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is the best way to find a wife? There are a lot of variants. But one of the
most unusual is a naked fighting ritual in Ethiopia.
That’s one way to find a wife! Imagine the
tribesmen in Southern Ethiopia taking part in the dangerous naked fighting
Members of the Suri tribe are involved in the
‘Donga,’ or naked stick fighting ritual to impress a mate.
It is very dangerous for fighters wearing little
or no clothing or protection. The naked fighting can result in bloodshed – and
even death.
The tribe’s way of life is under threat with new
pressures on the Omo river, especially following the completion of the Gibe III
dam – Africa’s third largest hydroelectric plants.

Suri villages range between 40 and 2,500 people.
Village decisions are made by an assembly of the men, though women make their
views known in advance of the debates. Village discussions are led by elders
and the komoru – a ritual chief. The korumus all come from the same clan and
are chosen by consensus.
Each household is run by a woman. The women have
their own fields and dispose of the proceeds as they wish. Money they make from
selling beer and grain can be used to buy goats, which they then trade for
The men of the village are divided by ‘age-set’:
children, young men (tegay), junior elders (rora) and senior elders (bara).
Each set has its role. Children start helping with the cattle when they’re
about eight years old. The tegay age-set are unmarried and not yet known as
warriors. They do the herding and earn the right to become young elders by
their stick fighting and care of the cattle. Initiation ceremonies for those
moving into the next age-set only happen every 20 or 30 years. The initiation
ritual for the group becoming rora is particularly violent; the candidates are
insulted by the elders, given menial tasks, starved and sometimes even whipped
until they bleed.
Cattle are enormously important to the Suri. They
bring status; when two Suri meet they’ll ask each other how many cows they
have. Cows are a store of wealth to be traded, and a source of milk and blood.
Bleeding a cow is more efficient than slaughtering it for meat, and blood can
be drawn during the dry season when there’s less milk. An animal can be bled
once a month, from the jugular.
The animals aren’t generally sold or killed for
meat, though they are slaughtered for certain ceremonies. They are treated with
reverence. Fires are lit to keep them warm and to protect against insect bites,
they are covered with ash. Every boy is given a young bull to look after, and
his friends call him the name of his bull. The Suri sing songs in praise of
their cattle, and mourn them when they die.
The average man owns between 30 and 40 cows. In
order to marry, he needs about 60 cows to give to his wife’s family. Suri men
will fight to the death to protect their herd, and some risk their lives to
steal from other tribes.
As well as cattle, the Suri trade. In the 1980s
they smuggled automatic weapons from Sudan.
These days, the Suri are used to tourists visiting
their villages but they have a very low opinion of their behaviour. It’s
offensive, for instance, that people take pictures without asking permission
and the Suri insist on being paid a fee. ‘They must be people who don’t know
how to behave,’ one Suri told an anthropologist. ‘Do they want us to be their
children, or what? This photography business comes from your country. Give us a
car and we’ll go and take pictures of you.’
The Suri have some extremely painful rituals,
including lip plates, scarification and dangerous stickfighting. Some
anthropologists see these as a kind of controlled violence to get young Suris
used to feeling pain and seeing blood. These are, after all, people who live in
a volatile, hostile world, under constant threat from their enemies around them.
No one knows why lip plates were first used. One
theory goes that it was meant to discourage slavers from taking the women. It’s
undoubtedly painful. Once a girl reaches a certain age, her lower incisors are
knocked out and her bottom lip is pierced and stretched until it can hold the
clay plate.
‘We get a stick and make a hole’, explains
Nabala, the wife of Bruce’s host. ‘Then we gradually make the hole bigger….
My lip was cut a long time ago. My brothers and father made me get it done.
Without a lip plate I wouldn’t get married, and they’d get no cattle. My lip is
big, Dongaley’s is smaller. My lip plate is worth 60 cattle. Hers is worth 40.’
A few girls are beginning to refuse to have a lip plate.
As well as lip plates, the girls of the village
mark their bodies permanently by scarification. The skin is lifted with a thorn
then sliced with a razor blade, leaving a flap of skin which will eventually
scar. The men, meanwhile, scar their bodies to show they’ve killed someone from
an enemy tribe. There are particular meanings assigned to these scars. One
group, for instance, cuts a horseshoe shape on their right arm to indicate
they’ve killed a man, and on their left if for a woman.
