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Omo Valley Journeys – Walking with (Suri) Warriors

A Suri warrior is fitted with a protective helmet before a round of fighting

The Suri are a very interesting and tough people, who have had their share of problems with neighbouring peoples, like the Nyangatom, who are closer to the government.  Tensions also exist between the Suri and the Toposa in South Sudan, allies of the Nyangatom, who frequently raid their cattle.  There have also been violent clashes with the Me’en.  Most problems in recent decades, however, have been with the authorities.  The village highlanders, of mixed descent, tend to look down upon the Suri nomads. There is a dramatic history of conflicts and clashes of Suri with highlanders and national government officials who have a deep distrust of the Suri and saw them always as uncivilized lowlanders ‘without religion’.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ways the Suri have to settle disputes is through the act of “Donga” or stick fighting.

We were in Ethiopia at a time when the fights weren’t on. Generally they take place in or at the end of the Ethiopian monsoon. Our visit was in the dry season. We’d heard, however, that two rival clans of Suri were hoping to fight over an intended woman to marry and so, starting a few days before we arrived, the stick fight had been planned to win her heart

Suri men principally take part in stick fighting, a combination of marital art, ritual and sport, to impress women and find a wife.  They fight with little or no clothing, and the violent clashes sometimes result in death.  Battles usually take place between Suri villages, which can consist of between 40 and 2500 people.  As well as providing an opportunity to attract a partner, the fights aim to get young men used to bloodshed – which leaders believe comes in handy if they clash with other tribes.

As it turned out the clan whose village we had camped in were one of the fighting teams. We were invited to go and see it, and being the only two white people in the area, we thought why not?

An arena had been established in a grassy, flat area not far from our clan’s village. We arrived a little early, hoping to get a good vantage point to watch. As we waited, local Suri children played in the grass.

Suri children play with small sticks in the grass while they wait for the Donga to start

Young Suri guys also messed around whipping each other with their clothes in a similar way that my brother used to whip me with tea towels!

Boys! Suri boys whipping each other with their clothes. It reminded me of my brother whipping me with a tea towel when I was younger!

Before we actually saw a donga, I had only a theoretical concept of the art of stick fighting so in essence I had no idea what the afternoon would entail. We went with an open mind.

There were two things that surprised me about the fight. The first was the importance of music. Each clan arriving to fight would sing together as they walked in. It was the men of our clan singing that we actually heard before we even saw them. As they got closer the singing became more pronounced. It is the Suri invitation to battle hymn it seemed.

Here is our clan arriving.

There were two naked men leading them in and psyching the fighters up for the battle as they walked. When they arrived they waited for their opponents in the shade.

A fighting clan arrives at the arena

The second thing that surprised me about Donga was the way in which it is conducted. It is quite similar to a boxing match in that rounds are carefully refereed by a head man and regular breaks are taken between rounds.

Standing. Chatting. Waiting.

Our referee was a stunning guy with a grey, wizened beard.

The referee at our fight

Suri warriors are incredibly strong and very handsome. Obviously having a couple of white girls there to photograph them was a bit of a novelty. As we were standing around waiting for the fight I spotted this lovely young man who had arrived to take part.

One of the handsome Suri warriors attending the stick fight that afternoon

When he saw me with my camera, he ran over and actually ducked his head under my camera strap, put his arm around my waist and indicated that he wanted to take photos! Blushing, and feeling a little shy about his close proximity, I took the strap off both of us and showed him how to take photos with my camera. After all, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve given African people my phone, or my camera, to take shots. I’m always curious to see how they see the world through my lens. Is it the same way I do?

He wanted to take a picture! Here is me looking sweaty and bedraggled while an amazing fighter tries to work out the controls of my camera. I’ve never been suddenly approached like this before. It was quite funny in the end, even if his photos didn’t quite work out!

Soon after our clan arrived, the opposing clan did too and the first fight started.

A leader always guides the fighting clan in to a round, and yes, that is a Kalashnikov rifle being held by one warrior. Ethiopia certainly isn’t the place to take a holiday if you are frightened of guns!

This first round took place with very little armour being worn by the fighters. Each round is started off by leaders who then allow the principal fights to battle.

Needless to say the first round didn’t end well and one of the opponents above ended up with some rather serious head injuries. I guess when two very strong guys are smacking each other with hardwood poles that are between two and three metres long, this could be expected.

Head wounds are common in unprotected Suri fighters
Thankfully this man was OK after his head wounds were treated at the scene

The other fighter of this round didn’t fare that well either.

Still standing, an unprotected warrior contemplates his performance after the first round of fighting

It was time for a break. This gave the injured fighters a rest before the next round and it also allowed us to enjoy the socialising that is so common to these events.

A beautiful Suri child in the crowd
One fo the Suri elders in attendance. I like to think the look on his face is one of “Those guys have a lot to learn!”
A group of young Suri men stand around trying to impress the girls who came to watch the fight
Seriously! Was that for real? A Suri guy laughs after the first round of fighting.

The break also allowed for some time to dress wounds and rest.

When you are in the crowd at a Donga you have to be careful. The fights can sometimes get very carried away. There is no ‘ring’ around the arena. If the fighters spill in to the crowd, people scatter everywhere and some onlookers can get injured themselves. At one point I even grabbed Polly to get her out of the way because when you are taking photos you don’t always realise how out of control things are getting! We did notice one Suri strapping up their ankle after a fight and I assume he had twisted it in the melee
The modern day ‘look’ of the Suri hasn’t always been this way. Truly traditional Suri look like this man, with longer hair and less decoration. I will post about him and other traditional Suri people we met separately

A couple of Suri men also did some practice stick fights in the break.

Play fighting
The sticks used to fight are up to three metres long and very heavy!

The crowd began to stir a little and we wondered if the next round of fighting was going to begin. Only this time we saw the fighters actually donning protection.

The armour used in these fights is all hand made. It is fashioned from woven threads, plastic bottles and containers and local grasses. The Suri armour is principally worn on the heads, arms and knees of each warrior.

Then we heard more singing. I asked why they had started to sing and I believe the losing fighters from the first round decide when the break has finished and the new round of fighting will begin.

The fighters assembled and their pre-round posturing of poses, yells and singing began.

Preparing for battle

And then it was on!

And it’s on!

This time there were fewer injuries but a break was also called for just to take a rest. After all, stick fighting is quite a strenuous exercise! The guys we saw were covered in sweat and breathing heavily at the end of each round!

The clan fighters looked on as their warriors regrouped.

One final battle took place and although I wasn’t officially told who won, perhaps it was the best of three?

The final round

A winner had been determined and the groups of fighters began to leave the arena, this time singing a song of victory.

By the time it finished it was nearly dark and we had to return to camp.

In times past, Suri elders would have fired guns in to the air to signify the end of the duel. We’d heard, however, that ammunition was being stored. Since the effective end of conflict in neighbouring South Sudan, black market trade in ammunition had dried up and it was all getting expensive. Better to save those bullets for other, more meaningful, purposes.

I am happy to report that no one died during the stick fight we watched but I am so glad we went along to one. The ritual acts of it were at once fascinating and energising. We decided to extend our stay in Suri territory when we heard about one taking place. It was a good decision.

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