Sharp leaves tore at us and we weaved through the forest. The nearest road was an eternity of walking away and we had to hack our way through the thick forest ourselves. I was in the pit of Africa, the fabled Omo river valley: the thronging, savage, tribal heart of Africa that keeps beating its own drum while the rest of the continent lurched into some form of modernity. I was on the way to see one of the last truly unique spectacles of a now homogenised world: a donga fight.
My Surma scouts were leading me deep into the forest to see old scores settled, the coming of men. A donga fight is a little like boxing, except it is village against village, clan against clan, coward against the brave. And with eight foot long sharp sticks.
After a few hours, my small party stopped. The heat was building, even though it was only nine in the morning. We were almost there. We had had a spot of difficulty with a python on the journey, and the Surma who were with me had chosen to fill the creature with automatic fire from their Kalashnikov rifles. I felt sorry for the poor animal, but these Surma were ready for a fight and the adrenaline had already kicked in earlier that morning as they savoured the prospect of the day’s fray. Thick in the air was the chorus of chanting warriors, faint but unyielding. It became louder as we approached and the forest opened up into a large clearing. Gaggles of men clung to the edges of the clearing, some dressed in cloths, others with nothing, all with warpaint made from ash streaked across their bodies. I was pulled aside and the barrel of a rifle thrust in my face. It was one of the chiefs of one of the major clans and his party. “Why was I here? What did I want? How much money did I have?” were some of the questions thrown at me as if the words were spits of white hot metal.
It was explained by my guide why I was there: I wanted to photograph the Surma way of life so that the world might understand the Surma, and I was allowed to enter the clearing. Swathes of men joined the arena, chanting and dancing to their own rhythm, pointing their sticks to the sky or championing their most prized fighter. No one noticed I was there.
My guide, a half Surma man called Samson, pulled me close. “Never leave my side,” he whispered.
I snapped a few pictures of these fine warriors from a distance. There were women in the shadows of the forest watching the spectacle and chatting to each other between giggles. For them this was a school disco, the chance to spot a future husband, one who had proved himself in combat.
Soon the clearing was full with baying groups of warriors. Horns sounded and banners waved. Groups circled the fighters and sticks thrashed as the melee broke loose. Adolescents who would one day take part in their own donga fight held to the fringes of the fighting, watching on. I drew nearer and could feel the sweat and blood spray and the heat of the combat.
I was noticed. A bullet fizzed past my head. It was not meant to harm, but only as an intimidation from a warrior who wanted to signal that I was to stay back. I saw a warband coming towards me holding their victor up on their shoulders and I stood aside as the hooting and chanting passed me by as they took their champion into the forest, only to parade him back into the clearing to shrieks and horns. It felt as if I was witnessing something unchanged for centuries, an African Coliseum.
Samson led me to the edge of the forest where a nervous youth was downing home made sorgum beer and putting protective bandages on his head. “This is my nephew,” he said. “He will fight soon.” I could see a mixture of fear and pride in his face as he listened to his friend who was feeding him tips to a successful battle, for honour, for a his future bride and for his reputation as a warrior. I asked Samson even if I wanted to, would I be allowed to fight. “No,” came the reply. “This is for us.” I understood that this test of manhood and aggression is what set the Surma apart from other tribes in the area. As a consequence they were greatly feared by their neighbours and as such were the most powerful tribe on the west side of the Omo River.
The day grew longer and the shadows shortened and lengthened again. Much blood had been spilt and soon old family feuds spilled over into gunfire. This is not part of the game, the rules. There is no honour in it. But with the dangerous mixture of unresolved clan differences, fighting and alcohol, many men had picked up their second spear, the Kalashnikov.
It was time to leave.
The clearing now sounded like a hornets’ nest of zinging bullets and the crack of rifle fire and Samson and I ducked towards the way we had come. I was glad I had seen this amazing cauldron of African tribal colour. Over the coming days I would meet warriors who had fought in the donga fight, their wounds a mark of their honour and bravery. For me it was a glimpse into the past, for them a glimpse into their future as men.
Read more about the Omo Valley expedition.