When it comes to religious beliefs, the Suri have
a sky god, Tuma, an abstract divine force. There is no real veneration of the
earth or earth spirits.

A sport and ritual the Suri take extremely
seriously is stick fighting. It’s said to be one of the fiercest competitions
on the entire African continent. Here among Ethiopia’s Surma   tribe,
the Donga, Stick Fight takes place in the name of love in most cases, stick fighting is
done so young men can prove their masculinity and to find wives. It is a way
for young men to prove themselves to the young women. This ritual is called
Donga or Zagne. Donga is both the name of the sport and the stick they use for
the fight. Stick fight is central in Suri culture. In most cases, stick fight
is a way for warriors to find girlfriends, it can also be a way to settle
conflicts. On these occasion men show their courage, their virility and their
resistance to pain, to the young women.
The fights are held between Suri villages, and
begin with 20 to 30 people on each side, and can end up with hundreds of
warriors involved. Suri are famous for stick fighting, but they are not the
only ones to respect such a custom, as the neighbor tribe, the Mursi were also
practicing these traditional fights. But Nowadays because of unknown reason the
Mursi stop the tradition of stick fight.
The day before the Zagnei, fighters have to pure
themselves. They do it by drinking a special preparation, called Dokai, which
is made of the bark of a special tree, which is   mixed with water.
After taking it, warriors make themselves vomiting the drink. The water is
supposed to bring with it many of the body’s impurities. After this ritual they
don’t eat until the following morning. Warriors walk kilometers to come
fighting at Zagnei, which takes place in a clearing. They stop when crossing a
river in order to wash themselves, before decorating their bodies for the fight.
Some years ago the Ethiopian Federal government
tried to ban most of the ‘harmful customs’ all over the country in different
tribal people, such as cattle-raiding, lip plates and stick-fighting in Surma,
but effort ended without any result.
They decorate themselves by sliding the fingers
full of clay on the warrior’s bodies. This dressing up and decoration is meant
to show their beauty and virility and thus catch the women’s attention. The
phallic shape ending the sticks contributes to that virile demonstration.
Fighters arrive on the Donga field all together,
carrying the strongest man, dancing and singing. Some fighters wear colorful
headdresses sometimes with feathers on it, and also knee-protectors. But most
of them use no protection at all and fight completely naked in order to show
their bravery. They also wear strings of decorative colored beads around their
necks given by the girls and waist, but their genitals are most of the time
uncovered and they are barefoot.
All of them get a chance to fight one on one,
against someone from the other side. In the beginning each fighter looks for an
opponent of the same stature, and exchanges a few held back blows with him in
order to test him. If both fighters feel they have found a match, they suddenly
throw themselves into the fight, hitting ferocious fast strokes with their
sticks. If one of the warriors knocked out or puts paid to his opponent, he
immediately declares himself the winner. Zagne consists in qualifying rounds,
each winner fighting the winner of a previous fight, until two finalists are
It is strictly forbidden to hit a man when he is
down on the ground. During these fighting competition, there are referees
present to make sure all rules are being followed. Many stick fights end within
the first couple of hits. Nevertheless, the fights are really violent, and it
is quite usual to see men bleeding. Stick fighting has proven to be dangerous
because people have died from being hit in the stomach. Losing an eye or a leg
during the fight is quite common, although it is strictly forbidden for a
fighter to kill his opponent, and if a fighter gets killed during the fight,
his opponent and all his family are banned from the village for life.
For the other locals, especially teenagers, Zagne
is a great outing. Girls watch the fights, but it is also the occasion to check
out the men, and to meet in order to chat or even gossip.
At the end of the fights, the winners point their
phallic sticks in direction of the girls they want to date with, if the girl
put a necklace around the stick, it means she is willing to date the champions.
Warriors are seen participating in the ‘Donga,’
or naked stick fight, which has traditionally been a way men impress women and
find a wife.
They fight with little or no clothing, and the violent
clashes sometimes result in death.
The clashes are usually between two villages,
with fighters taking it in turns to face each other.
Large crowds gather to watch as the Ethiopian
naked fighting.
They are usually held after the rains, and there
are often 20 to 30 fighters on each side, with tribesmen taking it in turns to
fight one-on-one.
Referees enforce a code of conduct – it is
against the rules to hit someone while they are on the floor.
BBC Africa
Johnson Okunade
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