Nuba is a collective term used for the peoples who inhabit the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state, in Sudan. Although the term is used to describe them as if they composed a single group, the Nuba consists of numerous distinct tribes and ethnics speaking different languages and dialects (Lafofa, Moro, Krongo, Mahas, Masakin, Tira, etc.) In fact, nearly 100 different dialects are spoken in the Nuba hills. However, they stand out as distinct from the surrounding tribes due to their common history and environment. The Nuba people reside in one of the most remote and inaccessible places in all of Sudan, the foothills of the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan. At one time the area was considered a place of refuge, bringing together people of many different tongues and backgrounds who were fleeing oppressive governments and slave traders. The Nuba total population is estimated around a million but every ethnic group is quite small. The Nuba people are primarily farmers, as well as herders who keep cattle, goats, chickens, and other domestic animals. The primary religion of many Nuba peoples is Islam, with some Christians, and traditional shamanistic beliefs also prevailing. Men wear a sarong and occasionally a skull cap. Young men remained naked, while children, including girls, wear only a string of beads. Older women and young women wore beads and wrap a sarong over their legs and sometimes a cloak tie on the shoulder. Both sexes practice scarification and circumcision.
Nuba Wrestling martial art technique from the tomb of Amenemhat, 12th Century Egypt, at Beni Hasan. Illustrated by Nijel Binns. Credit Wikimedia Commons
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Combative sports are known in Nuba from time immemorial. Archeology data indicate that inhabitants of ancient Nubia (Kingdom of Kush) practiced not only armed martial arts but also wrestling and unarmed self-defense thousand years before Christ. Images depicting wrestling engraved in ancient Egypt temples and tombs. There are no other records in any corner of the world that can claim such a long, and unbroken martial arts tradition. Martial arts including wrestling and empty hand self-defense blossomed in 12th Dynasty Egypt (20th Century BC). In fact, Nuba Wrestling is the original martial art that all of Africa.
As the Nuba say, they learned how to wrestle from monkey while their ancestors watched fights between these animals. Nubians learn how to wrestle from early childhood. A researcher says, “Nuba kinds try to wrestle before they can walk”. Another researcher wrote, ”Wrestling plays an important role in the life of this nation. Both genders practice it. In some regions, women have exclusive wrestling tournaments once a year, where men may not wrestle.”
In the past, wrestling competitions were held between teams, rather than between individuals, which reflected the specifics of the social structure of Nuba tribes. In those competitions, rivalry between clans and villages was tried to settle. Such competitions were held not just between males but also between females. Well-known scholar A.M. Zolotarev wrote: “It is known that ritual wrestling between girls was related to the dual society structure. Wrestling matches take place in the square in the middle of the village. Girls forming two ranks gather there according to their height with the tallest in the middle of each rank. They are surrounded by a crowd of screaming and cheering women holding babies. Wrestling tournament starts with individual contests. Old women take by turns pairs of girls of the same height from the two ranks. Each contestant wrestler throws a girdle over her opponent and they start wrestling. Winners are loudly cheered. As soon as individual matches are finished, the team-on-team contest takes place which is a culmination of the tournament.”
As far as the technical aspect of Nuba wrestling is concerned, its goal is to slam the opponent to the ground whereas there is no pinning or submissions. Nuba wrestling is a ritual and recreational sport, and serious injuries are rare.
Although strikes are essential part of the grappling, it is not a boxing system. Nuba wrestling is best viewed as a system of standing grappling, historically practiced naked, but in towns, today practiced in t-shirts and shorts.
Men's fighting in the village of Kau - combination of wrestling and boxinbg with iron bracelets
Photo by Leni Riefenstahl from her album The Nuba of Kau
Girls from Kau with whips ready for lashing
Photo by Leni Riefenstahl from her album The Nuba of Kau
Nuba stick fighting essentially mimics the movements of fighting with spear and shield. Light armor is worn, so injuries can be severe.
Another peculiar Nuba fighting style is whip fighting which actually is a female combat sport, being a part of the ritual of initiation into the womanhood. In order to be accepted into the adult worlds, girls must demonstrate skills and courage in the contest.
In 1975, famous German filmmaker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl spent sixteen weeks in a village of Kau in Nuba and then published two photo albums “The People of Kau” and “The Last of the Nuba” which became international bestsellers. She depicted and described girl whipping and brutal men fights between villages, a combination of stick fighting, wrestling and boxing with iron rings: “At first, they are fighting with sticks, after that with the iron rings fixed to the wrist. Soon the bouts are getting wilder and more passionate until one of them is falling to the ground heavily bleeding. Referees are observing that the bouts remain fair. However, there had been cases of death for no fighter is going to give up a bout even if he is severely hurt.”
Nowadays, wrestling traditions of Nuba tribes remain exclusively as male activities which can be explained by strengthening Islam rules in Sudan. This tradition is considered as manifestation of manhood and readiness to play manly role in the society. At that, all traditions of girl wrestling which were related to harvest celebrations and entering maturity have been lost.
Lafofa is an ethnic minority among the Nuba people of Sudan; they live in South Kordofan. It likely numbers less than 10,000 persons. This group is mainly Muslim. The traditional language is Lafofa, a Niger-Congo language but many of them speak Arabic.
Wrestling has been popular for the Lafofa from old times. Usually wrestling matches were held during calendar holidays; they were also a part of the system of ritual trials. There were two age categories for males: “kamenai” – men who reached a marriage age and “tembiling” – men reached advanced age. In order to be included into “kamenai”, a young man had to pass a setg of trials. So, the ritual of the initiation included wrestling competitions in which everyone who wants to be accepted as an adult had to participate.
