The Igbo people (Ibo, Iboe, Ebo) are an ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria. In rural areas in Nigeria, the Igbo are mostly farmers. Celebrations are held annually to celebrate its harvesting.
Traditional wrestling among men and boys is a common feature in Igboland. But some people have created the impression that traditional wrestling among women and girls is alien to the entire Igbo culture. No so. This form of wrestling is very much indigenous to Igbo culture and was widely practiced; that is until the influence of western education began to erode the interest of our women folk in this ancient sport.
Before the Nigerian civil war in 1970s, traditional wrestling was very popular among women and girls.
In Ehugbo, there were four different occasions in the year when female wrestling competitions took place. This exercise is known as “Mgba Umunwanyi” (female wrestling). The four different occasions when Ehugbo women and girls organized wrestling contests were during: “Mgba Akpukpa,” “Mgba Uzo Iyi,” “Igba Suba” and “Ocho.”
Mgba Akpukpa. Akpukpa (ikpapka or Oka) means corn or maize. This wrestling contest bears this name because it took place during the month of July and early August, when the dominant foodstuff is maize. (Afikpo New Yam Festival usually takes place within the fourth week of August every year.) Mgba Akpukpa took place every other year after the men had concluded their own contests in May and June. The girls were accompanied by strong boys (Umu Okoro) and newly married women (Umu Nchekwa). It was a competition everyone wanted to win. If there was a fight (which was not uncommon), the boys served as the girls’ body guards. The bouts were graded beginning from young girls of about seven years of age to young women who would be joining their husbands anytime between August and December of that year.
The twenty-seven villages in Ehugbo were grouped in a particular way for wrestling purposes for both men and women. Although the women also went round the villages in turns like the men for the contests, their own wrestling grounds were not at the Ogo square like the men’s, but in open spaces outside the Ogo.
It was imperative for betrothed girls to wrestle at the village squares of their intending husbands. Typically, if a girl had verbally abused or insulted another girl in the stream or on the farm, the offended girl would challenge her offender to a bout during the inter-village wrestling contests.
Unlike for men, there was no drumming for the women. However, the women had songs which they sang en route to and from the wrestling grounds.
Any boy (Nwokoro) or newly married woman (Nchekwa) who was unfair as an umpire was challenged to a bout. Therefore, weaklings had no place as umpires. Besides, this made bad refereeing very rare. The costume for the wrestlers was a loin cloth folded to a manageable width worn over a pant then around the waist and secured at the waistline. The rest of the body was bare.
Mgba Uzo Iyi. Mgba Uzo Iyi literally means wrestling on the path to the stream. This wrestling contest was restricted to newly married women of each village or group of compounds. It took place in the Aho morning of the dry season festival (iko okochi) of respective village groups. It was the day all newly married women within the past year had to weed or clean up the paths leading to the village stream. The cleaning up was rounded off with a wrestling contest among the Nchekwa (those pregnant or sick were exempted from the contest.) It was a day for contestants to demonstrate their fitness and a of “shutting up” boasters and the termagants of the village.
The women were paired by sight but it was not uncommon for a woman to challenge another one to a bout. Any pair that fought while wrestling were heavily fined. During this particular wrestling contest, a special masquerade (Okpaa) served as the umpire and separated dragging contestants with a mild stroke of a whip. Otherwise, all the wrestling bouts must be decided by one woman throwing the other.
Igba Suba. The third type of wrestling popular among girls in Ehugbo took place during the moonlight plays (Egwu onwa) between March and April (the heaping period or “Okwu”). This particular wrestling was unique. It was called “Igba Suba” (wrestle and stand). It was used as a punishment for the following cases:
- Any refusal to take part in the moonlight games,
- Any serious misbehavior judged by the girls as unbecoming of a decent girl
- General show of disrespect or disobedience to one’s mother, age-mates or seniors.
The wrestling took place at the playground at night, usually between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. when only the girls and the male age set detailed to guard them were present. It was done under near absolute silence to avoid attracting attention. The offender was set at the centre of the playground to wrestle with every member of her age set present. The number could be anything from ten. Usually the stronger members of her age set wrestled with her first in order to weaken her for others. The other girls and the boys formed a human fence around the playground to avoid any escape. She had to wrestle with all even if it meant falling down on first touch. But any deliberate falling down on her part attracted a repeat bout.
After the midnight wrestling, the culprit was forbidden to disclose the punishment to her parents or husband. If it was found out that she did, she faced a repeat performance, this time with the senior girls or selected strong girls. However, if her parents or husband happened to learn of it, they usually did not make any fuss about it to save the girl from further punishment. Parents and husbands knew what offences merited the “Igba Suba” and under normal circumstances accepted it as a character-molding device.
Ocho. This wrestling contest among girls was an annual event in Afikpo. It was however, restricted to the villages of Amachi and Ugwu-egu in Afikpo. It was associated with the commencement of Ogo okochi (dry season male initiation ceremonies). It took place around the middle of November, and marked the beginning of about three months (November to January) of restricted movement of women on the playgrounds (Ogo).
Grown-up girls from the traditional villages met and wrestled for about an hour each evening during four consecutive Eke market days. Again, boys acted as umpires and the contests were usually keen.
Unfortunately, after the Nigerian–Biafran War in 1966-67, Igboland was devastated and many entertainment traditions were lost.