Traditional butchers’ boxing is reborn
LAGOS: On a rough patch of earth behind a bottling factory in Lagos, watched over by 2,000 fans and urged on by ranks of African drummers, a group of traditional Nigerian Dambe boxers square off in the dirt.
With the heat of an African day fading, the matches, each made up of three rapid-fire rounds, follow each other like combination punches. Between 10 and 20 boxers form each team - one named after the northeastern city of Sokoto and the other named for the northern city of Kano. The two teams, made up mostly of professional fighters, mass at either side of the patch of earth that forms the boxers’ ‘ring’.
Sweating in the heat, one boxer from either team steps forward to square off against an opponent from the other team. Each round lasts only 30 seconds or until there is a knock-down or a knock-out. Each boxer may fight several matches in an evening. When each match ends, young boys, apprentice boxers, run out to the bloodied fighters and spray them with water drawn from water bags with their mouths.
‘Dambe’, a word in the Hausa language which is used across much of northern Nigeria, is an ancient form of boxing traditionally practised among the Hausa, originally by butchers. It differs significantly from western or Thai boxing in several ways.
Unlike in other forms of boxing, the Dambe boxer punches with only one fist which is tightly bound up to the wrist with a rough twine, often leaving cuts as well as bruises on his opponents head. The other hand is left free to be used to parry blows and for balance, like a fencer. Feet and legs can also be used to kick. Everything happens fast. No gum-shield or other protective gear is warn. No medics attend. Traditionally, the Dambe fights were staged at harvest time, when the farmers took a break and were flush with money, paid to the successful boxers.
The sport was a form of social bonding between farmers and butchers who lived off each other. In decline for several decades it is now taking off again, becoming more commercialised and gaining a new place in the national sports calendar, featured this month for the first time at the National Sports Festival.
“We’re thrilled by the progress the sport has made in recent years. We believe it could be taken up overseas,” leading Dambe promoter Iliya Isa said. But the fighters said they thought the government could do more to help what is now a completely commercial sport and had mixed feelings on the money to be earned in the game - anything from a few hundred naira (a few dollars) to a few thousand naira (some tens of dollars) a day, certainly more than most workers in Nigeria but still far from a good living from a rough sport.
“Dambe is a traditional Nigerian sport. The government does nothing for us, but in other countries, the governments encourage indigenous sports” said Umaru ‘Shago dan Basharawa’ Adamu, a top Dambe figher, aged 29 from Kano who has travelled to neighbouring Niger and now fights in Lagos. Once a butcher, in the Dambe tradition, he said he had taken up the sport to earn money but was disappointed with what he earned.
“I don’t believe there is any one who is satisfied with what he is earning. We just have to take what we get. What God gives, we take,” he said. Abubakar ‘Shago Inuwa’ Hassan was more sanguine. Aged 21 he said he earned a good living, mainly from the spectators giving him money after the matches. “I’m content with what I get fighting. This is how I earn my living now,” he said. —AFP