In fact, in the Lafofa society, wrestling was a mandatory in the ritual of initiation not just for guys but for girls as well. Ceremonial wrestling was related to the harvesting season and for girls it also represented a transition ceremony from the childhood to the womanhood. Wrestling for girls played a role similar to the ritual of beating of teenage boys. Traditionally, girl wrestling was organized according to membership in matrilineal descent group. People from the same descent group were not supposed to wrestle each other. As soon as a woman had a firstborn, she would never wrestle.
The Tira and Moro are two sub-ethnic groups of the Nuba peoples; they live in the Western section of the Nuba region; population of each of them is about 100,000. The Tira are mostly Muslims while the most of the Moro are Christians. Both speak dialects of the Kordofanian languages group as well as Sudanese Arabic.
The Tira and Moro women are known as proficient in the ferocious sport of whip fighting.
For the these ethnics, as for other Nubian clans, the initiation ritual is an important element of their life; during the ritual, the one being tested must demonstrate stoical courage – it is true not only for boys and men but also for girls and women. Unlike some other clans where the females prove their courage by fighting with sticks, the Tira and Moro women have whip-fighting contests known as “lepido”, using whippy baobab branches as their weapons. Such switches make vicious whips and the shedding of blood and other injuries occur frequently. The bravest fighters are granted adulthood but the more cowardly or unskillful may have to wait a year or more before the next whip fight and the chance to be upgraded.
This combat sport was a part of the ritual of initiation into the womanhood. In order to be accepted into the adult worlds, girls had to demonstrate skills and courage in the contest. Ritual terms and rules of this contest are quite specific – the contestants lash each other in turn. Actually, it is a duel going in the following way. To challenge another woman to a duel, the challenger should pick up a whip and a shield, advance toward her opponent and throw the tip of the whip gently at her opponent. If the other woman accepts the challenge, she also picks up her whip and shield and the fighters take the position opposite each other. The challenger lashes out first, trying to hit her opponent anywhere on the body. If the blow is countered the other woman lashes out. They take turns this way until the woman who came forward gestured that it was over. Then the duelists return into their groups. The next woman come forward, challenges someone. The same ferocious whipping takes place. And so it continued. The sound of a direct hit on the skin is welcomed with cheers and applause; the woman who was hit shows no signs of pain. Sometimes a fighting woman has fun if she manages to hardly hit her opponent but sometimes she seems to ask to be forgiven. At certain moments anger seemed to run deep, the women kept lashing out at each other until others separated them.
Interestingly, girl whipping is also a traditional ritual of some other ethnic groups living in Nuba and around it. Leni Riefenstahl depicted mutual whipping oiled girl in the village of Kau. In some tribes, their girls are lashed not by other girls but by selected men. The Hamar (Hamer) people leaving in Ethiopia at the border with South Sudan have a tradition of whipping women to prove their love for their relatives usually brothers. Girls and women beg one of their kinsmen called Maza to whip them thoroughly. As girls of the Tira and the Moro, Hamar women don’t show the pain - they must feel being proud of their scars. They would look down on a woman who refuses to join in. Looks grotesque from the perspective of outsiders.
Picture by Lewis Smith
To the south of Nuba, in the Imatong Mountains in South Sudan the Lotuko people (Lotuho, Otoho) reside which should be mentioned because their traditions are quite similar to the traditions of the Nuba tribes. The Lotuko population is around 100 thousand; their language belongs to Eastern Nilotic languages.
Ariama or akiama is traditional wrestling of the Lotuko people. (The word ariama literally means test, examination, the finding out who is better, stronger). Actually, it is a form of freestyle wrestling – any holds are allowed applied to the opponent’s body or his loincloth. Legs can be used against opponent’s legs. Whoever falls first is considered as a loser. Lotuko developed a special training system to train young wrestlers.
As other Nuba tribes, Lotuko wrestling was an integral part of community rituals – from harvest celebrations to wedding ceremonies and initiations into maturity. Girls wrestled each other during harvest festivals and initiation ceremonies. In old times, wrestling was more a ritual contest and a celebration of youth rather than a contest between clans and villages which takes place nowadays. Girls no longer participate is these competitions. For youths and men, ariama is considered as a display of courage, readiness to play men’s role in the society as well as readiness to war.
One more group of tribes must be mentioned which resides not too far from Nuba but formally do not belong to the Nuba. Surma is a group of tribes residing in South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia. The term Surma is the collective name for the Suri, Mursi and Me'en groups with a total population of 186,875. All three ethnics speak languages belonging to the Surmic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. All three peoples share a similar culture. Their homeland is remote, located in desolate mountains, and traditional rivalries with their tribal neighbors in the past decades became quite bloody.
The Surma have a fierce traditional culture: they are famous in the world by their stick fighting called Donga and by women having huge lip plates. Donga is both the name of the sport and the stick, whereas Sagenai is the name of the stick-fighting session. Stick fighting is central in Surma culture. Donga brings great prestige to men — it is especially important when seeking a bride — and they are very competitive, at the risk of serious injury and occasional death. The males are often shaved bald, and frequently wear little or no clothes, even during stick fights. Although Donga is a particularly male ritual of getting girlfriends, it can also be a way to settle conflicts. Sometimes women participate in stick fighting if they really have to settle conflicts with women of another clan or village.
Ancient rock paintings depicting Nuba wrestling