As Brazilian jiu-jitsu grows in popularity across the world, more and more new students are getting the opportunity to start their BJJ journeys in nearby academies under high-level coaches in a room full of teammates.
But how do you grow the sport in an area where jiu-jitsu is virtually nonexistent?
This is the constant question that BJJ black belt Sam Crook faces as the head coach of the “Batié Death Squad” in Cameroon. If the name of this small town sounds familiar, there’s a good reason for it: current UFC Heavyweight Champion Francis Ngannou hails from Batié, and in fact, it’s through the eponymous Francis Ngannou Foundation (FNF) that Crook and the “BDS” are making their mark on the BJJ scene in Cameroon and beyond.
Though Crook hails from the UK, he decided to come to Africa after doing government-funded volunteer work in Ghana in 2009, not long after starting his own jiu-jitsu journey. After his time volunteering there had ended, Crook visited multiple times and later participated in another volunteer program in Tanzania. When he saw that the Francis Ngannou Foundation was looking for volunteers to teach BJJ to children in Batié for a year, he leaped at the chance, and ever since, he’s been hard at work as a jiu-jitsu coach in Cameroon.
The FNF, which was founded in 2019, doesn’t just focus on jiu-jitsu. The organization also hosts judo, karate, boxing, kickboxing, and MMA programs for kids. Ngannou started the Foundation to give kids in his hometown the opportunities that combat sports have given him, and now, through his work, the work of volunteers, and the support of the nonprofit The LionHeart Initiative, his dream is becoming reality.
The process hasn’t been easy. Batié doesn’t have the infrastructure or economy that would encourage the growth of martial arts programs. Crook told the Jiu-Jitsu Times that there’s only one other BJJ black belt in Cameroon, and while he teaches students who can afford the training, jiu-jitsu is rarely a top priority for families who need their kids to work to help put food on the table. “We lose students to work,” says Crook. “Their parents send them to sell food on the streets and work in the fields. It’s a family job here; kids grow up doing the same work as adults. So a lot of people don’t hold the same value for sports here. They see it as a waste of time.”
This, of course, makes it harder to argue the case for why kids in Batié should participate in martial arts. In more privileged areas, parents are told that sports and martial arts help children learn values like discipline and consistency. We’re told that sports keep kids out of “trouble,” that jiu-jitsu makes kids physically active and teaches them the rewards of hard work. But in areas and cultures where children grow up with these values already, where a lack of physical activity isn’t an issue and time is precious, how can a coach convince parents that BJJ training is worth the time and effort?
Crook’s solution has been to provide other valuable resources to help justify the kids’ participation to their parents. “We can give the kids small gifts to show them that they’re not wasting their time by coming to training. Or we’ll have parties for them,” he says. “The parents see that the kids are being taken care of, that it’s worthwhile for them to be there.”
Gifting the kids raincoats, for example, can be a huge help in regions where the rainy season can make roads virtually impossible to navigate. The intense rain can provide a challenge all its own when it comes to the kids actually making it to class, as most of them make the trek – which can take up to two hours – on foot.
The obstacles involved in actually making it to the gym make gaining and retaining students a challenge all their own, but even for the students who come to class consistently, the question remains of how to help them get the most out of their BJJ experience so they can progress. A lack of proper training gear has been a problem, though BJJ clothing company Scramble has helped by donating gis for the team.
Another obstacle that has limited the team in their development is a lack of training partners, with Crook being the most advanced coach and practitioner consistently involved in their growth. Happily, though, Crook has recently promoted three of his students, making them the very first blue belts on the team.
With very limited numbers of local jiu-jitsu athletes in the area, Crook is now reaching out across the globe to try to bring jiu-jitsu athletes of all levels to Batié to train with the students. “The more BJJ people we can get here, the better,” says Crook. “We want the kids to see how other people around the world live the ‘BJJ lifestyle,’ how everyone helps everyone and how different people have different approaches.”
Crook’s aim is to get volunteers to come to Batié, where they’d stay with a host family (arranged by Crook and the FNF) and spend their days training with the Batié Death Squad. Room and board would be provided at a minimal cost, with volunteers being expected to provide what they could to financially help their host families.
Volunteers are also expected to cover their own costs of travel and whatever they would need to sustain themselves in Cameroon. However, for those who would like to volunteer, but may struggle to self-fund, the LionHeart Initiative can provide assistance. The organization, which describes its mission as “[to create] opportunities for African athletes and [empower] underserved communities through sustainable martial arts and gender-focused self-defense programs powered by volunteers,” will be helping with recruiting, promotion and fundraising efforts to help volunteers who want to dedicate their time and knowledge to the team, but may not have the financial resources to do so.
While there’s an obvious benefit to the kids when it comes to upper belts coming to coach, Crook also welcomes blue and even white belts who can be temporary training partners for the kids. Whether volunteers can stay for a week or six months, any amount of time spent on the mats with the students is valuable to their development as BJJ athletes. The volunteers, of course, are rewarded with the opportunity to be a fundamental building block in the development of BJJ in Batié and Cameroon as a whole.
Building a jiu-jitsu program anywhere is a challenge all its own, but with the dedication of the students, the support of the local and international community, and a lot of persistence and hard work, the Batié Death Squad is well on their way to becoming a team that could not only produce the next big BJJ or MMA champion, but also pave the way for other athletes in Cameroon and beyond to develop new dreams and do whatever it takes to achieve them.
Visit the LionHeart Volunteer Batié Project webpage for details on the Initiative’s concept for support and volunteer fundraising for this unique opportunity to travel and teach off the beaten path. Dedicate a fundraiser on Facebook to support LionHeart volunteer travelers, or see other fundraising options at Initiative’s fundraising page to make an immediate and direct impact on this worthwhile endeavor.
Learn more about the Initiative’s vision and programs in Africa and contact them at LionHeart@mmaforafrica.com for serious inquiries. Contact coach Sam Crook directly through WhatsApp +447 889 441 179 or on Instagram @sammichaelcrook.