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Traditional Boxing Offers Opportunities for Poor Young Men in Northern Nigeria


Competing in the generations-old practice of traditional boxing used to be the preserve of butchers and meat handlers in northern Nigeria. But, in recent years, poor young men from a variety of backgrounds are being drawn to the boxing arena, in the hope of winning cash, prizes and respect. Sarah Simpson reports from the northern Nigerian city, Sokoto.

Drummers call crowds to a temporary arena on the edge of Sokoto, northern Nigeria, for a sunset bout of traditional boxing, known as 'dambe' in the local Hausa language.

Dambe is very different to Western boxing. Fighters primarily use one fist, tightly bound in rope or cloth, which they swing at their opponent's head. But all kinds of wrestling-type moves are allowed too, including kicks, slaps and clinches. The first to fall, or even loose their balance, looses the fight.

Mohammed Dantagaye, better known locally as 'Champion', says in Hausa, he started dambe as a child and continued, as success brought him status and financial gain.

"I entered boxing because my father was a boxer before me," he said. "It attracted me. It helps me to sustain my life, and that is how I get my daily bread. I get everything I have through boxing. That is why I have continued with it."

Dantagaye is a butcher, as was his father. Traditionally the dambe arena is the preserve of butchers and slaughterhouse workers. Slaughtering animals and selling meat is considered a lowly job in Hausa culture. But a dambe champion, like Dantagaye, can elevate his position in society with the money, gifts and status won in the boxing arena.

"I get prizes. Sometime ago, someone took me to Mecca," he explained. "Someone else gave me a motorbike. Someone else gave me clothes, money - so many other things."

Dantagaye has paid for his success. He looks older than his 32 years. He has lost half his top teeth on one side where he took a fierce blow. His face is a mass of scars, bumps and battle wounds, but he says boxing has improved his success with the ladies.

"If you are a good boxer, girls come looking for you," he noted.

Spectators take their seats in plastic chairs, around the patch of dirty earth that makes for a boxing ring. Drummers and singers play an important role, introducing the fighters and singing their praises when they win.

Although dambe is traditionally a sport for butchers and meat handlers, that is changing in northern Nigeria. Increasingly, poor young men from all kinds of backgrounds are entering the ring.

Growing poverty and illiteracy have raised the appeal of the dambe arena. Shegun Dasabi is at the ringside. He is a soldier. He enjoys dambe as an opportunity to prove his courage and perhaps make some cash. To be sure of success, he has taken up all the traditions of the sport, including wearing special charms and amulets that he calls "medicine" to make him strong.

"I wear them because there is no way anyone who wants to box can be successful without them," he said. "Eating meat is not enough. You have to have medicine, so that you can be sure to knock your opponent out and be sure that he does not knock you down."

Apprentice boys as young as 10 years old are the first fighters in the ring. But it is the adults - muscled men in their 20's and 30's - that command the attention of the audience.

The crowd whoops and cheers, as a flurry of blows knocks one of the fighters off balance.

The winning fighter rushes to pose before the praise singers and drummers who proclaim his victory. Some jubilant spectators shower the scene with money.

Shehu Musa enjoys these dambe events. He says they create a sense of community, as people gather for the thrill and spectacle of the fight.

"It is something that brings people together, culturally," he explained. "It brings a lot of people. You can see a lot of people mixing. How many places have you seen people mixing freely like this? People focus on one thing. So this is one of the most important entertainments we have. And, it is relaxing! Even though people they hit each other, it is them that are doing the job!"

Dambe traditionally takes place at the end of the cultivating period, as part of harvest-type celebrations. Although older spectators say tournaments are less common than they used to be, the sport remains popular throughout the Hausa-speaking north of Nigeria.

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