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Fighting Shadows

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi hails from a place where the game of ukuqula is part of the fabric of village life, and of the passage from boyhood to manhood over generations. Attempts to contemporise a shadow form, in the realm of organised sport in urban centres of South Africa, have failed, while the play on village ground is a dying art.   

One afternoon my father and the other boys from the Zikhovane village decided to walk across a vast landscape, two valleys and a river, to a village called Qombolo to disrupt a wedding. It was not that they had a feud with either the bridegroom or the bride. Their grudge was that the boys of Qombolo had refused their village’s invitation to ukuqula (a stick fighting game), one too many times. Disrupting the wedding was their way of waging war against this show of disrespect.

In my father’s day, stick fighting feuds between the villages often started as innocent games. Boys from one village would challenge boys from another village. If a village boy did not adhere to stick fighting’s single unwavering rule – that one could not hit the opponent on the head – the game would escalate to a feud. Actually, the rule stood for nothing. Nobody insisted on it. The boys knew this. The feuds, unlike the games, were bloody. In games, the intention was to show off skill and charisma. In feuds, it was to injure.

During the games, different villages would team up. A vacant patch of land, equidistant between the two villages so as not to appear to favour one side, would be identified. The boys arrived chanting and dancing like warriors. But it was just play. The most popular stick fighting chant was “qula kwedini” (“stick fight my brother, bring it on young boy”) – specifically composed for the game and nothing else. The chant was repetitive, designed to build excitement in those who sang it:

Qula kwedini kabawo,

Khawuze nazo kwedini bawo,

nazo kwedini kabawo.”

After a few games the vacant land was transformed into a battlefield, which seemed to exist just for the stick fights. Today, in popular stick fighting landscapes, if one looks and listens closely the dust, the sound of sticks rattling, the whistling, cheering, singing, dancing and crying still hang there.

A day before the wedding, shortly after the sun had disappeared, my father left for Qombolo to visit his sister. Camouflaged by the thick shadows of the mountain that stood tall, as if to protect Qombolo village from an invisible monster, he sneaked furtively into his sister’s home. This was a risk, but he was prepared to take it. After all, he was known in villages near and far as the best stick fighter in the area. He trusted that if he was spotted he could defend himself.

He spent the night at his sister’s place, preoccupied with the approaching day’s attack. I imagine that elsewhere the bride was fitting her dress, estranged from sleep, replaying a perfect day that had not yet happened, unaware that her wedding would be filled with chaos.

On the morning of the wedding day, boys from my father’s village, Zikhovane, and neighbouring villages Kwebulana and Hange met to discuss their strategy. They decided on a change of tactic, informed more by a gut feeling than by any real reconnaissance of Qombolo. The new plan was that the fight would be waged in the Ngcongcolorha River and not at the wedding. The boys would hide at the river bank, disguising themselves in the natural shrubs that grew along the banks, and when any Qombolo boy walked past they would attack.

That afternoon, plans in place, the boys from all the three united villages gathered in the veld of Kwebulana and began to make their way to the Ngcongcolorha River.

Across the landscape, with the veld stretching until it was out of sight, they tested their sticks on each other. There was no beating involved, that was reserved for the enemy. This was an opportunity for them to show off their skills, skills they had learned from playing stick fighting in the veld.  Jujuju Mkhunjula, who stood with my father in the first line of offence, was known for his crouching style of fighting – a move he had adopted because he was short. He would crouch with one knee and swing his stick in the air. His blows landed on his opponents’ ankles and knees. A good blow would send them tumbling to the floor. Once down, Mkhunjula would land a perfectly placed hit to his adversary’s head.

My father, with his petite body, was the dancer. He would dance around his opponents, much like Mohammed Ali, land his blows and move again quickly. He told me that his moves were tailored for each fighter he faced. If the fighter was left-handed, he would dance to their right and if right-handed, to their left. His strategy was to disorientate. He would hit his opponent, but they had no chance to return the blow because their attack stick was always just out of reach. His other popular trick was to feign a shot. This prompted his opponent to defend, thus exposing a part of himself and presenting my father with the opportunity to strike a blow.

As the boys crossed the landscape, testing their sticks, the destination grew nearer. They were walking towards the same mountains the sun hid behind at night. I imagine them picking up their pace in an attempt to overtake the sun’s movement, to get there before it did. Dancing, chanting, eating and occasionally stick fighting, they crossed the land between the Kwebulana and Qombolo villages. In no time they were at the Ngcongcolorha River.

In the meantime, my father waited in his sister’s house, impatiently pacing up and down, ready to pick up his sticks and fight. In the afternoon, with no news of the wedding being disrupted and no sight of his boys, he decided to meander outside. The Qombolo boys spotted him in the confines of his sister’s yard and did not waste time. They charged towards the house. He went to get his sticks and came out to meet them. Somewhere in his mind, even though the doubt lingered, he hoped that his boys were not far away, that they would soon arrive to help him fight off the attack. He could not be more wrong. His friends were, by then, busy disguising themselves as the river bank. No sooner had he exited his yard than an avalanche of blows assaulted him. He tried to dance but his choreography was off balance. The odds were so tipped against him that his every move was halted. Finally his sticks went flying in the air and he fell to the ground. His opponents, overcome by excitement, continued beating him.

