I took a serious interest in the culture of the Yoruba people of Southwest Nigeria in the late 80’s. Throughout the 1990’s I was fortunate to be able to study under some very knowledgeable Elders such as Medahochi Kofi Omowale Zannu, Chief Adebolu Fatunmise, and Dr. Afolabi Epega. I made my first “pilgrimage” to Yorubaland in 2001, and have returned every year since with a new group of select, intrepid students for continuing education.
The Yoruba have an indigenous martial arts tradition that is largely unknown outside of West Africa. Interestingly enough, their arts appear quite different that the Muslim-influenced martial traditions typically found in the North. A close parallel to the Filipino Martial Arts is that the Yoruba styles are essentially the same theme with variations from village to village. I have observed these fighting styles in Ode Remo, Sagamu, Ile Ife, Ibadan, Abeokuta, as well as in ethnically Yoruba enclaves found “next door” in the Republic of Benin.*
The Yoruba word for warrior is Akin (literally “A Brave Person”). Akin can refer to a prolific military leader or even a distinguished hunter (Ode). In traditional culture, hunters exist on the very fringes of society, and have an extensive awo (secret knowledge) pertaining to fighting and combat, yet are not what we would think of as “martial artists” in our common usage of the word. Some of the terms used to describe martial arts practitioners as we would think of them are: Oniijakadi, Alonilowogba, and Eleeke.
The umbrella term for the martial art of the Yoruba is “Gidigbo”. If this word has an exact translation, I am unaware of it. Gidigbo encompasses various sub-disciplines such as wrestling (catch-as-catch-can), punching, and kicking – similar to the neighboring Hausa martial arts of Dembe, Ishakafa, and Kukawa – as well as fighting with machetes. Gidigbo matches are sometimes organized around important social functions, although regional tournaments just for the sake of sport are also common throughout the year. The bout typically begins with both opponents facing off, hands crossed (Enter the Dragon style) and quickly closes to all-out grappling – with elbows and head-butts added for good measure. When one of the wrestlers is thrown or otherwise knocked to the ground the match is concluded. Its all in good fun, but take it from me they do it with great gusto and it is very easy to be injured. Broken fingers, dislocated elbows/shoulders and torn knees are quite common.
The savvy Oniijakadi does not rely on mere physical strength alone, but brings all manner of strange charms (juju), incantations (awure) and paraphernalia obtained from a trusted Onisegun (medicine man) to the fight in order to gain an edge over the competition. This is very similar the concept of orasion (prayers) and anting-anting (amulets) in Filipino martial culture.
Whenever I go back to Nigeria and Benin, I have a number of teachers and sparring partners that I hook up with to learn new techniques or to rekindle old rivalries (strictly in a friendly way!) Of course, I spring for the refreshments afterwards, and I also reciprocate by teaching them some Kali in return (there is no problem finding sticks). On our most recent trip to Ijebuland, I had the teenagers collect old pillowcases, rags, and sandals and with some duct tape that I had brought we had a perfectly functional outdoor boxing gym – complete with heavy bag and focus mitts – and were soon working on punching drills. Being that I neglected to introduce the concept of a mouthguard, I hope those kids still have their teeth by the time I go back next year.
* I am in the process of editing footage of West African Martial Arts including matches, festivals, interviews with fighters and teachers, and other cool surprises that I have filmed during my travels. Stay tuned.