Martial arts are styles of combat that stem from various cultures and their traditions. In the past, the primary uses of these fighting styles were originally for war preparations, rites of passage, testing one’s courage, and combat dancing that stemmed from spiritual and folklore traditions. In modern times, most people practice martial arts for health and fitness reasons or discipline and character development.
When watching the various types of martial arts, one will notice many reoccurring themes in the methods of fighting: hand strikes, kicking, leg sweeps, throwing, pinning, submission holds, chokeholds, head butting, or the use of sticks, machetes, swords, and similar items that could be viewed as a weapon. Some of the more folkloric and ritualistic styles may include dance-like movements where the practitioners move to the rhythm of the music being played. The area of combat may contain boundaries, where one of the objectives is to remain within the constraints or knock your opponent outside.
Throughout the world, one can find various styles and hybrid versions of older styles. In the age of globalization, certain fighting styles have been gone international, creating a worldwide following of people from various backgrounds learning martial arts from a culture that differs from theirs. Karate, taekwondo, Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and kung fu have some of the largest global followings, and they are well known to many people who have never participated in martial arts.
Like Asia, Africa contains many martial arts styles, some of which date back to ancient times. During the time of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, practitioners of these art forms were captured and taken overseas. As a way to keep the various traditions alive, elements from African martial arts have been used overseas by their descendants. Due to people of different tribes and ethnic groups being forced to coexist together on foreign lands, certain martial arts were blended together and elements were added or taken out, thus creating a new art form. These new styles of fighting were often used as a way to retaliate against the European slave owners, the most commonly known one being capoeira in Brazil.
Many forms of combat from continental Africa and the diaspora aren’t as wildly known nor commonly practiced due to the traditions being kept exclusive to the culture, decreased number of participants in modern times, lack of documentation (many traditions were commonly passed down orally), certain styles stopped being practiced after slavery was abolished (some art forms were used to entertain European slave owners), or safety reasons (some art forms were quite fatal). As a result, many people are unaware.
Let’s take a look at some of the martial arts practiced on the African continent and ones that were created by the descendants in the Americas.
Martial Arts From The African Continent
Dambe is a boxing style art that was traditionally practiced by the Hausa population in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad. In this art, competitors have three rounds (no time limit) to subdue their opponent into total submission. While there are no formal weight classes, competitors are matched by size based on their appearance. Traditionally, Dambe was practiced by rival villages for pride purposes, a rite of passage, and for war preparation. In modern times, Dambe is typically practiced by urban youths in gyms, backyards, and year-round competitions.
Engolo, also known as NGolo, is a performance of ritual combat that primarily consists of kicks, dodges, leg sweeps, and inverted positions. This ritual was primarily practiced in Angola, primarily in the southern region. Traditionally this art was used as a rite of passage for boys vying for a bride called Omuhelo.
In the Congolese culture, they have a similar kicking-based art called Kipura. Due to the similarities, both Kipura and Engolo are said to be the predecessors of capoeira.
Instunka is a mock-combat ritual that is contested during holidays in Somalia, specifically Somali New Year. This ritual dates back to the Sultanate of Geledi between the late 17th century and 19th century. Traditionally full battle gear was used (e.g. axes, swords, daggers). In modern times, large sticks and batons are used as a way to avoid potentially fatal accidents.
Lutte Traditionelle is a folk wrestling style that is practiced in nations in West Africa under different names: Laamb (Senegal), Boreh (The Gambia), Evala (Togo), Kokowa (Nigeria), and simply called Lutte Traditionelle in Niger and Burkina Faso. The objective in this fighting style is to knock the opponent out of the boundaries or knock them off of their feet. In the 1980s an organization called the Economic Comunity of West African States (ECOWAS) was formed. In 2008, the first international lutte traditionelle competition was contested, which consisted of 11 West African nations; the 6 nations that were previously named plus Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, and the Ivory Coast.
