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Smaller peoples and their traditional and ritual combat sports

Igbo Ehugbo: Mgba Umunwanyi

Traditional Female Wrestling

Igbo wrestling
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The Igbo people (archaically Ibo; also Iboe, Ebo, Eboans, Heebo, etc. – “forest inhabitants”) are a group of ethnics in southeastern Nigeria. The Igbo are one of the largest and most influential ethnic groups in Nigeria - its population is about 30 million. Ehugbo (anglicized and commonly used version is Afikpo) is the second largest city in Ebonyi State of Nigeria. Inhabitants of Ehugbo area constitute an ethnic group speaking their Ehugbo language distinct from other Igbo languages. The population of Ehugbo/Afikpo is estimated at 156,611. Ehugbo is a center of ancient Igbo tradition. Several archeological findings support the claim that Afikpo civilization existed as far back as the Neolithic age. Until recently, Ehugbo was a conglomerate of 27 villages which inhabitants were farmers growing yams and maize. They held annual festivals to celebrate harvesting.

Igbo wrestling
Each village had its own wrestling ground. Wrestlers grouped according to their previous successes. Wrestling matches usually happen at night in a ring. The people who got to sit in the ring are the wrestlers, chief, elders and music players. The music player played an important role in the wrestling competitions. They were valuable because they could add power to the weak players and add a sense of excitement to the participants and spectators.

Traditional wrestling among men and boys is a common tradition in Western Africa, particularly in Igboland. In fact, many people there consider wrestling as a male only sport being not familiar with their own history. Not so in Igboland; it is a unique as far as female sport is concerned. Female wrestling is not at all alien to the entire Igbo culture There were even four wrestling competitions held just for girls and women who wrestle each other. Wrestling is very much indigenous to Igbo culture and was widely practiced by both genders; that is until the influence of western culture began to erode the interest of Igbo women this ancient sport and especially until the brutal Civil war.

Unfortunately, the Civil war in Nigeria in 1967-1970 substantially destroyed southeastern provinces of Nigeria which self-proclaimed as Republic of Biafra. The war cost the Igbo a great deal in terms of lives, money and infrastructure. It has been estimated that up to three million people may have died due to the conflict. Women especially suffered. The war destroyed the traditional way of life including sports, particularly women’s sports.

Before the Nigerian civil war, Ehugbo women competed in wrestling during four annual events: “Mgba Akpukpa,” “Mgba Uzo Iyi,” “Igba Suba” and “Ocho”. This tradition or female wrestling is called “Mgba Umunwanyi”.

Mgba Akpukpa. Akpukpa (Ikpapka or Oka) means corn or maize. This wrestling contest took place during new maize festival in July and early August. 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”) which played a role of a referee panel. It was a competition everyone wanted to win. If there a brawl started (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 held their own places for wrestling - separately for men and women. Although women also went round the villages in turns like the men for the contests, their own wrestling grounds were not at the central village square (Ogo) 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 men’s competitions, there was no drumming for the women. However, the women had songs which they sang en route to and from the wrestling grounds. Any present young men and newly married woman who was unfair as a referee could be challenged to a bout. Therefore, weaklings had no place as referees. 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 on the first day of the dry season festival (iko okochi) of respective village groups. It was the day when 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 to “shut 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 started brawling while wrestling was heavily fined. During this particular wrestling contest, a special masqueraded person (Okpaa) served as the referee and separated dragging contestants with a mild stroke of a whip. Otherwise, all the wrestling bouts finished as soon as one woman threw the other to the ground.

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 competition called “Igba Suba” (wrestle and stand) was quite unique - it was used as a punishment for any misbehavior judged by the girls as unbecoming of a decent girl, or general show of disrespect or disobedience to one’s mother, age-mates or seniors or, at last, for refusal to take part in the moonlight games. The wrestling contests were held at night, usually between 1 am and 2 am when only the girls and the male peers assigned to guard them were allowed to 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 present member of her age; however, the number of her opponents shouldn’t exceed 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 caused 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 Ehugbo (it was however, restricted to the villages of Amachi and Ugwu-egu). The contest 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.

As it was said, unfortunately, after the Nigerian–Biafran War in 1966-67, Igboland was devastated and many entertainment traditions were lost.

In the opinion of Chief Gabriel Anigo Agwo, an activist of women’s sport in Igboland, “wrestling contests among girls should not only be revived in those areas like Afikpo, where they were popular, but should be introduced to other parts of the state at the village, town and school levels. Mgba Akpukpa, Mgba Uzo Iyi and Igba Suba had – in addition to serving as physical exercise – social and moral values. Quarrels among girls and women were easily settled at the wrestling arena. This is a healthy cultural heritage that should not be allowed to die out completely.“

January 2013


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Igbo traditional wrestling. Women's competition

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