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Wrestling: An identity-shaping ritual among Sudan's Nuba

Nuba wrestlers in Sudan [Katarzyna Rybarczyk]
Nuba wrestlers in Sudan [Katarzyna Rybarczyk]

Every week at the Haj Youssef stadium in the outskirts of Khartoum, Sudan, hundreds of people gather to watch Nuba wrestling, a tribal practice going back thousands of years.

The Nuba are a group of 50 or more indigenous ethnic groups who inhabit the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan state in the south of Sudan.

In the 1990s, the Sudanese government declared a war against the Nuba and, with the support of various militia groups, launched a genocidal and ethnocidal campaign against them.

Following the military offensive, around 100,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands more were internally displaced.

To this day, the Nuba people are spread across the country. Being ethnically diverse, speaking different languages, and no longer living in the region that they originate from, they feel a sense of collective identity through engaging in similar cultural practices. Nuba wrestling, for example, is practiced by almost every Nubian tribe.

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They have been practicing wrestling for centuries, and, although now modernised, the sport remains an integral part of their culture.

Historically, Nuba wrestlers would fight naked, covered in ash. Now, men wear shorts and t-shirts but they still spread white ash and sand over their bodies. Often, they also attach tribal-inspired elements to their uniforms.

In an urban environment, athletes come from sports clubs but, in the past, they would be the strongest men representing different villages so winning was associated with bringing honour to their community.

Each sports club has its own style so the combat can be fast-paced, hectic, unorganised, but can also be slow and rhythmic, depending on competing opponents.

Being a mixture of sport and dance, this captivating performance gives the audience an insight into the intriguing world of tribal rituals.

Wrestlers compete in the ring which is covered with sand rather than mats. To win, they need to drop their opponent to the ground until the referee calls the end of the match.

Each wrestler has unique moves they show to demonstrate their superiority and readiness to compete. Before each round a wrestler chooses their opponent, points at them, and does a short dance indicating that they are challenging them to fight.

Khartoum's stadium is a space for Nuba people to connect with their culture and revive their community spirit. When the round is concluded, the audience cheers and sings while wrestlers perform dances of triumph, showing off their strength and ability.

At the end of the round spectators and congratulate the athletes by placing money on their foreheads. For young Nuba men, wrestling can be the opportunity to get out of poverty and change their social status.

After each round, the winner is carried around the ring by a member of their sports club. Apart from gaining prestige within their local community, some may gain national or international fame.

Throughout the years, Nuba wrestling has taken on another form and has found a new home, in a stadium rather than among nature in rural settings. But, the practices of the Nuba people today still resembled the ancient wrestling traditions and matches are the chance for the displaced Nuba to come together.

By continuing to engage in Nuba wrestling, the Nuba people pay tribute to their cultural heritage. As wrestling is the key event driving integration and strengthening their sense of collective identity, it plays a key role in preventing Nuba culture from disappearing.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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