Moraingy is a bare-fisted striking style martial art that originated in Madagascar. This fighting style by the Sakalava Kingdom during the Maroseranana Dynasty (1675–1896).This art was originally practiced by boys and young men from two different villages as a way to test their ability. In modern times, this art is practiced by both genders. Today one can also find this art practiced in Seychelles, Mauritius, Comoros, Mayotte, and Reunion Island.
Musangwe is a bare-knuckle fist fighting style that is commonly practiced by the Venda people in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Traditionally, this art was contested between people of neighboring villagers.
Nguni stick-fighting, or Zulu stick-fighting, is a style of martial arts that is commonly practiced in South Africa. Competitors use two sticks, but there are variations where competitors are armed with a stick and a shield. Traditionally, stick-fighting was contested for pride purposes. In modern times, this martial art is performed at wedding ceremonies Nelson Mandela practiced this art as a child.
Nuba is a style of wrestling that is practiced in Sudan. Current fights are often taught by former champions. In modern times, local tournaments are contested and there may be fights held during planting and harvest festivals.
Tahtib is an Ancient Egyptian stick-fighting art that later evolved into a folk dance with wooden sticks accompanied with a bass drum and a folk oboe. Historians believe that the beginnings of this martial art date back to 2500 B.C.E. Traditionally only men participated in Tahtib and then later women joined.
Martial Arts Created By African Descendants
Capoeira is an art that was started in the 16th century by African descendants in Brazil as a way to retaliate against the Portuguese slavemasters. The art primarily consists of kicks, leg sweeps, acrobatics, and dance-like movements (ginga). A game is played between two capoeiristas in a circle (called a roda), with a band (bateria) playing instruments: berimbau, pandeiro (tambourine), atabaque (drum), reco-reco (scraper), and agogô (bell), and spectators singing and clapping rhythmically. In 2014, it was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is the most popular African-influenced martial art in the world.
Similar fighting styles were also practiced in Suriname (Susa) and Venezuela (Broma)
Danmyé, also called Ladja, is another kicking-based martial art that was created in the 17th century by African descendants in Martinique during slavery. Similar forms were also practiced in Guadalupe, Haiti, and Jamaica. Like capoeira, this art uses a lot of leg-based skills, it’s played in a circle, and it’s accompanied by music as a way to create energy and inspiration during the game. It also contains influences from Laamb (Senegalese wrestling). As a way to protect and preserve the art, in modern times, Danmyé is not popularized when advertising its culture to foreigners.
Kalinda (also known as “Calinda” or “Kalenda”) is a stick-fighting warrior dance that was performed during slavery in Trinidad and Tobago. The origins of this art stem from the Kongo Kingdom (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, and parts of Angola and Gabon). In modern times, one can see this art performed during the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival.
Similar stick or machete fight-dance rituals were also practiced in Barbados (Stick Licking), Brazil (Maculelê), Colombia (Grima), Dominica, Grenada, Guadalupe (Bénolé), Haiti, Jamaica, the United States, and Venezuela (Juego del Garrote or Garrote Game).
Kicking and Knocking
Kicking and Knocking, is a martial art that was practiced in the United States, specifically in North and South Carolina, that consists of kicking and head butts. The origins of this art are said to have stemmed from Central Africa, likely the Kongo Kingdom. Traditionally the art was practiced during slavery as a ritual dance, for sport, or to retaliate against slaveowners.
Koko Makaku, or the walking stick, is a stick-fighting art practiced in Curaçao that was used for sporting and cultural activities. Two competitors will jump and dance around with their stick to the rhythm of the drum waiting for the opportunity to hit their opponent with their stick.
Juego de Maní, is a folkloric fight-dancing martial that was practiced on the sugar plantations in Cuba during the 19th century. A protagonist and an adversary will perform choreographed movements that simulate a fight.
If you’re an enthusiast of martial arts or even fond of them, perhaps check out some of these styles, including the ones that weren’t mentioned in this article, and see if any of them are comparable to the disciplines you have studied.