Nguni Stick Fighting

As you stare him down, you know you cannot break gaze, one blink and you become victim to the fury of his stick. He strikes your face, a good hit, the sounds of the crowds are muffled as you regain consciousness. He strikes again, but this time on pure adrenalin you block hard, knocking out his weapon and with a low roundhouse strike he jumps over your stick, only to be smacked in the face as you return to your stance as you complete your most elegant combo.

Nguni Stick Fighting is a combat sport of Southern Africa, and has over three centuries of history with Nguni communities. It is the martial art practiced by Zulu legend Shaka, and former South African President, Nelson Mandela. Today it has seen massive growth in southern Africa as the sport, traditionally practiced in the villages has moved to the big cities.

History and Culture

Chaka King of the Zoolus
Credit: Nathaniel Isaacs Public Domain

Many historians believe that this sport originated in the late 1600s in the Umhlatuze valley and was possibly developed by Amalandela, son of the chief Gumede. A century later, the sport was practiced and heavily developed by the legendary Zulu warrior-king, Shaka. By age 11, Shaka was already a fierce competitor with the sticks, and during his reign, young men were trained in stick fighting for both self defence and hand to hand combat on the battlefield. Those who did exceptionally well at the sport were awarded cattle.

By the mid 1800s, Stick Fighting was used to resolve local disputes, and more often than not, to win a girl’s heart. As the sport had gone away from it’s military purpose, killing your opponent was no longer the goal. This resulted in the removal of blades from athlete’s spears, making the sport much more similar to its current state. The sport became a coming of age for many Nguni people. Fathers would take their 16 year old son into the forest to cut their own fighting sticks down from tress.

More recently, the sport suffered due to the turbulent politics of South Africa, where any African with a fighting stick was considered a “violent Zulu”.

Today, Nguni Stick Fighting is akin to underground boxing in the UK but practised in public areas rather than secret locations. With no real marketing, umgangela (competitions) seem to start spontaneously, and quickly draw large and loud crowds. Competitors pay a small fee to fight, and the winner takes home the pot. This system makes it an attractive easy to make money in poorer communities where a small bit of disposable cash can turn into a hefty sum. Spectators also have the opportunity to gamble away on their favourite fighter and support their loved ones.

It is not unusual for Stick Fights to break out at weddings. These are often used as a way to settle any disputes before the ceremony.

Basic Rules

Fighters are armed with a defensive stick, sometimes tied to one hand so they cannot drop it, or with a small shield protecting the hand, and an offensive stick which can be dislodged. The defensive stick is used primarily for blocking, and the offensive stick for striking. Because of the obvious danger of headshots, and because many of the fighters have families to support, head protection is mandatory in some umgangela. The standard head protection is rugby style headgear. Although thin, it can be effective against the strikes of the sport.

Points are awarded per successful strike, with different body parts of varying amounts. A head shot is the most valuable at six points. The match ends after a set time or if someone is knocked unconscious. Athletes can tap out at any time by dropping their stick. The winner of the match is whoever finishes with the most points, unless there is a knockout, where the winner is whoever delivered the knockout hit.

How to Experience Nguni Stick Fighting

The sport is currently going through a renaissance in southern Africa and is very popular with the two largest ethnic groups in South Africa, the Zulu and the Xhosa (that’s pronounced with a click) who are based mainly in the Southern and Western Capes and KwaZulu-Natal. Umgangela are more common in rural areas and are growing in urban areas, and they are less likely to occur in areas with high political tension. Participating is not recommended and may cause you to lose your travel insurance. As a spectator, please be respectful of their culture and take care of your own personal safety, you will likely be the only tourist in a large crowd of locals.

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