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.
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.
“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.
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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