Traditional Boxing In Nigeria
TRADITIONAL BIXING IN NIGERIA
Traditional boxing from northern Nigeria is fast, brutal, and has few rules.
The men who dedicate their lives to it are wanderers, itinerant labourers in search of fame, or the sons of boxers - born into the ring.
"Dembe", as it is called in Hausa, is exceedingly dangerous. Serious injury, and even death, are a real risk.
Poised to strike
Competitors crouch down in a ready stance, extending their free, unwrapped hand out as far as their opponent will allow. The idea is to test your reach, and tempt your opponent to make a move, and maybe leave himself open. The boxers can stare at each other in this pose for what seems like minutes before striking.
The tension is broken when the first punch is unleashed. The attacker swings his fist in an arc over his head while throwing himself forward. Dembe fighting is done to the sound of "talking drums", which gets the boxers’ adrenalin going.
Knock him down
A flurry of devastating blows follow as the boxers push each other around the ring. The winner is the one that knocks his opponent to the ground. He only has to do it once in three rounds, but if boxers are well matched the bouts may go on for an hour or more, according to Dembe enthusiast Kunle Tajudeen.
Sand and blood
Before the bout starts, the boxer will wet the flax cord wrapped around his hand and cover it in sand to maximise the pain he can inflict. Wrapped inside his fist are small animal skin packets containing bird feathers or other charms the boxer believes protect him. The scars on his forearm are where he has cut himself and rubbed in special medicines.
One of the few rules in Dembe is that if your fist wrapping comes off, you must stop and re-do it, but not all boxers are so disciplined. All competitors belong to one of two clans that travel from competition to competition fighting each other over and over again. “We are all friends,” says champion boxer Hussaini Maisauki Baki, “but in the ring, there are no friends”.
'Die in the ring'
Mohammed Sani is a 36-year-old boxer from a Fulani cow-herding family. He claims to have killed an opponent in the ring. “I started boxing so that people from all over Nigeria and even outside will know my name,” he said. “I know that one day I will die in the ring. Or the friends of the man I killed will take their revenge.”
In this bout Mohammed loses to Shagon Dantagaye. This ends an epic rivalry that has seen every fight between them over two years end in stalemate. After the match Mohammed looks close to tears, but then reconciles himself to defeat. “We have fought over 50 times, one day I will beat him, if God wills it,” he said.
Most boxers smoke a large amount of cannabis, known in Nigeria as Indian hemp. “It calms us down and makes us strong,” says Hussaini Maisauki Baki (left). Fighters club together to help pay for any serious injury to be treated, but most use traditional medicine to cure themselves.
A boxer's wife
Hassana is Husseni’s wife. He proposed to her after winning a major fight, and she accepted. She travels with him and attends to his wounds after fighting. “I am his wife. I have no choice in what he does, I must support him,” she says. Hussaini explains why boxers get into the ring. “There are few opportunities for people without employment,” he says. Text by Andrew Walker, pictures by Afolabi Sotunde(BBC)