Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The African Gladiators

The highly excited crowd seems unfazed by the August morning chill in Nairobi’s Kibera slums as they cheer for the two men locked in a tight struggle at the centre of the sanded sisal ring. Their bodies dotted with paints of different hues, the duo desperately twist, turn, push and press forward, each trying to gain territory and maneuvering space to grab the opponent’s leg and bring them down.

The struggle is obviously taxing and testing the young men’s breaking points, for despite the mildly chilly day, a thin sweat glistens over their ebony skins. Then suddenly, the young man with facial tribal markings hooks his elbow on the bigger man’s upper thigh and with one mighty lunge, both fly across the mattress of sand. The judge declares the contestant whose forehead is adorned with tribal incisions the winner as he has landed on top of his opponent.

His jubilant colleagues storm the contest area and lift him shoulder high in a lap of honour around the ring, with the traditional Nubian drumbeats drowning the excited shouts of the tiny throng of spectators.

“I am here for Nuba and Sudan,” says 20 year-old Zachary Nabil, the jubilant winner. “Although I have lived in Kenya for the last five years, my commitment and love for my motherland runs deep,” adds the high school student.

Nabil has travelled all the way from Nuba Mountains in central Sudan in the company of 10 colleagues to take part in the Kibera Traditional Wrestling Tournament, the first of its kind to be held in the sprawling slums for decades. All the other participating teams, Kakamega, Kibera and Riruta, are from Kenya. But the Sudanese stand out not only for their jet black complexion and the facial tribal markings but also their skill and tact.

Organised by the Kibera Nubian Wrestlers in conjunction with Sports for Youth Development Initiative (SYDI), the tournament is a series of similar events that were launched several months ago to promotes unity in the shantytown.

“We held our inaugural wrestling tournament in March and the enthusiasm with which it was received encouraged us to organise the second one,” says SYDI Press Officer Phillip Emase. “Before launching these events we acted a movie called Nuba in December featuring all our wrestlers.”

Popularly known as menge in the Nubian language, traditional wrestling has been part of many African cultures since ancient times. The sport was immensely popular in Egypt, Upper Nile region and West Africa before almost being eroded to extinction by colonization.

However, in the mountainous terrains of Central Sudan the game faltered and staggered its way into modern times. Boys in this region encounter the sport at a very tender age hence by the time they reach their teenage years their skills are highly polished. Perhaps this explains why the youthful team from Nuba Mountains easily scooped top honours in the Kibera tournament.

“In Sudan the players wrestle on bare rocky ground unlike in this ring where there is a thick cushion of sand,” says Ali, the Nuban team trainer. “The problem with Kenyan wrestlers is that they think muscle and size is everything. But traditional wrestling, unlike the western version, is more of skill and tact than strength.”

The sport was a popular past time activity of the earlier generation of Nubians who settled in Kenya, from Sudan, in the 19th century. However it died out as these immigrants settled and got absorbed in the Kenya culture.

“Our intent of reviving this ancient sport now is to see it grow into a status where we can represent Kenya in major international wrestling tournaments,” explains Amani Salim, chairman of the Kibera Nubian Association (KNA) and the event’s general overseer. Although they are yet to get any sponsors, Mr Salim believes repeated media publicity will popularize the game enough to attract the interest of corporate organizations.

“If properly managed and developed across the continent, traditional wrestling could be the first African game to be incorporated in the Olympic Games,” adds the optimistic Salim who grew up in Kibera and participated in wrestling events as a youth.

The same sentiment is echoed by Musa Tai, a 31 year-old local wrestling hero who believes there is more in the game than just the muscle.

“If the government assists in putting the right mechanisms in place this game, just like football, can be a source of income for the youth and a means to lasting peace among different communities,” he says.

The Kibera Academy, where the tournament was held, is a popular Nubian community centre where various cultural and social activities take place. Hence as the young men contested for supremacy and honour over the sand, large canvases of vintage photos telling the Nubian tale since their arrival in Kenya more than a 100 years ago were on display a few meters away.

The open gallery is a walled wealth of history, from the first Nubian soldiers that served in the Kings African Rifles through the pioneer Nubian settlements in the forested Kibera in the early 1930s to the recent generation of descendants.

Although the historical display gets me gaga, screams from the ringside snaps me back to the ringside where the crowd is now pressing tightly around the sanded centre.

Two tall young men are circling around the sisal rope enclosure like dark gladiators, each waiting for an opportunity, that chink in the armour, to pounce. None presents. I am convinced that this particular pair's contest, if not restrained, might easily spill past the rules. They stand and size each, much to the chagrin of the crowd that is by now baying for bruise or blood.

“They are wasting time. If they can’t do it let them get out of the ring and let those who can do it do it,” fumes an agitated fan.

Then without a warning the two challengers lunge at each other, muscle taught and tight as they toss and turn in a desperate attempt to trip or not to be tripped. Ultimately, one man prevails as his opponent fails. The winner is whisked away shoulder high by his excited mates while the loser walks out crest fallen. Like the rest of the crowd, I chose the winner.

“It’s Ugali, githeri (mixture of maize and beans) and rabuon (sweet potatoes) energy,” brags the heavily panting victor as he answers my questions between gulps of water and air. “Traditional foods are an integral part of my diet and I believe that’s where I derive my immense power. I have only lost one game since I started wrestling competitively.”

The tournament is over and the master of ceremony has announced the wrestlers from Nuba Mountains as the overall winners, having floored all their ten opponents but two. Judging from the way members from the various teams are embracing and greeting each other, it’s obvious the muscular men have been here for more than just the physical contest.

“Today the wrestling ring and the overall event have been a historic meeting point and re-union between the Kenyan Nubians and their cousins the Sudanese Nubans,” says Mr Emasse.

As part of its campaign to use sports as a creative avenue to address the numerous problems facing Kenyan youth in marginalised places like Kibera, SYDI plans to register a national association of traditional wrestling in the country. The organisation is already running successful football, boxing and tae Kwon do teams.

“The reason for organising the tournaments now is to popularise the sport, re-unite the two Nuba communities and lobby for the creation of a national wrestling league,” he concludes.

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