The art of stick-fighting
When a Xhosa boy goes to initiation school, one of the skills he works on is that of stick-fighting. It is an ancient African art of deep cultural significance. A young Xhosa man who carries himself well with ‘the sticks’ wins a lot of respect wherever he goes in life.
Close encounters - Xhosa stick-fighters in action.
© Chris Marais
Did you know?
Xhosa fighting sticks are covered in sheep fat and left in the sun to strengthen.
One of the first skills that a 5-year-old Nelson Mandela learnt as a herd boy was that of stick-fighting.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, the great man says: 'I learned to stick-fight – essential knowledge to any rural African boy – and became adept at its various techniques, parrying blows, feinting in one direction and striking in another, breaking away from an opponent with quick footwork.'
Zim Gamakhulu, who lives in Qunu, the Eastern Cape village of Nelson Mandela’s boyhood, will show you the stick-fighting scar on top of his head with a wry, proud smile.
'This is how a young boy gains the respect of the others,' he says. 'Many Xhosa men bear the scars of stick-fighting.'
Xhosa stick-fighting is something the youngsters all learn by first using dried corn stalks as weapons. One stick – held in the left hand – is long. This is the shield, used to parry blows. Knuckles are usually protected with a garment wound around the hand. The stick in the right hand, the shorter one, is the attacking stick.
'No boy is ever found without his sticks in the rural areas,' explains Zim. 'If he is, the elders will challenge him and even beat him, teaching him a lesson for going around with no protection. And as the youths grow up, tending their cattle, they will challenge other herd boys from other villages.'
Xhosa boys also hone their stick-fighting skills at initiation school, where they elect a champion. Their best fighter then challenges the other top stick-fighters from rival initiation schools.
The sport of stick-fighting has now been imported to the townships of South Africa. In what is commonly called ‘Township Fight Club’, bouts are organised in urban settlements like Khayelitsha and Langa outside Cape Town. Some wags also call it ‘Xhosa kung fu’…
* Lesedi African Lodge and Cultural Village at Broederstroom, north of Johannesburg, offers team building exercises which include spear throwing, tribal dance, drumming - and stick-fighting.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
How to get here
Eastern Cape: Unless you're lucky enough to find a random stick-fighting bout, the best way to view this sport is by arrangement - through a guide and in a particular village.
Gauteng: Directions to Lesedi African Lodge & Cultural Village - where stick-fighting is part of team-building: From Johannesburg take the M1 north and then turn west onto the N1 at the Woodmead interchange. At the Lanseria off-ramp, take the R512 north and proceed for 40 kms along the R512, Lesedi is clearly marked on the left-hand side of the road. There are alternative shorter routes from Sandton and the Fourways area that are well sign posted for Sun City/Hartebeespoort Dam.
From Pretoria proceed along Proes street, turn right into DF Malan Street west and then left onto the N4 toll road to Rustenburg. At the end of the toll road (14 kilometers) take the Pelindaba off-ramp south and turn left and then right onto the Pelindaba road, proceed west until the T junction where the R512 meets the Pelindaba road (at the T-junction Fruit stall) turn south (left) onto the R512 and 7 kilometers along the road, Lesedi is clearly marked on the right hand side of the road.
Around the area
The Eastern Cape comes alive at Christmas time, so consult the official Eastern Cape Tourism Authority website for activities up and down the coast, and towards the hinterland.
Tours to do
Imonti Tours - and others - will present you with a lot of choices: city tours, cultural tours, good food tours, historic tours and nature tours.
The rural areas of the Eastern Cape are criss-crossed with tertiary roads that only a seasoned guide will know. Don't try to venture forth on your own to find a stick-fighing competition - you're bound to lose your way.
What will it cost
It could be part of your cultural village fee which normally costs in the region of R450 per person, or you could leave a tip of approx R50 for each fighter.
Length of stay
The bouts are short - approx 5 minutes each.
What to pack
Sunscreen, notebook, water and some spare pens for the children of the village.
Where to stay
If you're near East London, there is a wide range of accommodation available; otherwise, ask your guide if there are home stays available at your destination.
What to eat
Indulge yourself in Xhosa dishes: umnqusho (samp and beans), mfino (cabbage and spinach chopped fine and mixed with mealie porridge), steamed bread, fried dumplings, butternut mixed with pumpkin and lamb stew. You'll taste all of these at Ngxingxolo Village, for example, where bouts of stick-fighting are presented.
In December, there are many cultural celebrations all through the Eastern Cape. Ask you guide about any happenings in the area you're about to visit.
Xhosa crafts and artwork, especially from the Keiskamma Project in the little seaside village of Hamburg.