Wrestling in the Nuba Mountains: Past and Present
While watching Sudan satellite TV I was attracted by a programme called ‘Sudanese Wrestling’ in which Nuba traditional wrestling has been transformed in a way that distorts its uniqueness.
Instead of the familiar scenes of wrestlers in their traditional dress inside the wrestling ring surrounded by sabaras dancing and singing songs of triumph, the television shows wrestlers wearing trousers, a referee with a whistle in the middle of the ring and an audience who paid money to watch the event. A situation which is more like a football match than the traditional wrestling contest. Instead of hearing the wrestling familiar names like kura’a aljamal (camel’s leg), arba’a hamir (four donkeys), and Jebel Kuwa, we were told that the match was between aldababeen (militia formed by the government to fight in the South and the Nuba Mountains) and Hilal aljibal. Is it an attempt to modernize the Nuba’s ancient tradition or is it another form of cultural assimilation which has been directed to the region and its rich cultural heritage by the successive national government especially the one currently in power?
In this article I would like to shed some light on wrestling as a tradition that has been associated for so long with the Nuba people. A tradition that is deeply rooted in the Nuba life, and is almost practiced by every Nubian tribe. Even the Baggara Arabs, who used to live in harmony with Nuba for centuries, are practicing wrestling in addition to all the traditions associated with it.
To the Nuba, wrestling resembles not only a sporting occasion but a social event in which every member of the society takes a different part. Even young children in their early ages are no exception.
Leni Riefenstahl, in her book The Last of the Nuba (1976), describes the role of young children in wrestling as follows: ‘Young children, not yet able to walk properly begin to imitate the dancing and wrestling positions of their elders. From his earliest youth every healthy boy will prepare himself to become a wrestler. The children hold wrestling fetes among themselves and decorate themselves in a similar way to their older brothers and sisters. The best of them rise to higher and higher grades. Their heart’s desire is to be selected for ‘initiation’ by being the winner of the ceremonial wrestling matches, and then to be accepted into the highest grade of the strongest wrestlers’.
Wrestling ceremonial events
As a tradition, the ceremonial wrestling matches begin after the first dura harvest in November and December
and last until the end of March. As a rule it is the Kujur and the council of elders who decide when and where a ceremonial wrestling match will take place. The wrestlers themselves and the rest of the community are not told until the moment. The frequency of the ceremony depends entirely on the harvest.
In very good harvest years, matches can take place almost daily during these months. Three ceremonies can take place in a row in the same place. When harvests are poor and thedura yield scarcely suffices for subsistence, ceremonies are rare or do not take place at all. In this context, wrestling may be regarded as a ceremony to celebrate a good harvest.
As soon as the decision has been made regarding the venue and date, messengers are sent out to offer invitation wherever there are good wrestlers. Usually the messengers appear at sunset since this is when the Nuba return from their fields. There are nearly always two messengers. One carries a large, triangular leather cloth attached to a wooden stem which the Nuba always carry with them for cult matters. When he arrives at a village he slaps the ground several times. The same process takes place before the wrestlers enter the ring. While one messenger is slapping the ground, the other blows a horn.
Soon the Nuba crowd, the messenger and the word of the invitation spreads quickly. Immediately boys run to the remote Zariba (cattle camp) in order to pass on the joyful news to all the potential competitors. In the Zariba, the
be competitors prepare themselves mentally and physically for the contest.
If the ceremony is to be a large one, with the most powerful wrestlers taking part, entire hill communities will attend, except for children and old people who cannot walk very far. If the site is very far away, they will arrange to arrive in the host village the evening before the ceremony, and they will sleep in their host’s house.
When the day arrived, everyone set out early – for twenty miles is too far to walk during the heat of the day. Everyone was decorated in some way with beads, ash, furs and calabashes which wrestlers usually tied to their belt behind. The village flag attached to a rod about 16-27 feet long was carried at the head of the procession.
Each village has a different flag, which is kept, in a special house together with the ceremonial dress of the best wrestlers, the drums, the long horn and other wrestling requisites. It is in this house, or in front of it, that a champion wrestler is solemnly dressed and smeared with ash while his fellowers watch. If the journey is too long and they have to rest overnight on the way, then the wives and sisters of the wrestlers carry the ceremonial dress in their baskets on their head. The women always form the rear of the procession, and their main burden is to bring the heavy pots with water and marissa to the ceremonies.
On the way the people from each village keep together as a group, generally led by their own champion wrestler who carries the village flag. In front of the contingent are the strongest wrestlers, followed by the married men and boys and then the women carrying the guords of marissa and water in a long line stretching back over the track. As they get closer to the wrestling-guard they close up to present a united and impressive spectacle to the villagers who are scattered in the scanty bits of shade waiting for the wrestling to begin.
Usually the matches begin in the early afternoon. But when established champions are fighting, they begin around mid-day and can even fight under a burning sun. Several Nuba men would form a circle somewhere. They crouch on their knees and put their foreheads to the ground. Behind them stand young men scattering ash from calabashes over the crouching group.
Meanwhile the men hum in chorus with one of them calling out words in solo, half singing and half shouting. This is a kind of communal prayer meant to help the champion to emerge as a victor.
A large ring is formed in which a few of the less powerful wrestlers begin to fight. Several pairs can fight at one time. The winner is the one who throws his opponent down on his back. Unfair practice is forbidden, and each pair has a referee who decides to interrupt the fight when two wrestlers are equally strong and neither can throw the other. This counts as a draw.
During Numeiri’s regime, when the late Mahmoud Hassieb was the commissioner of Southern Kordofan province, the Nuba culture withheld a real revival. Hassieb showed a genuine interest in developing the traditions and folklore in the Nuba Mountains. In every national event he would invite the big names in wrestling from areas all-over the mountains to come to Kadugli, the capital, to compete in the town football stadium.
Since that time wrestling has taken on another shape, as trophies and money are given to the winners. Thus, wrestling has started to lose its social importance for the individual combatants and for the villages as well. Wrestling used to be an important occasion for villagers to come together to renew and strengthen their contacts and revitalise the unity of the whole community. Unfortunately these tradtions are now in jeopardy as Khartoum continues to clamp down on non-Islamic cultures.