Dambe: The Age-old West African Martial Art

Humans have always been fascinated by the art of fighting. In the days of the Roman Empire, crowds were entertained by gladiators. Nowadays, people are entertained by fighting styles from wrestling to boxing and Mixed Martial Arts. In Nigeria though, we have Dambe fight clubs to amuse and entertain.

What is Dambe?

Dambe is a form of martial arts that originated from the Northern Hausa regions of Nigeria and served many purposes. Traditionally practiced by Hausa butchers travelling through villages to slaughter animals for festivals, it  was also used in organised fights to showcase their bravery and attract unmarried women as well as to train for war.

Nowadays though, Dambe is mainly for entertainment. Tournaments are usually organised in open spaces with huge crowds and are often sold out. Among the audience, people sell cigarettes, alcoholic drinks and other intoxicating substances to keep the mood in a frenzy. Drum-driven Hausa music is played to create a dramatic atmosphere and a ring announcer, who often sings, introduces the fighters to spectators.

How Does Dambe Work?

Fighters wrap their dominant hand, known as the ‘spear’, in cloth and use it for attack. The weaker hand, known as the shield, is positioned with its palm open and facing opponents to defend against strikes. In the past, the spear hand wrapped in cloths was usually dipped in resin or shards of broken glass to inflict more damage on the opponent. The legs are also used to strike and defend.

Tournaments are made of three rounds. Fights usually end when the knees, hands or body of a fighter touch the ground following a strike. When this happens, the fighter is said to have been ‘killed’ by his opponent. A brutal sport, money is often the incentive for people to practice Dambe and participate in fight tournaments.

The Downside

Although a vibrant industry, the sport has little regulation. With protective gear rarely worn and medical personnel often not present for tournaments, many fighters have been left in a vegetative state and some have even died due to the sport.  This lack of regulation also means that many fighters indulge in drugs to numb pain and boost their courage.

Dambe is also gender-biased. Although women do attend fights, the sport is very male-dominated; the majority of spectators are men. What’s more, while female fighters do exist, tournaments are rarely organised for them.

In Sum

In a nutshell, Dambe tournaments are the MMA tournaments of Nigeria, dazzling the public with raw violence. Entrenched in the history of the region, the sport offers fighters a livelihood in exchange for risking their lives to entertain the masses. 

Ndifor Judethaddeus

I am a seasoned Cameroonian and a citizen of Africa with a mind inquisitive enough to want to explore the world inside out. Formally educated in the health sciences but with the right amount of curiosity to explore beyond that. I am a great lover of technology with a soft spot in my heart for nature.