Afrikan Martial Arts, A Comprehensive Overview

Yoruba Wrestling

The Yoruba people are to be found in modern day Nigeria. As part of their rites of passage into manhood, Yoruba men are required to perform: wrestling, horse riding, swimming and hunting. Throughout the year, men practice wrestling in villages up and down the country. (The rules and style resemble Nuba wrestling, see below). Then at special festivals known as Ijakadi, the men come together to show their prowess. Men who are successful in competitions or duels, receive a great deal of kudos and prestige. In ancient times, these competitions would confirm a man’s future status, as a chief or a warrior, but now the prestige is more ceremonial.
In other parts of West Africa, there are arts like Laamb in Senegal .
There are two types of Laamb. In the first, opponents are allowed to strike with bare hands but in the latter, no striking is allowed. A win is secured, when the adversary pins his opponent ‘s back onto the floor (Like Judo or Greco Roman wrestling.)Nuba/Nubian wrestling
The Nuba are to be found in present day Sudan. Without a doubt, the Nuba are the people closest in tradition and appearance, to the Ancient Nubians of antiquity. As can be seen from the pictures below, Nuba wrestling is almost identical to those of ancient Nubians. (See the images on the tombs and monuments dating from the 12th Dynasty of Ancient Kemet/Egypt). In antiquity, the Nubians were known as the greatest fighters in the world and this reputation lasted until the time of the Ancient Greeks (see Herodotus). This means that Nuba wrestling is the oldest unbroken system of martial arts. In the Nuba Mountains and throughout the present day Sudan, Nuba practise with weapons and also use an empty hand technique similar to Aikido.
Nuba Wrestling is the original martial art that all of Africa, Asia, and Europe later came to benefit from”.
Nuba wrestling is still practiced today in the South of Sudan as parts of Rites of Passage…
African American Martial Arts And It’s Grandmaster
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Afrikan Martial Arts: An Overview
(Compiled from Wikipedia resources and extentions )

Capoeira Angola
Capoeira Angola has its roots in the Bantu tradition and was used by the enslaved Africans of Brazil as a form of training for war. In keeping with African war strategies, Capoeiristas masked the art’s effectiveness from plantation overseers. Then and today, to uninformed onlookers, the art appears to be a harmless acrobatic dance to music.
Authorities eventually learned of its power during conflict with Africans in Bahia and other Quilombos. They outlawed the practice, with death being the penalty for involvement. Capoeira was so troublesome, that penal colonies were later constructed for the imprisonment of capoeiristas. For years Capoeira was practiced in secrecy and was not lawful to teach or learn until after the 1930s.
African Diaspora
A program opened as a workshop to teach African. It is based on Afro-Brazilian Dance, martial arts, culture, discipline, and philosophy.
Kamau Njia

Kamau Njia, which means “Way of the Silent Warrior” in Swahili, is based on instinctive movement, practical concepts, and sound principles. This is coupled with the ability to develop skills from an individual’s natural defensive and offensive movements. These skills are thoroughly enhanced through “real time” training scenarios against grabs, strikes, weapons, and ground attacks. Through these training scenarios, students are better prepared to function during the pressure and distress of violent attacks. Derived from a variety of martial arts styles.
Kiungo Cha Mkono

(a.k.a. “Shackle Hands” and “The Shackle Hand Style”) is an art developed by Master Nganga Mfundishi Tolo-Naa from traditional African arts. The hands are linked together based on the concept that two hands are better than one. It is also symbolic of Africans in slavery. It takes traditional blocks and strikes and combines into one action. This defense can be practical in application, but it is more flashy than anything. There are three levels, 1) hands joined at the wrist, 2) hands are separated, and 3) hands are crossed as the Egyptians are often depicted. The last being the highest level and symbolizes spiritual cultivation.
Kupigana Ngumi

Known as the “Essence of African Martial Arts,” Kupigana Ngumi is a comprehensive term that is inclusive of all Afrikan Martial Arts systems. Recognized for its rhythmic dance like movements, Kupigana Ngumi was founded in the 60’s by Shaha Mfundishi Massi and Nganga Mfundishi Taloo-Naa. Kupigana Ngumi Is a complete system designed around four areas of training, namely: Cultural, Emotional, Mental and Fitness.
Mshindi Vita Saana