A few weeks later, when his gums were no longer swollen and the pain in his body had eased, my father and his friends returned to Qombolo to avenge his beating. The plan was that they would ambush any boy they saw and beat him to death. My father and Jujuju Mkhunjulwa formed the frontline, the rest followed behind, mirroring their every move, nodding at their every instruction. They spotted their first opponents. They had planned to dish the full wrath of their revenge. But, although some boys landed in hospital, there was neither a death nor a counter-attack. My father soon left for Bloemfontein to find temporary work. Many other boys followed him – to Bloem, to Port Elizabeth, to Cape Town.

 Some of these boys may well have end up in Kuyasa, an informal settlement in Khayelitsha. Like many of Cape Town’s townships, Kuyasa feels transitory. Its shacks float on white sand, seemingly erected from the debris of someone else’s shack. They look temporary, as if the plan is to move on the next day. To somewhere, to anywhere. Many of Kuyasa’s residents are, like my father, from villages in the Eastern Cape. They are in the city to find a life or something that resembles it. During December, bags are filled with little pieces of the city and squashed into buses as residents make their way back to their villages. Some of them return home and immediately reconcile with their old self, much like a shadow that is hidden and then suddenly reappears. Some stare at their old self and find no likeness to what they have become, like a shadow distorted by a surface, that bears no resemblance to the one that casts it.

For a young man named Vuyisile Dyolotana, the connection to his home was so strong that when he returned from Tsolo, a tiny village outside Umtata, in 2011, he brought stick fighting with him, packed into his suitcase.

Back in the city, Dyolotana’s sticks rattled and hummed in his hands. They sang as he fought his shadow, a dark warrior hunched at his feet, carrying with it the crouch of a dream. Slowly the dream unfurled on the white sands of Kuyasa. It grew and took shape. He would bring stick fighting to Khayelitsha.

At first, Dyolotana found an audience with ease. Sticking fighting offered an alternative outlet for the volatile energy of the unemployed youth in the area. At the same time, it returned old men to their youth. Though their bones lacked the agility to compete, the events gave them access to the shadow of their young selves holding two sticks and playing the game.

They remembered how in the villages they had stood facing each other – two boys, each armed with two sticks of different lengths. A short stick for offence and a longer one for defence. They knew the moves. How the defence stick is longer so that it covers a big part of the body. How the offence stick is shorter so that the two players are compelled to lock horns. How the longer stick is held firmly in the hand. How the hand is wrapped in a cloth. They remembered how each village formed a row – the strongest players positioned up front. How the most feared fighters from both sides would walk to the middle and battle until one of them could not take any more blows. How the blows were accompanied by whistles, chants and taunting words – “take”, “that is yours”, “feel this”. How, when finally the blows became too much, they would concede defeat by throwing their sticks to the ground.

They also knew that stick fighting is not only a boy’s game but also the game of men. To many of them, it was synonymous with circumcision school. When a boy leaves his homes, completely covered in a rug, the sound of sticks rattles in the air to accompany him. Slowly the whistles, the ululation and chanting build – all arriving at some sort of melody. At the very moment when he becomes a man, the sticks are flung in the air. The sight of at least a hundred sticks sailing into the air at once is beautiful. They rise and seem to hang, as if in two minds whether to return to earth or to ascend straight to heaven.

When the boy’s stay in circumcision school is complete, it’s stick fighting that welcomes him home. Sometimes an old man, remembering his youth, grabs a stick and playfully fights a younger man. The young man is immediately disarmed – he cannot hit an old man so he is forced to lose his offence stick and only play defence. This brings the entire ceremony to a standstill. The whistles and ululations grow – echoing in the air. In that single moment one understands that stick fighting is a vital part of life. One understands why, in their old age, with their bones aching, the elders still insist on it.

The competitive edge of stick fighting is not any different to other games. In circumcision ceremonies, egos are at stake and often the game turns bloody. The defeated throw their sticks away and run. Some remain resilient and fight until blood spurts from their heads and the fight is stopped. A scarf, and not a medical swab or bandage, is wrapped around the loser’s head and he is told to “be a man”. The man who is feared wants to stay feared. The second-best wants to be number one.

Like the old men, Dyolotana knew these traditions. It was precisely this spirit of competition that he sought to harness when he started the Qula Kwedini Federation, an organisation dedicating to transforming stick fighting into a mainstream sport.

