West African sport | Dambe

Jeremy Weate/CC BY 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/73542590@N00/4350540347

A beginner’s guide to Dambe: take some coarse rope and tightly bind your right fist and forearm. Stand in front of your opponent and while using your left palm and arm as a protective buffer, try to punch, strike or slap your fellow combatant into submission, or death within three rounds. 

Dambe is the traditional one-handed fighting style of the Hauser peoples of West Africa and it’s as brutal as it sounds. Fighters prepare themselves with charms for protection and offer their fighting services to sponsors as both a way of earning money and earning respect for themselves and their benefactors.

Jeremy Weate/CC BY 2.0

Jeremy Weate/CC BY 2.0

Until recently the stakes in these contests were even higher as some local rules permitted the fighters to dip their bound punching arm into a mix of resin and broken glass. While the punches became more effective, the survival and damage rates increased and were eventually outlawed – though rumours of a new fighting movement that permits the carnage caused by the glass fist still prevail. The fighting stance and symbolism of the spear and shield (fist and palm) combination closely mirror images of boxers found in Egyptian hieroglyphics which supports a theory that the Hauser migrated west to Nigeria from Egypt and Sudan.

As with virtually all combative sports on the African continent, music plays a large role in the combative ritual of Dambe with Kalungu (talking drums) providing the majority of rhythmic accompaniment. These drums are used to tell a dramatic and staccato commentary of the fight and are also used to often rouse the crowd’s excitement and signal when supporters can race into the open fighting ring when knockdowns are achieved.

Dambe fights were traditionally staged after the harvest in rural areas though matches now take place in most large Nigerian cities on a weekly basis. And while rural contests typically feature teams fighting for the pride of their village, the urban contests have become focused on an individual fighter’s personal achievement and fame in the ring.

Still, no matter whether it’s a country or town event, the rules are the same. Bind the fist and forearm tightly with coarse rope, use your palm and arm as protection from your opponent and do your best to stay alive.

It’s Dambe, it’s dangerous and it’s the original Hauser fighting form that has survived for centuries.

Take that Marquess of Queensbury rules. Respect!