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.

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Xhosa fighting sticks are covered in sheep fat and left in the sun to strengthen.

One of the first skills that a five-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’…

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