When you hear the words “martial arts,” what comes to mind? From what we’ve learned from the movies, it may seem obvious that Asia has a stronghold on the market, most notably disciplines like karate, ninjutsu, aikido, taekwondo and kung fu. Perhaps you’ve heard of other styles such as fencing, krav maga or bare-knuckle boxing of Europe; or Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Capoeira made popular in South America. Continents around the globe have styles with their own popular followings, but one continent may not initially come to mind when thinking about popular martial art forms – Africa! While African martial arts such as dambe, laamb, Zulu stick fighting and other styles are quite popular within the continent, they are just now gaining recognition on a global scale.
Dambe, from the Hausa people of Nigeria, is one of the most popular northern African martial art forms. In its raw, traditional form, it is often described as a brutal boxing style with military origins. Originally, before even stepping into the sandpit, fighters began with a traditional pre-fight ritual of having a “magical” herbal mixture rubbed into incisions purposely made up and down fighters’ bodies, believed to be a strength-booster.
Then, rope cords wrapped around their dominant “spear hands,” the opponents step into a sand pit to deliver a series of merciless blows, head butts and kicks to each other’s faces and bodies, while lively singing and rhythmic drums energize the fighters and the crowd. With organizations such as the Dambe Warriors and Nigeria Traditional Boxing League Association trying to spread the popularity of this form of African martial arts globally, the following modifications have been made to make it more appealing:
- Regulating crowds
- Establishing a standardized points system
- Using a referee
- Having a doctor on site
- Banning the traditional pre-fight ritual
- Using uniforms
Another martial art that is gaining popularity is laamb, or Senegalese wrestling, from West Africa.
This lucrative sport started as a recreational pastime for farmers and fishermen exchanging goods. Today it has evolved into a highly-anticipated event complete with corporate sponsorships. In laamb, spectators can expect to see this sequence of events in this form of African martial arts:
- Drums set the tone for competitors entering the arena with a ritualistic dance.
- The wrestling ring is sprinkled with a mixture thought to thwart off black magic, and fighters are bathed in a liquid meant to repel negative energy.
- Wrestlers grapple and punch for timed sessions until a winner emerges.
- The loser presents the winner with traditional gifts promoting good sportsmanship.
Zulu Stick Fighting
Zulu stick fighting is one of the African martial arts exclusive to the men of a tribe originating from the Bantu people of southern Africa. It’s been used in battle, self-defense, ceremonies (like weddings – see video) and recreation. When used for recreational purposes, fighters set the tone for good sportsmanlike conduct by respectfully tapping each other’s shields prior to sparring and avoiding injury to each other’s head throughout the event. However, when used in battle, all bets are off with the top-heavy clubs used in this style. Zulu stick fighting and its variants have also been used for:
- Gaining status in a tribe
- Performing rites of passage
- Herding cattle
Other Fighting Styles
There are many other African martial arts developed and practiced by the various groups spread throughout the continent. Some others worth noting are:
Tahtib originated from Egypt. It is another form of stick-fighting used traditionally by soldiers cross-training in wrestling and archery.
Sudanese wrestling, or Nuba wrestling, takes place during farming festivals. Matches are traditionally a community event, passed down by champions.
Dating back centuries, this bare-fist boxing originated in South Africa.
This Somalian fighting style uses sticks today but was once popular for its use of armor and lethal weapons.
You may recognize some of the techniques of Ngolo from martial arts in Brazil. This style originates from Angola and focuses more on the strength of the legs, sweeping and kicking opponents.
Evolution of Martial Arts
While many martial arts have ancient origins, they have evolved to fit the demands of the modern world. Dambe and other African martial arts may not become as popular as karate and others from Asia, but learning techniques used in them and other styles practiced by different cultures can help practitioners to evolve into well-rounded martial artists. And who knows? Even the most popular martial arts, like karate, were once relatively unknown outside their origin countries. Maybe in 10 or 20 years, you or your kids will be looking for dambe classes at your local martial arts school!