While the Limpopo’s Vhembe district is renowned for fist-fighting as a traditional sport, Jambo Africa Online’s Editor, ANDILE MSINDWANA, gives a first in a series of traditional sport: Zulu stick fighting. 

It is generally agreed that, during AmaZulu King Shaka’s reign, this sport was used as a way of training young men for war and self-defence. During the reign of King Cetshwayo (50 years or so later), it was used as means of resolving internal disputes, not intended for the purposes of killing.

Stick fighting forms an integral part of AmaZulu cultural tradition. For AmaZulu males, stick fighting is pivotal in upholding a social system that constructs accepted roles and modes of behaviour.

Participation is restricted to males only. There is no specific age for when one should start participating in the pastime. Generally, boys learn the activity while they are heading cattle. This provides an opportunity for them to fight their way up to the position of leadership among other herders. 

Young boys learn this by observing and imitation. The boys also use the opportunity to sharpen their skills. At this stage they use small tree shrubs instead of real sticks. At the age of sixteen a Zulu boy would be taken into the forest by his father where he would cut his own stick from the trees. Real sticks are allowed, but when they are used, the fighters avoid hitting each other’s heads.

Following this stage, young men graduate and participate in public ceremonies such as social gatherings (inter-district stick fighting competitions) and weddings. By the time the boy reaches adulthood he may acquire further sticks, either making them himself or having sticks made by a specialist.

The fights are officiated either by an Induna yezinsizwa (Headmen of young men also referred to as iGoso;or umphathi wezinsizwa (War Captains) officials who ensure that things do not get out of hand.

The weapons

The activity of stick fighting activity requires the use of three different sticks, each with a different purpose. 

The first one is used for striking (Induku). Induku is described as “a strong stick or shaft of wood without a knob. The stick is carved smooth and used specifically for stick fighting. The length of the induku depends on the physical stature of its owner, but is generally about 88 centimetres in length. The induku’s circumference increases slightly from bottom to top and the extra weight that the head carries enhances the mobility of the stick during offensive manoeuvres. A piece of cowhide can be tied around one end of the stick to secure the fighter’s grip on the weapon, and the whisk of a cow’s tail can be tied around the bottom of the stick to hide a sharp point. Although this sharp point can be used for stabbing, doing so is considered inappropriate during an honourable stick fight.”

The second one is used for defence – that is, for body protection (UBhoko). This stick long compared to the one for striking. UBhoko is described as “a long, smooth stick that tapers down to a sharp point. As a defensive weapon, it is skilfully manoeuvred with the wrist of the left hand and used to protect the body of a combatant from the opponent’s blows. Although its length depends on the physical stature of its owner, the uBhoko is meant to ensure protection from head to foot, so is notably longer than induku. Ubhoko is generally about 165 centimetres in length. Although the uBhoko could be used as a stabbing weapon; in a stick fight, protocol demands that it be used exclusively for the purpose of defence.

There is also a short stick (umsila) accompanied by a small shield (ihawu) to protect the knuckles. Umsila is described as being “held in the left hand together with ubhoko. Not used for fighting as such, it is used instead to uphold the small shield, or ihawu, that protects the left hand. Fighters in Nongoma maintain that umsila is also used to protect the face during a stick fight. As an aesthetic accessory, Nongoma fighters tie strings of antelope skin to the top of umsila.” Ihawu is described as “a relatively small and oval-shaped piece of cow skin, held in the left hand. During Shaka’s regime, warriors were ranked by means of the colour of the shields they carried. There is no set size for ihawu, although it should be large enough to protect the hand and wrist and small enough not to impede on ubhoko’s mobility. As a rule, however, the shield used for stick fighting is between 55 centimetres and 63 centimetres long and 31 to 33 centimetres wide.”

The contest

Before the fight begins, two fighters face each other and tap one another’s shield or sticks. This is viewed as fair sportsmanship. In other instances, this rule is not followed as the stick fighters launch the fight by landing chopping blows. 

In time this also meant a change from stick fighting being used as a way of training young men for war and self-defense, to a sport that at times could get out of control. This has occurred when hostilities have gone beyond the sporting grounds, placing the lives of non-participants’ under threat. This is one of the reasons why in past centuries the sport took place in an open space away from the homestead. 

The character of the fight also depends on the mood and occasion as some fights take place at organized tournaments. Stick fighting is also popular during weddings or at young women’s coming out ceremonies called Umemulo. Young and single participants known as Amasoka are not only hoping to win, but also to make mark for themselves by being favorites and being popular among the girls. 


This adapted from www.sahistory.org.za