DENGFENG — When Dominique Saatenang was a young boy back in his native village of Bafou, Cameroon, he was transfixed by Bruce Lee films.
"I've been fascinated by martial arts since I was 10," he explains. "My father wanted me to be a soccer player. It's thanks to kung fu movies and thanks to Bruce Lee that I found myself in China. I became the African Bruce Lee."
Saatenang's first trip was in 1999 when he was 24 years old. At the time, he had to settle for taking courses in one of the many schools that surround Mount Song. Few foreigners have found a way into the Shaolin Monastery at Mount Song, the holiest of places in Shaolin kung fu, among the oldest institutionalized style of Chinese martial arts.
"I was lucky," Saatenang says. "After a few weeks of training, I met the spiritual leader of the temple, Shi Yongxin. He invited me to come for six months. I stayed four years."
It was four years of hard work, during which Saatenang obtained the Buddhist monk name "Shi Yan Ma." He learned Mandarin, traditional medicine and, obviously, the art of Chinese boxing more commonly known as kung fu.
In the strict temple, he would have to get up at 4:30 in the morning. First prayers began at 5 a.m., followed by a breakfast of vegetable and rice soup.Then he would go for eight long hours of training.
"I almost gave up many times," he recalls. "It's a very difficult training. Many drop out."
Not only is Saatenang believed to be the first Shaolin monk from Africa, he's also the only non-Chinese referee for international kung fu matches, and since 2011 he's been the traveling ambassador for the temple at Mount Song.
Having returned to life outside the monastery, these days Saatenang travels the world for his work. He's opened multiple kung fu schools in Africa: in Mali, Gabon, Senegal, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast.
The Shaolin franchise seems to be working well. More than 3,000 students have taken Saatenang's classes. As a film actor, his roles come one after another. He's just created a live show as well, Shaolin Black & White, in which he is the hero. But Saatenang is proudest of his work to promote exchanges between China and Africa.
"You can only really know someone through his or her culture," he explains. "Through kung fu, I have had to develop respect and a deep understanding of China. The link between China and Africa has become so important, and I think Chinese culture is an essential bridge for the development of our economic relationship."
Since 2011, 10 students from Rwanda, Gabon, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon and the Congo have come to the Shaolin Monastery thanks to scholarships granted on Saatenang's advice. Their training will last five years. Maybe they too will become African Bruce Lees.