“Mshindi Vita Saana” is Kiswahili for “Champion War Art” or Victor(‘s) War Art. Mshindi Vita Saana is a system of self defence developed for and by people of African descent (African Americans.) Using an African frame of reference, Mshindi Vita Saana approaches self defence using rhythm, strategy, coordination and agility to highlight traditional and contemporary movements. At its core, Mshindi Vita Saana reflects the graceful elaborate polyrhythms found in African dance and music.

African Martial Arts-The following arts are native to Africa
Jailhouse Rock (USA)

It is in the hostile racist environment of the United States Prison system that African martial arts systems that had survived slavery evolved into the gloriously mutated manifestation known as “Jailhouse Rock”. Having been brought into the penal system via ex-slaves, various styles emerged within different prisons. Since the African language had long been forbidden and forgotten, new regional names were developed to reference the art. Some of them are Jail-House-Rock, Closing Gates, 52, 42, Strato, PK, Mount Meg, Comstock, Gorilla, Barnyard etc. Due to the contemporary politics of the United States and the profitable running of prisons by private corporations this lethal art continues to thrive as a functional necessity of modern African Americans.
Kwa Asilia Avita Sanaa

Kwa Asilia Avita Sanaa is a deadly fighting art that can be used as an educational system, a competitive sport, and a form of self-enlightenment. Although Kwa Asilia Avita Sanaa attempts to remain consistent with the fighting systems of ancient African warriors, it does not emphasize the traditional methods of guerrilla warfare (Ambush, Assassination, and stealth). Instead emphasis is placed on internal development, meditation, breath control, and healing which includes medical gymnastic (self-defence techniques).


Mani, a fighting-dance martial art, grew in 19th century among slaves of sugar plantations in Cuba. Only the men take part in it. The dancer in the circle does movements simulating fight, and chooses a protagonist among the others men of the circle. Then the elected “adversary” comes in the circle, and, in harmony with the other dancer, executes a choreographed routine of movements, between fight and dance.
Koko Makaku

The walking stick, Koko Makuku, was in fashion in Curaçao in the early 20th century. In addition to being used as a walking stick, the “koko makaku” was also used as a defensive weapon and for cultural and sports activities. Among these were stick-dancing, stick-fighting and the tambú game ‘blood for the drum’, thus reports René Rosalia in his contribution to the ‘third seminar on Latin-American and Caribbean folklore’, which took place in Curaçao in 1990. Stick-fighting, performed during tambú feasts, is also mentioned by father Paul Brenneker in his series “Sambubu”.

As in the old times practically every man went out with a stick, the development of the game of sticks was obvious, according to Brenneker. “The game of sticks was not bound to seasons or festivities and in former days it used to be played on Sundays, at approximately 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It was a game of skills. Each of two men held his stick at the ends, approached the other and danced and jumped around to the rhythm of the singing and clapping of hands of the spectators. A drummer would beat time. The men were supposed to defend their own head with their stick and simultaneously make efforts to strike the opponent with it on his head. They manipulated the sticks masterfully. If one of them saw an opportunity to deal a blow to the other on his head, he would be the winner. If the loser bled from his head wound, the bystanders would shout: “sanger pa tambú” (blood for the drum). The loser had to let some blood flow on the skin of the drum.” This was made from a wine or rum barrel.

(or Bénolin) a stick fighting art of Guadeloupe.

(or Mayolé) Mayolet is a stick fighting martial art from Guadoloupe. It was developed from Danmyé.
Sové Vayan

(or Sovayan) a stick fighting art that was created developed in Guadeloupe

A Haitian martial art developed by the African slaves residing there. Developed for the same reasons as Machet’e and Capoeira

A martial art developed by the maroons of Jamaica. Bangaran is taught from generation to generation.

