Finding an inspirational body of work can be such a task sometimes, but then you find that one doesn’t really need to look that far to find a story to tell…even if you don’t end up being the first one who attempts to tell said story.
The first image that really caught my attention on August Udoh’s instagram page threw me so far back I almost fell over backwards in my chair. The sight of the slender fighter with one of his hands wrapped in cloth and cord reminded me of childhood days in front of the television, watching, wide eyed, what to me at the time looked like fights between two one armed men who sparred with shared a pair of worn boxing gloves.
It took August Udoh about a year to bring this story to life. It’s one about traditional boxers in northern Nigeria, also known as “Dambe Gida”. Dambe, also known as ‘Kokawa’, is a form of boxing associated with the Hausa people of West Africa. Historically, Dambe included a wrestling component but has evolved into what basically is a striking art. The tradition is dominated by Hausa butcher caste groups, and over the last century evolved from clans of butchers traveling to farm villages at harvest time, integrating a fighting challenge by the outsiders into local harvest festival entertainment.
Dambe was also traditionally practised as a way for men to get ready for war, and many of the techniques and terminology allude to warfare. These days, groups of boxers travel, performing outdoor matches accompanied by ceremony and drumming (partayyy!), throughout the traditional Hausa homelands of northern Nigeria, southern Niger and southwestern Chad. The name “Dambe” derives from the Hausa word for “boxing”. Boxers are called by the Hausa word “daæmaænga”.
The primary weapon is the strong-side fist. The strong-side fist, known as the ‘spear’, is wrapped in a piece of cloth covered by tightly knotted cord (such a stylish looking piece of clothing, isn’t it? I want one). Some boxers dip their ‘spear’ in sticky resin mixed with bits of broken glass. This, however, became an illegal practice. The lead hand, called the shield, is held with the open palm facing toward the opponent. The lead hand can be used to grab or hold as required.
Although there are no formal weight classes, usually competitors in Dambe matches are fairly matched in size. Matches last three rounds. There is no time-limit to these rounds. Instead, they end when: 1) there is no activity, 2) one of the participants or an official calls a halt, or 3) a participant’s hand, knee, or body touches the ground. Knocking the opponent down is called ‘killing’ the opponent.
I quickly realized that i’ve never seen Dambe fighters portrayed in such an intimate manner. I mean, those tv programmes interviewed them but never in conditions that required me to pay any particular attention to their faces; while here in some images i can see every single scar on their faces with almost alarming detail. This is especially due to August Udoh’s painstaking approach to lighting his sitters. Can’t help but wonder if these scars were his main motivation for embarking on this project. Won’t be surprised if they were.