Donga – The Battle for LOVE

The term Surma is the collective name for the Suri, Mursi and Me’en groups that inhabit the southwestern part of the country. Suri is the name of a sedentary pastoral people and its Nilo-Saharan language. They inhabit the Bench Maji Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region in Ethiopia as well as parts of neighboring South Sudan. Some are also found west of Mizan Teferi. All three peoples share a similar culture and their homeland is remote, located in desolate mountains. Traditional rivalries with their tribal neighbors such as the Nyangatom are common not just over property but also for sport.
One of such sport or ritual, if you like, 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, Stick Fight (Donga) 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 this 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 also practiced this traditional fight.
The day before Donga, fighters have to purify 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 drinking it, warriors deliberately stimulate a vomit and puke out the drink. The water is supposed to bring with it many of the body’s impurities. When this is done, they fast until the dawn when the warriors walk kilometers to begin the Donga ritual. They often stop by a river in order to wash themselves, before decorating their bodies for the fight.
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 forces a submission, he immediately declares himself the winner. Donga consists in qualifying rounds, each winner fighting the winner of a previous fight, until two finalists are left.
It is strictly forbidden to hit a man when he is down on the ground. During these fights 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. Loosing 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.
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.

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