African Wrestling & Sports Federation of Australia
Documentation of wrestling on the African continent is as old as any other place in the world. Some of the artwork and hieroglyphic writings from Ancient Egypt give descriptions of how the sport was played nearly 5000 years ago but naturally being the continent that spawned humanity, no doubt wrestling is older there than anywhere. The Nubian Empire of what is now Sudan has a similar pedigree to that of Egypt and was even for a period in control of its northern neighbour. The Nubians were famed in the ancient world for their abilities to wrestle and according to the artistic record they left for wrestling, it seems the sport was central to their cultural identity.
Most scholars generally concede that the modern Nuba hill tribes of the Kordofan Mountains in Sudan are the inheritors of this legacy and likewise, wrestling is a core cultural expression that defines who they are as a people. The Nuba say that wrestling first came about when their ancestors started imitating baboon monkeys in combat and this has some similarities with how the Australian ancestors mimicked kangaroos as in the Coreeda Legend. The civil war of Sudan, that has split the country into two, has had a devastating impact on traditional practices but the Nuba settlers in Khartoum have adapted to this tragedy by setting up arenas in the outer suburbs of the city so they can still practice the sport, even if in a heavily modified form. The popularity of these events are leading to a potential professionalisation of the sport which is providing a much needed economic pathway for tribal people and this may connect the Nuba directly with a wider world wrestling community.
Since South Sudan has come to form its own country, they may be able to maintain a positive sporting connection with the north through the sport of wrestling. The Dinka tribes of the south also hold wrestling to be an important cultural activity and with the end of the civil war, highly popular tournaments are being held in cities like Bor in Jonglei State in the most southern parts of the country. These traditional wrestling tournaments are leading the Dinka to find a new pride in their ancestral heritage and like the Nuba, they may be able to discover a new economic freedom through this activity. Kenya likewise is finding that traditional wrestling is becoming more popular than anyone could have anticipated and Nairobi now hosts tournaments with competitors invited from as far away as Khartoum.
Other Central African nations are following suit and traditional wrestling is seeing a resurgence in growth in places like Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo; it probably won't be long before a regional championship is designed for the sport. The Democratic Republic of Congo in particular has seen a massive resurgence in popularity for traditional belt wrestling practiced by the Wagenya people around Kisangani, with quite literally tens of thousands of wrestlers registered with the newly formed Congo Kabubu Federation. In the capital city of Kinshasa/Brazzaville with its 12 million population it is a theatrical form of professional wrestling that uses voodoo fetishes called Catch Congolaise that is most popular amongst city dwellers but in the country side people are reconnecting with their old traditions after experiencing decades of tyrannical rule, civil war and genocidal violence.
The Kingdom of Buganda in Uganda is also witnessing a popular resurgence for traditional Ekigwo wrestling since it was reestablished under the leadership of Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Matebi II in 1993. When Henry Morton Stanley travelled through this region in 1875 he was surprised at the size of the population and marvelled that the Kabaka could muster an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands with a huge navy of war canoes on Lake Victoria. He also recorded that wrestling contests were regularly held at the Lubiri Palace in Kampala to determine the strongest warrior in the kingdom and positions of rank were awarded after these tournaments.
Most definitely the inspiration for much of this new found interest in traditional wrestling is because of the phenomenal growth of the sport across West Africa. Like in the Eastern regions, wrestling is also very ancient in this part of Africa. Essentially a professional sport since the 1920s, Laamb or Lutte Traditionelle is more popular than football. Divided into two different versions, one that allows barefisted punching and another that forbids it, the sport has reached such levels of fanaticism that the Senegalese Government is planning on building a 25,000 seat stadium in Dakar exclusively for displays of the sport. The Griot bards of Senegal, who are the traditional custodians of culture, tell a story of how wrestling began. Apparently a group of beautiful black skinned men walked out of the eastern desert from a land called Merou An to teach the ancestors of the Wolof people the spiritual art of wrestling. Merou An was supposed to have been a mystical land full of gold and with many beautiful palaces but recently scholars have come to identify it with the Nubian capital of Meroe, an ancient city with more pyramids than Cairo. Therefore West African wrestling may actually share an ancestral heritage with Nuba wrestling.
One of the oldest civilisations of West Africa at nearly 3000 years old, the Nok Culture of what is now central Nigeria, has many elaborate terracotta examples of art that have survived for archaeological record and at least one smaller piece of ceramic seems to show a representation of two wrestlers in combat. The oldest unified polity of West Africa, the Empire of Wagadu that ruled till the 13th century when it was destroyed by Muslim forces, held sway as far as the Atlantic Ocean in the West to Lake Chad in the East and from the Sahara Desert in the north to the rainforests in the south. Some scholars think that the Nubians may have been the instigators of the Ghana kingship as legendary sources from Sudan tell that last of the royals fled west when the region was invaded from Aksum in Ethiopia in 450AD, the same time that Wagadu began. Arab traders in the 9th century left a record describing the personal bodyguards of the Imperial Ghana warlord of Wagadu as wrestlers with enormous biceps. Many subsequent kingdoms have dominated the region since then but no matter who was in charge, wrestling has always been an important cultural sport of the region.
In Nigeria most of the ethnic people have variations of traditional wrestling and the sport is called Kokowa by the Hausa people in the north, Gidigbo by the Yoruba in the south west, Aven by the Edo people of the ancient city of Benin in the south and Ngba by the Igbo in the south east. The most famous novel to come from Africa, the 1958 classic "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe, gives a vivid description of traditional wrestling amongst the Igbo people. For over a millennium wrestling was used as a peace keeping ritual of the theocratic Kingdom of Nri, that acted as an antislavery refuge during the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and no doubt the Igbo people were very influentual in ending this cruel trade of human trafficking. It is thought that General Toussaint Louverture, who lead the Haitian Revolution in the Caribbean from 1790 to 1802 and gave the world the first country to outlaw slavery may have been of Igbo descent. Olaudah Equiano who wrote so passionately against the evils of slavery in 1789, leading to the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, was most certainly an Igbo man.
In 1993 the Nigerian Government established the Traditional Sports Federation of Nigeria to popularise indigenous sports such as traditional wrestling. At about the same time, a Senegalese businessman named Gaston Mbengue sponsored some bouts in the capital of Dakar and with crowds of 80,000 packing the football stadium, this lead to a boom period for laamb. In recognition of these concurrent developments, in 2005 FILA, the International Wrestling Federation, auspiced a regional West African traditional wrestling championship that was sponsored by the Economic Community of West African States ECOWAS. Nearly every country in the region now sends competitors to the Championat d'Afrique and successful competitors are rewarded with both fame and fortune, some even receiving professional contracts.
As already indicated this boom for traditional wrestling in West Africa is inspiring the development of traditional styles of wrestling in many other African nations and the Diaspora of African immigrants to other countries have similalry been motivated. At the beginning of 2011, John Nze-Bertram of the Igbo Community of South Australia, began the African Wrestling & Sports Federation of Australia, with the idea of encouraging African people living in Australia to practice their traditional sports and display them at community festivals. With this development it is highly likely that it will have a flow on effect to the broader Australian society, strengthening the sport of wrestling in this country. If you are interested in learning more about African traditional wrestling either contact me at this site or look for the website for the the African Wrestling & Sports Federation of Australia.