Return to Sudan – Nuba Wrestling

At the end of 2018, almost exactly one year after I began my journey, I returned to Sudan. Gosia, my wife, was working for three months mostly in Khartoum and I could join her for six weeks. This time I didn’t try to explore the whole country but spend all time in greater Khartoum which offers more than enough intriguing places and welcoming people. One of my favourite places was the wrestling arena in the eastern outskirts of Khartoum. Three times a week several wrestling clubs meet here for competition. It was an unforgettable experience to see the fights fueled by testosterone and an enthusiastic crowd.

The wrestling arena

The arena is hard to find if you don’t have a GPS location. When I tried to get there one year ago I was given so many different directions that I gave up quickly. Many people heard about it but only few have actually been there. Wrestling is definitely not a national sport like football with just one arena for a few thousand spectators in a metropolis of more than 5 million people. However, this time I was lucky to meet Paul Hayes who is doing his PhD in anthropology about Nuba wrestling. He attended many competitions as part of his research and offered me to join him in one of the many mini buses heading to souq sita at the eastern outskirts of Khartoum.

This stadium was built in 2012, and can accommodate a couple thousand spectators, who each pay 10 Sudanese Pounds (USD 0.20) to enter. This is currently the only dedicated wrestling stadium in Sudan. Elsewhere in Sudan, such as in the Nuba Mountains, wrestling takes place in an open field.

The East Nile Wrestling Stadium, Khartoum

Crowds gather inside the East Nile Wrestling Stadium three times a week

Preparing to battle.

Background, rules and sideshows

The wrestlers cover their hands with ash and dust to improve their grip.

A wrestler challenges an opponent to a match by pointing to him.

Score keepers maintain a list of who wins each match.

Kiri (left) and Ziko (right) shake hands before their match begins.

Kahraba is a volunteer stadium announcer who commentates the matches.

A referee


A score keeper


Kiri (right) is one of the most accomplished wrestlers in Khartoum. Here he receives monetary tips from a fan for his impressive performance.

Wrestlers watch from the edge of the arena,  awaiting their turns.

Wrestler’s often shake their forearm and biceps to provoke their opponents.


Marmaton (in yellow) shows off his biceps to the fans of his opponent, who respond with laughter.

Izzo (in purple) carries a newly recruited wrestler around the arena in a show of support.


Wrestlers often wear specially-decorated shorts, which they make themselves.


Nuba wrestling originates from the Nuba peoples, who are a diverse group of ethno-linguistic identities, based in the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan (near the border with South Sudan). Since the British colonial era, many Nuba migrated to Khartoum. Nowadays, ethnic groups other than the Nuba also participate in wrestling.

In Khartoum, there are eight wrestling clubs that compete at this stadium: The Falcons, The Hawks, Lion’s Heart, Kordofan Crescent, The Tanks, The Gazelles, The Volcano Union, and The Jungle Lions.

The Sudanese Wrestling Federation of Khartoum is responsible for assigning each athlete into three different ranks: novices (lion cubs), centres, and elite players (knights).

The tactics of Nuba wrestling

The wrestlers each take turns to challenge an opponent who they wish to wrestle. The athletes can only challenge opponents at the same rank, or a higher rank.

Asim (left) and Karbino (right) are both novices (lion cub rank).


Karbino lifts Asim


Asim begins to fall after Karbino lifted him up.


Going…


… going …


Gone! Karbino defeats Asim in this match.


Wrestlers will try very hard to avoid getting into this vulnerable position, where it is inevitable to lose.

The game is won as soon as you get your opponent’s torso onto the ground.

The aim of the game is to trip or dump your opponent onto the ground – his back, torso or butt must touch the ground.

Each match lasts four minutes, and is overseen by a referee. Punching, kicking and grapping clothes are not permitted.

Typically the wrestler will attempt to grab his opponent’s leg.

… or grab him by the shoulders so he can to then trip his foot.

The best technique is to lift the opponent up and dump him on the ground.

Abu Abeer (right) faces off against another senior player.

The wrestler will try to stop his opponent from grabbing his legs.

Once he grabs the leg, he must decide whether to lift him up, or to trip the other leg.

It is not sufficient to bring your opponent to his knees … his torso, back or shoulders must also touch the ground.

Tactics include: distracting your opponent by tapping his head, tripping your opponent by grabbing his ankle or by sliding your leg underneath his leg, or lifting your opponent’s body entirely and dumping him on the ground.

Each wrestler masters his own preferred techniques.

Al-Wasila (left) versus Masareen (right). *Update October 2019* Sadly, we have heard news that Al-Wasila was killed by Janjaweed militia during anti-government protests in Khartoum.

Lift and dump on the ground

Trying to distract the opponent by tapping him on the head

Trip from the side…

Lift the leg and trip backwards…

The wrestler on the left has lost.

Occasionally the wrestlers get injured. However, for the most part, the wrestlers treat each other as friends or brothers. Although they are keen to win and show-off their athletic prowess, there is very little animosity between them.

Abu Alama (in red) executes an elegant lift-and-dump.

Abu Alama (in red) wins

Wrestlers

Kiri (top) is being carried by Majdy (bottom). Kiri is a knight in the Lion’s Heart club, while Majdy is a lion cub in The Hawks club. Kiri is one of the most well-known and accomplished wrestlers, and his father was also a wrestler.

Mudiriyya (left) and Hussein (right), Kordofan Crescent Wrestling Club.


Majdy Hussein, lion cub from The Hawks wrestling club.

Ismail Al-Razi „Tiger“ (in singlet), of the Jungle Lions wrestling club.

Al-Iblees, The Falcons wrestling club. *Update October 2019* Sadly, we have heard news that Al-Iblees was killed in a gunfight in South Kordofan.

Musab Basha, from the Lion’s Heart club. Wrestlers traditionally apply ash to their bodies, and wear various adornments, such as the ’suksuk‘ (beaded necklace) you see here.

A new recruit

Musab (bottom) and Al-Sir (top).

Abu Alama (in red), of The Tanks wrestling club.

Athletes from „The Gazelles“ wrestling club await their turn on the edge of the arena.


It is common for wrestlers to carry each other around the arena on their shoulders. Sometimes the winner will carry the loser, or the loser will carry the winner, as a sign of mutual respect.

Audience

The spectators include a host of colourful characters, self-appointed mascots and cheerleaders.

This is ‚Aba‘ a long-term wrestling fan who acts as a sort of cheerleader to entertain the crowd.

Abu Suliman, devoted fan of the Kordofan Crescent wrestling club.


There are many colourful characters in the stadium. This man is a self-appointed cheerleader.


Yaseen, left, is an avid wrestling fan, and occasionally practices wrestling in the arena before the tournaments start.

A wrestling fan


Devoted fan and self-appointed cheerleader


More fans


Fans of wrestling span all generations and ethnic groups living in the East Nile district.

Feeling dwarfed 😉 – posing with the wrestlers who joined the opening of Paul’s photo exhibition about Nuba wrestling in Khartoum

A big thank you to Paul for sharing his invaluable knowledge about Nuba wrestling, writing captions and descriptions giving you the background of the pictures. If you want to know more about Nuba wrestling you can contact Paul under paul.hayes@anu.edu.au

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