promise... to live up... to the ideals... of the masters... of martial arts.”

It's an important part of his lesson and perhaps one that he needs to remind himself of regularly, too. Sambare spent a decade in jail after killing an armed guard at a mall during an episode of paranoid delusion.

Now a 55-year-old martial arts teacher in Mutare, a city located in the Eastern part of Zimbabwe, Sambare has been teaching martial arts for over 3 decades and today refers to himself as a prophet of the martial arts – a calling that he answered aged 13 in junior secondary school.

“When I was doing book one at Dangamvura High School there was this advertisement that had run with the effect that there was going to be a martial arts training club at Dangamvura Beit hall, so as an avid fan of Bruce Lee, I was one of the first guys to join,” Sambare shared.

Martial arts remained part of Sambare’s life as he transitioned from secondary school into college. However, a heart-breaking event occurred that disrupted his plans for the future.  

“In 1987, in my second year of engineering at Mutare Polytechnic College, my brother who was serving in the national army had come back home from a war in Mozambique in a deranged state,” he shared.

"I broke down."

When he woke up, hospitalised at a psychiatric hospital, he was told he had had a psychotic breakdown.

“I was told I had paranoid delusions. They put me on strong anti-psychotic drugs. My education ended there because when I was discharged, my mind had been disturbed and I had completely forgotten everything I knew,” he said.

Sambare was diagnosed with schizophrenia during this time – a chronic mental disorder that affects how a person feels, thinks and behaves.

“Schizophrenia causes severe disability and dysfunction to an individual as a patient presents perception disorders and delusions, disorganised speech and disorganised behaviour. If untreated the condition continues to deteriorate, thus there is need for patients to be put on anti-psychotic drugs which correct the imbalance in neurotransmitters,” Sabastine Madamombe, a general psychiatry specialist, explained.

It is not known what causes schizophrenia but researchers believe that a combination of genetics, brain chemistry and environment contribute to the development of the condition.

However, Sambare did not like the side effects of the anti-psychotic drugs after diagnosis. So he stopped taking them after only 3 months.

“The drugs would slow me down along with all the other side effects that I experienced. I would feel like a zombie after taking the medication,” he explained.

Martial arts became Sambare's saving grace. Unable to attend university, he started a martial arts academy and while his mental history made recruiting difficult in his immediate community, his obvious talent and teaching ability pulled in students from other communities.

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Master Charles with his son Tawanda doing the knife kick to the side in his dojo at the Courtauld Theatre in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Photo: Jacqueline Muchazoreka, bird story agency

“When I started my academy I was criticised by my own community members who would shame me because of my mental health and discourage people from joining,” Sambare shared.

Even with the stigma of mental illness hanging over him, his career began to take off and the academy started competing in provincial and national tournaments.

His fondest memory from that time came in 1992 when he was decorated with a black belt in a hybrid martial art – Jeet Kune Do.

“I remember coming back home to celebrate with my wife, one-year-old daughter, my mother and siblings. It felt so good to be recognised,” Sambare recalled with a smile on his face.

However, the following year tragedy struck again. He suffered another mental breakdown due to non-drug adherence and stress caused by Zimbabwe's early 1990s economic downturn.

“I became violent and wild and because I was not feeling well psychologically there was no telling right from wrong and wrong from right. Everything I did felt right to me,” he said.

Then, when an armed town policeman tried to restrain him at a shopping mall where he was acting disorderly, Sambare killed him.

He was given an eleven-year jail term, escaping the death penalty due to his history of mental illness.

In jail, Sambare received counselling and began to understand the importance of adhering to his medication. And his life started to change.

“I had to find ways to adapt to my fate. That is when it dawned on me that I could actually use martial arts to fight the adverse effects of medication, so I started my own sessions in prison. I was motivated to take my medication as someone who had escaped death by a whisker,” he said.

Noticing that the sessions helped improve his condition, Sambare pressed on and made them a regular part of his day.

As the saying goes, once a teacher, always a teacher. After fellow inmates witnessed Sambare’s mental health improve, some approached him wanting to be trained. He started training sessions in his free time and he found that this further helped with his own recovery process and teaching aptitude.

“I was able to recuperate myself physically, gain my lost powers and pass on the battle to other people so that the legacy does not die," he said.

Sambare was released from prison in 2004 and did not hesitate to carry on with martial arts, after being given what he termed a 'second chance'.

“Upon my release, I did not hesitate to start teaching again. Like the last time, even more people would discourage some from signing up for the classes, saying they would commit murder like I did if they joined my classes. But that did not stop me. In prison, I discovered karate offers healing, energy, vitality, fitness, promotes treatment adherence and reduces psychotic problems as it gives clarity of thought,” Sambare said.

In 2015, he was awarded his third-degree black belt in Kyokushin, symbolising his development into a respected member of the karate community, known for their knowledge, skills and leadership qualities.

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Master Charles Sambare 'Arufandika', owner of JKD Lee's JKD Mirror Karate Academy showing off the Cat Stance in his dojo at the Courtauld Theatre in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Photo: Jacqueline Muchazoreka, bird story agency

Today, Master Charlie's classes take place at Courtauld Theatre, a popular arts centre premise in Mutare CBD which harbours the city's largest auditorium, a contemporary restaurant and a beer pub. He was given the space by facilitators of the theatre as part of their promotion of local arts and culture.

The two-floor building is embellished with maroon walls and white pillars and partially resembles a Shaolin Temple, with lush vegetation, flowers and garden ornaments lending a zen feeling of peace to the entrance. Taking a staircase from the restaurant's outdoor barbecue area up the dojo, one is followed by the tantalising scent of the restaurant's famous chicken barbecue.

To date, Sambare has trained over 2000 students and martial arts and Master Charlie have become synonymous in the city. His lesson fee is US$30 per month, with an option for home sessions for clients. His students are diverse in age and gender and the curriculum is altered to fit the goals of the students.

Despite the positive benefits of martial arts, however, some people still misinterpret martial arts as an art that promotes violence and aggression.

Zimbabwe Karate Union Vice President and founder of the Zimbabwe Ninja Academy, Wilfred Mashaya, begs to differ.

“(In addition to) instilling discipline and respect in children, it improves their concentration and listening... These skills are essential for individual growth, especially for children with special mental health needs. This in turn improves their ability to make friends and feel as part of the society at large,” Mashaya shared.

Sambare has opened a Facebook page and YouTube channel that he uses to raise awareness of how martial arts promote peace rather than violence and how training offers both physical and mental health benefits, especially for those with chronic illnesses.

“I wanted to understand myself better and to understand how the human mind works and I believe the knowledge gained will allow me to offer martial arts training that is of an unmatched degree in Mutare,” Sambare said in relation to a psychology degree he earned in December 2023.

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