Sticking it to 'em
With nimble footwork and a rapid “swoosh-swoosh” of his attacking stick, Nkululu Nopivo scores six points.
Just a few seconds into the training session, blood gushes from his opponent’s forehead. Lacking a whistle, the referee sounds “brr-brr” with his lips to signal a 30-second timeout.
The ancient art of intonga (stick fighting), practised for centuries among rural herders, is making a comeback in the bleak landscape of Cape Town’s townships. In the past six months a dozen clubs have sprung up.
Contests with prize money of up to R1 000 are held nearly every weekend. After only a few months of training Nopivo (15) has been selected to become a children’s coach. “Stick fighting allows us to turn our backs on gangs, guns and knives. Stick fighting is our traditional way of settling disputes. At least with sticks you don’t get killed,” says the schoolboy in his native isiXhosa.
However, the ancient game—which under Xhosa rules is played with two sticks, each about 1,2m long—is violent and high-energy. Senior players eschew helmets and their only protection during the 15-minute match is a cloth, wrapped around the knuckles of the hand holding the “defence” stick.
The groin and the area behind the ears are out of bounds. But blows to other parts of the head earn six points, as do strikes to the knees, ankles and wrists. In Crossroads in Cape Town the Stick Fighting Company meets several times a week. Its founder, Vuyisile Dyolotana (34), was once a professional stick fighter in rural Eastern Cape.
“All Xhosa boys used to stick fight but the art was lost when so many moved to the city,” he said. “For years township youngsters saw stick fighting as a backward pursuit. They preferred guns. That is changing. They can see that stick fighting teaches them to endure pain and they want to reconnect with that.” Dyolotana is looking for sponsorship to buy 300 helmets for the youngest players.
Sticks from nature
The sticks, he says, are provided by nature: “We go out on trips to collect them and strip the bark. The sticks need to be slender but very hard, so we use Port Jackson wood (Australian acacia), which is an alien species so no one is upset when we take it away.”
Stick fighting exists in most cultures and variants of it have been incorporated into Asian martial arts such as kendo. In Britain singlestick (or cudgels) survives as a sport, but is closer in style to fencing than to intonga. Stick fighting is practised in Africa from Ethiopia to the Cape, but the rules differ. Zulus use only one stick and a shield for defence.
Nelson Mandela grew up in the Eastern Cape and was taught intonga by herdboys because of his Xhosa heritage. He wrote in his book Long Walk to Freedom: “I learned to stick fight—essential knowledge to any rural African boy—and became adept at various techniques, parrying blows, feinting in one direction and striking in another, breaking away from an opponent with quick footwork. From these days I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.”
Hlomla Vikweni (10), who began training at Dyolotana’s club when it launched in July last year, is keenly aware that stick fighting is part of his Xhosa culture. “I like to play it because my friends do.” Asked why he did not take up football or boxing, he said: “I like to street fight and it is part of my history.”
One of his opponents, Siya Gojana (11), is more pragmatic: “Lots of people are playing soccer. It is easier to become a professional stick fighter if you want to earn lots of money.’‘
With help from social entrepreneurs in other townships, Dyolotana has organised a dozen competitions since last July. “Each entrant pays R5 to take part and the winner gets R1 000. We raise the prize money through the entry fee and some sponsorship. The tournaments draw huge crowds,” says Dyolotana. He dreams of reviving stick fighting all over South Africa and beyond.
“In the rural areas intonga fulfils important social and cultural functions. It teaches discipline and focus. I wish all South African, Southern African and African cultures would revive stick fighting. We could arrange world championships in South Africa and it would unite us all.”—Guardian News & Media 2011