Stick Fighting in Khayelisha

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In the corner of a bustling bus station in the heart of Khayelisha, a large crowd formed a circle around a few individuals. One man at the center with a megaphone barked at the audience in Xhosa. The dark circle, bathed in a gray cloud filtered light, seemed closed off and ominous at first. However, the crowd’s attitude was merely one of excited sports fans, ready for action. Their intense focus on the upcoming combatants bound the mass closely together, tense with anticipation. They had gathered to watch intonga, which is better understood as stick fighting. An old fashion Xhosa practice, stick fighting has existed for centuries amongst rural herders. Nelson Mandele himself spoke about it in his autobiography, “'I learned to stick-fight – essential knowledge to any rural African boy – and became adept at its various techniques, parrying blows, feinting in one direction and striking in another, breaking away from an opponent with quick footwork.”

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As I moved in closer to the action, the diversity of the spectators opened up. Men, women, young and old all squeezed together in anticipation of the forthcoming fight. Dressed in jackets and hoodies, rand’s quickly moved through the throng , from pockets to hands to pockets as bookies offered spectators a greater investment in the conflict. Spotting the approaching warriors, who were surrounded by their supporters, two distinct styles emerged. The shorter of the two men wore jeans and no shoes. His callused feet bounced him up and down on the pavement, burning nervous energy.  The larger man wore dress shoes; calmly still, as someone wrapped a towel around his left hand holding stick for protection. Bicycle helmets rested backwards on both men’s heads, orientated as such to protect the precious frontal lobe. The helmets give them the look of backyard American Gladiators, but I sensed a fearlessness and confidence to the fighters that didn’t allude to amateurism.  

As mentioned before, the fighters left hands, centered gripped on the long thin staff, were wrapped in towels to protect their grip. The right hand was gripped low on the shaft of the second stick, allowing for maximum speed and torque. The strategy for the gladiators seemed simple enough. Keep the left hand out, ready to defend any strike. While the right hand waggles behind, searching for an opportunity to whip forward  through the others defenses. Rules dictate that the back of the head and below the belt are of limits, but blows seemed to land where ever they could. Points were awarded by the refree for solid contact on different parts of the body; head, torso, arms, hands, etc.

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When the whistle blew, images of boxers crossed my mind as the couple danced around each other. An occasional light blow, testing the others defenses, interrupted the early tepid waltz. But as soon as the circling seemed redundant, a rush, a flurry so fast, blows were hard to distinguish. The crowd’s roar, punctuated by the thwack of wood on wood, gave the circle the feel of the coliseum.  But this crowd had no high walls or barriers to protect them from the skirmish. A rush of the larger man forced the combatants back into the wall of the crowd. Falling over each other, the audience circle warped and stretched back in avoidance. Whistle blown. The fighters were brought back to the center and instructed to reset.

This dance of fighters carried on for 20 minutes, until each man was exhausted and bloodied. Khayelisha’s residents, never losing interest, continued to push in close to the action, only to be scattered back when their proximity and presence was ignored. A winner and loser was hard to determine, as there was no backing down in either’s spirit. And the crowd’s allegiance was harder still to judge. Something in me seemed to smell a blood lust, a thirst for action and violence that drowned out allegiances. As I walked away, I saw the next competitors going through the aforementioned rituals of preparation. Helmets backward, hands wrapped, jackets removed, these fighters held the same intensity I had just witness in front of them. I watched them try to break through the throng of people still cheering for the last match, only to be quickly lost to me as the mob engulfed them.

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