In 2011, when the organisation hosted its first event in an open space next to the Khayelitsha taxi rank, spectators flocked. There was everything one had come to expect of stick fighting: tension as the combatants entered the makeshift ring, held sticks aloft and locked horns; dust that rose in clouds around the feet as the fighters danced, the one moving diagonally forward, outside his opponent’s range of attack, stepping left front, then sliding his right foot forward to strike; and music, the chanting of “qula kwedini”, players spewing disrespectful comments to taunt their opponents, the rattling of sticks, the whistling. Apart from the sound of hooting taxis, howling taxi tooters and hawkers, the open space was momentarily transformed into a veld battlefield for a cheering and whistling crowd.

Men volunteered themselves. Many were nudged by their egos to pick up a stick, to prove to the other men that they could still fight, that they had not been turned into city men. But there was no overall winner – a fighter would win one match and leave, returning to his daily job in the city. Some slipped into taxis and drove passengers to their destinations. Some walked home, carrying bags loaded with the goods they had purchased at the mall next to the taxi rank. Others went back to guarding their stalls.

After the games, Dyolotana watched the crowd disperse. When the dust had settled and the euphoria worn off, he was alone with an empty lot and empty pockets. He had incurred travelling and logistics costs. Unlike in rural areas, where the last sip of umqombothi was the only payment demanded, the city operated on rands. Nothing was free here. Even vacant land came at a price. Open spaces belonged to someone. The small bushes from which sticks were chopped belonged to someone. For stick fighting to survive in the city, Dyolotana thought, it would need to modernise. It would need to become a real sport. This was a vision, not just of a new space and methodology, but of a new discipline, a new professional code. It was an economic transformation as much as a social one.

Dyolotana began charging entrance fees to events – R20 at one event, R30 at another. The stick fighters became players. He introduced more rules: no hitting the “no hit areas”, namely the pubic section below the waist (kumhlaba wamadoda, meaning “the land of men”) and behind the head; no hitting an opponent during a break; no hitting an opponent when he is down; no prodding or attacking the opponent with the defence stick; no poking the opponent; no hooking or grabbing with a stick; no using sharpened sticks.

Winners would no longer be decided by their opponent conceding defeat. There would be judges and referees. Points would be scored and recorded for every “legal” strike made. Instead of village games and feuds, opponents would be selected by age and from a draw. And to avoid the kinds of injuries inflicted on my father, players would wear protective gear.  Stick fighting was taking on a new identity, an urban identity. Dyolotana called it “innovation in the community”.

The Department of Arts and Culture took notice. Later that year, it invited Qula Kwedini Federation and its stick fighters to compete in Pretoria, in its annual indigenous games programme. Dyolotana sent his warriors, as he calls them, fighters who had proven their skill in previous events he had organised. They were flown to Pretoria, fed fancy food and housed in a luxury hotel. For the warriors, being up in the sky for the first time, looking down on the earth, was the ultimate high. But when they returned, their pockets were folded out and poverty was waiting for each of them.

The following year, Dyolotana refused the department’s invitation. “We are not playing a game here,” he insisted. “Stick fighting must be recognised as a sport, and like other sports, players must be paid. After the Department of Arts and Culture refused to pay us, I called them and told them if we are not in the budget, do not bother calling again.”

The Qula Kwedini Federation continued without government support. At a recent event held at LookOut Hill in Khayelitsha, all the trappings of sport were in place: players were put into age groups and a draw was done to find an opponent; fights progressed through the different pools and then arrived at a final; winners were awarded trophies and medals. But the men were missing. It was boys who competed – with Yibanathi Tyatyeka claiming the title in the under-16 division and Solomzi Yaya taking the under-12 division. An audience was also lacking. Inside the hall, chairs stood empty, scattered around as if they had been abandoned. The clatter of sticks echoed through the cavernous space.

On one level it’s easy to see why the men who thronged Dyolotana’s first informal stick fighting events, now kept a distance. Yes, there was the cover charge. But Dyolotana and his organisation were also struggling against the weight of history and tradition. As the game changed, things were lost. Some of stick fighting’s archaic artistry was missing. The game now had a lot more rules. Players wore protective gear. The best stick fighter was not necessarily the one that played the game with flair but the player who hit with precision.

Stick fighting as a sport has a long way to go. It’s a journey it will have to take if it hopes to survive. In most of the villages, certainly in mine, the game is on its last legs. My father, the former fearless warrior and stick fighting champion, today owns not a single stick.

To find its true place in the city, stick fighting will need to negotiate an existence that lies in the vacant land between the old traditions and the modern sporting codes that Qula Kwedini Federation promotes. It will need to harness the flair of my father’s generation, to sharpen and refine it into moves and modalities. This dance between then and now will need to be choreographed with skill and precision. Only then, only when it insists on being stick fighting and not merely a shadow that resembles it, will it infiltrate the mainstream sporting arena.

red CHRONICsThis story features in the December 2013 edition of the Chronic.

Available here in print or as a PDF. The issue offers forays into interlaced subjects of power, resistance, protest, mobilisation, mobility and belonging.

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