By ABALI O. ABALI
Western education wants the world to believe that wrestling as a sport owes its origin to the ancient Greeks, but Chinua Achebe has shown in his novel, Things Fall Apart, that wrestling has been a part of African culture since time immemorial.
In the novel, the hero, Okonkwo, at the young age of eighteen, successfully challenged and threw the wrestling champion of his day, Amanlize, nick-named The Cat, who, until then, had seven years unbeaten record to his credit. In pre-colonial Igbo society where the novel derived its setting, one could achieve fame and respect as a great farmer, hunter, warrior, craftsman and wrestler. Thus, by throwing Amanlize the Cat, Okonkwo became very famous.
On how the wrestling competition was organised, Chinua Achebe describes it in Chapter Six of the novel:
The drummers took up their sticks again and the air shivered and grew tense like a tightened bow. The two teams were ranged facing each other across their clear space. A young man from one team danced across the Centre to the other side and pointed at whomever he wanted to fight. They danced back to the Centre together and then closed in. There were twelve men on each side and the challenge went from one side to the other. Two judges walked around the wrestlers and when they thought they were equally matched, stopped them… But the real exciting moments were when a man was thrown. The huge voice of the crowd then rose to the sky and in every direction. It was even heard in the surrounding villages.
The wrestling contest was part of the New Yam Festival celebrated yearly before the harvest began. The wrestling match took place usually on the second day of the festival between Okonkwo’s village (Umuofia) and its neighbours. The description given by Chinua Achebe using Umuofia as a reference, serves mainly to show that wrestling has been a traditional African Sport from ancient times. It does not, however, tell the whole story about wrestling even among Igbo communities. For instance, Chinua Achebe never alluded to the existence of female wrestling. It might be that he did not consider it important or probably because female wrestling was unknown in his own Ogidi Community. Given the strong patriarchal features of the fictional Igbo community (Umuofia) depicted in Things Fall Apart, it was no surprise that female wrestling had no place in such a community. Who knows, it might even have been considered an abomination for women to engage in such a sport. Whatever might have been the reason for the omission, the fact remained that female wrestling match was a reality in several Igbo communities.
In Abam, the female wrestling match preceded the male wrestling contest and both were parts of the wrestling festival. Unlike Chinua Achebe’s Umuofia, the wrestling contest in Abam was a separate festival (Omume Mgba) and not part of the New Yam Festival. The Wrestling Festival in Abam took place usually at the end of the planting season, which in modern day calendar, is between late May and June. Because of the communal nature of farming in Abam, acquisition and distribution of farmlands took place between January and February; clearing of farmlands was done between late February and mid-March while cultivation and planting took place between late March and early May. The Wrestling Festival usually marked the end of the planting season. It lasted between four and five days but it was a lesser festival than the New Yam Festival. In Idima Abam, in particular, the female wrestling match took place a day or two before the male wrestling contest. The female wrestling contest was usually staged at the village square, Kpekpe, while the male counterpart was staged normally at the market square.
The rules of the female wrestling match differed from those of male wrestling. In the female wrestling contest, it was enough that the buttock or knee of a wrestler touched the earth for her opponent to be declared the winner. In other words, a female wrestler needed not to be thrown flat with her back to the ground before her opponent was adjudged the winner of the contest. The rule was understandably made to protect the female wrestlers from indecent exposure. In those days, the young women wore only waist-beads known as asi in Abam dialect. This did not however make the female wrestling less exciting. People looked forward to both the male and female wrestling matches. In the male wrestling, on the other hand, the rules were more liberal. A wrestler must have his back touch the earth before his opponent was declared the winner. Thus, a male wrestler could deliberately drop on his knees as a tactical manoeuvre to outwit the opponent. A female wrestler could not do the same else she would be deemed to have been thrown.
A judge, often a woman in her middle age, was appointed for the female wrestling match. The male wrestling contest had a male judge. The judge in either case was usually someone who had distinguished herself or himself in the wrestling arena in her or his younger days. The female wrestling match was particularly important for maidens. Anyone who performed creditably well in the wrestling arena, would did only become famous but also received a lot of gifts from her proud parents and other relations. Such a person would have suitors falling over themselves seeking her hand in marriage. In other words, she stood the best chance of marrying one of the most successful man of her choice.
Again, unlike Chinua Achebe’s descriptions in Things Fall Apart, where the wrestling contest was between the Umuofia and its neighbours, there was no wrestling match between one village and another in Abam; there were no teams; and a wrestler did not have to choose whom to fight. Each Abam village had its own wrestling festival and the wrestlers were drawn from its residents. In both female ad male wrestling, any person from the crowd who felt enough confidence could take the arena and stand, waiting to be challenged, usually by anyone within her or his own age bracket. Any other person within that age bracket who felt courageous enough could then walk into the arena and challenge her or him and the fight began. Some times, the contest was gradually reduced to an inter-compound competition. It has to be noted here that in each Abam village, people lived in compounds. A large compound could contain as much as seventy households or families while a small compound might have as few as twenty households or families. Each household had its own separate premises. In the olden days, when a wrestler from one compound threw another from a different compound, people from the same compound as the thrown wrestler usually felt challenged to redeem the reputation of their compound. They would not want to be taunted as residents of a compound of weaklings, as such people of the same age brackets as the thrown wrestler from that compound, would take to the wrestling arena one after another to challenge the victor until one of them throws her or him. The wrestling festival is still being celebrated in various Abam villages in the modern day but female wrestling has fizzled out in most of the villages.
In conclusion, while we thank Chinua Achebe for drawing the attention of the rest of the world to the fact that Africa did not learn or hear about wrestling from the ancient Greeks as western education wants us to believe, we must also bear it in mind that the macho Igbo world view he presented in “Things Fall Apart,” was not a feature of every Igbo Community especially as pertained wrestling.
ABALI O. ABALI is an indigene of Idima Abam. He practices law in Lagos. He can be reached on 08034361825 or [email protected]