Behind the Ancient Art of Nigerian Dambe Boxing 

The Photo Blog
June 11 2014 11:17 AM

Behind the Ancient Art of Nigerian Dambe Boxing 

Lagos, Nigeria- Autan Sikido, 27, originally from Kaduna State, prepares to strike during a match in Lagos, Nigeria.
Autan Sikido, 27, originally from Kaduna State, prepares to strike during a match.

Jane Hahn

Although Dambe matches last only three short rounds, photographer Jane Hahn was instantly attracted to the energy that surround the fights.

“I was surprised how fast paced the matches were,” she said. “I was excited to see how little hesitation there was during these matches … I had to stay on my toes or miss the action.” 

Hahn, who has been based in West Africa for the past seven years, discovered and photographed the “striking art” of Dambe, a form of boxing, while researching various forms of martial arts in Nigeria.

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Often associated with the Hausa people—one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa—Dambe was historically practiced by the Hausa butchers’ guild around harvest or festival time and was considered to be a test of bravery, a rite of passage for marriage, or preparation for war. 

Today, Dambe isn’t limited to butchers, and most of the fighters participate for fame or money, which allow them a chance for a much different life.

Lagos, Nigeria- Dambe boxer 'Shago' Rikishi, 25, poses for a portrait, in Lagos, Nigeria.
Dambe boxer “Shago” Rikishi, 25, poses for a portrait.

Jane Hahn

Lagos, Nigeria- Young boxers prepare for their match by tightly wrapping the "spear", or striking arm, with material or rope. If the rope becomes undone during the match, the fight is stopped and the "spear" must be rewrapped before continuing.
Young boxers prepare for their match by tightly wrapping the spear, or striking arm, with material or rope. If the rope becomes undone during the match, the fight is stopped and the spear must be rewrapped before continuing.

Jane Hahn

Lagos, Nigeria- Small cuts are made on the striking arm and a mixture of marijuana and other herbs blessed in the north by a malam, an Islamic healer, are rubbed into the cut to provide protection and strength.
Small cuts are made on the striking arm and a mixture of marijuana and other herbs blessed in the north by a malam, an Islamic healer, are rubbed into the cut to provide protection and strength.

Jane Hahn

Lagos, Nigeria- Dambe boxer 'Shago' Jango, 25, displays the "spear", or striking arm wrapped in rope or material, and the "shield" or blocking arm in Lagos, Nigeria.
Dambe boxer “Shago” Jango, 25, displays the spear, or striking arm wrapped in rope or material, and the shield, or blocking arm.

Jane Hahn

“Some can collect up to thousands of dollars or fans offer large gifts such as motorbikes or a paid trip to the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) in a country where many survive on $2 a day,” Hahn wrote via email. “Many times both the victor and his opponent will be sprayed with money from members of the audience in appreciation for their efforts and abilities.” 

One arm of the fighter, wrapped tightly in rope, is considered a “spear,” or the striking arm, while the other is the blocking arm, or “shield.” On the striking arm, cuts are often made, and a malam, or Islamic healer, blesses herbs—sometimes marijuana—that are rubbed into the cut to provide strength. Herbs are also stuffed into amulets and are worn around the neck, or stuffed into pockets or the wrapped fist of the spear to provide strength and protection. The spear was sometimes dipped in resin and broken glass, but that, for the most part, has been outlawed and seen as too violent. 

A match consists of three rounds without a time limit, but if there is too little activity, an official or opponent calls for a break in action. If a spear becomes unraveled, or if a hand or knee touches the ground, the round is stopped. After the final round, a victor is declared. 

Lagos, Nigeria- Drumming plays a significant role in each match. Before the fight begins, musicians play songs of praise devoted to each fighter, letting fans know the fight is about to begin.
Drumming plays a significant role in each match. Before the fight begins, musicians play songs of praise devoted to each fighter, letting fans know the fight is about to begin.

Jane Hahn

Lagos, Nigeria- A match between two fighters is stopped by another boxer in Lagos, Nigeria. Each match consists of three rounds. The match is stopped if a boxer's "spear" becomes unraveled or if one boxer hits the ground.
A match between two fighters is stopped by another boxer in Lagos, Nigeria. Each match consists of three rounds. The match is stopped if a boxer's “spear” becomes unraveled or if one boxer hits the ground.

Jane Hahn

'Shago' Sumula Alabo is "sprayed" with money after a match in Lagos, Nigeria. At the end of the three rounds, a victor is declared but many times both the victor and his opponent will be “sprayed” with money (usually small denominations) from members of the audience in appreciation for their efforts and abilities.
“Shago” Sumula Alabo is “sprayed” with money after a match in Lagos, Nigeria. At the end of the three rounds, a victor is declared but many times both the victor and his opponent will be “sprayed” with money (usually small denominations) from members of the audience in appreciation for their efforts and abilities.

Jane Hahn

Although Hahn said women attend the fights, the majority of spectators are men. Music, predominately drumming, is an integral part of the fights, letting people know it is about to begin. “Musicians begin to play songs of praise devoted to each fighter,” Hahn said. “The music resumes after the match has concluded in honor of the victor.” After the match “the musicians parade the victor around the venue in a celebratory march.”

Fights take place every day in Lagos, but Sundays are the most popular.  Crowds can get rowdy and there are times when there are many more people in the ring than just the two boxers. But Hahn said because the sport originated in a Muslim country and alcohol isn’t widely consumed, things rarely get out of hand.

“It makes the chaotic atmosphere more manageable as a photographer and especially as a woman. There seemed to be controlled chaos at the matches.”

“But the fact that there is no real ring can make shooting a challenge,” she added. There are also no designated seats for the fans. “As the crowds grow, the ring shrinks which makes the action come that much closer; one has to shoot fast and get out of the way before getting hit.”

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Lagos, Nigeria- Young Dambe boxers during a match in Lagos, Nigeria.
Young Dambe boxers during a match.

Jane Hahn

Lagos, Nigeria- Fans look on during a Dambe match in Lagos, Nigeria.
Fans look on during a Dambe match.

Jane Hahn