A Jamaican martial art developed by African Slaves out of a burning desire for freedom.
Danmyé (a.k.a. “Ladja”)

Is the first martial art to ever be practiced in Martinique. Some slaves from Senegal and elsewhere, that were on their way to the island of Gorée, created a fighting art inspired by the initiation ceremony of “N’golo”, which symbolized the passing from adolescence to adulthood and included a confrontation which took the form of a fight. Fights were practiced in festivals, village fairs, and appointed fights until 1947, when the authorities banned Danmyé. There are many places to practice: in pits, in front of a bank, during carnivals, and bèlè events The wrestler has to get the upper hand of his opponent while respecting the drummer’s pace. A fighter can win by referee’s ruling after a decision blow, one fighter being hit more than the other (amount of points in a 2-minute fight), lifting your opponent off the ground, or being immobilized on the ground (Kakan). It combines strikes with wrestling and grappling skills. The wrestlers determine the fighting space by dancing around in a ring to the rhythm of the drum, known as the introductory stage of the fight. The wrestler then draws an invisible circle which represents a magic space and any person entering the circle is an opponent. However, all strikes must be restrained and given without intending to hit. They can only be given to drive the opponent to refuse a hand-to-hand fight. The wrestler has to hit and move in harmony with the rhythm or the guilty party would be disqualified. The main goal is to score more points than the opponent does and hit without being hit.

(or Kalinda) It is believed that kalinda began around 1860 when the freed slaves organized themselves into competing bands and held performances. Men, women and children gathered to sing, dance and be entertained by stick fights. The aim of each stick fighter was to deliver a blow that would hit the opponent on the body – any part above the waist – hard enough to fell him to the ground. Blows were usually aimed at the head and damage to the skull was a very common occurrence in stick fighting. The rules of the game were few. Hitting “under the belt” or striking a player when he fell or was forced to kneel was an infringement. Again, as long as a player’s skull was cut he had to retire and drain the blood into the “blood hole”, a hollow made for this purpose in the ground in the centre of the fighting ring. The stick used was between three and four feet long and was about seven-eighths of an inch in diameter. It was made of cog-wood, the wood of the yellow poui tree or even the sour guava.
Trinidad Stick Fighting

(a.k.a. ‘Bois’ or ‘Sticklick’) is an art from Curacao. It was confined to two communities, Mt. Desire and La Resource. A conch shell is blown to call the drummers and the batonniers to the ring. There are many stances, the main is to hold the stick with 2 hands in front of your face for defence and let swing down to which ever way you need. The object is to strike your opponent while moving away artistically to make them look foolish. It is a serious full contact art that can open gashes on the head and chest. Music is very important in most African arts and this is no exception. When the contestants get in the ring, different songs are played on the drums to help the contestants along.
Bate Coxa

Used by Africans of bigger stature, the object of Bate Coxe was to knock the opponent down using collisions of the thigh. Bets, of money or even women, were made. A predecessor of Capoeira.

(a.k.a. Capoeira Batuque) Batuque is supposedly much like Capoeira (and one of it’s many predecessors), but much more dance-influenced. Much emphasis on kicking.
Luta do Bode

A headbutting martial art used by the Africans in Brazil. The goal is to knock the opponents head till the death. For this reason, the art is little used today. A predecessor of Capoeira.

Susa is an art very similar (and may be a style of) Capoeira that is practiced by the Saramaccan and Ndyuka diasporic people of Suriname.

An Afro-Venezuelan martial art.
Northern Africa


(a.k.a. Kemetic Aha, Ahah, Kemet Mariama) Aha is a tricky form of boxing and grappling practiced by the Kemites. According to some sources, it was practiced exclusively by Kemetic priests.

An ancient Egyptian boxing art still used today. The basis for Hikuta is claimed to be the ancient art of Kuta. Today Hikuta is used for very modern reasons, mostly the defeat of criminals.

Supposedly almost the same as Tahteeb, except that the fighters use longer staffs. *NOTE: Other sources say Naboot isn’t a martial art, but the name of the staff used in Tahteeb.

A native grappling art of Egypt. According to one of our Martial Talk posters, Sebekkah requires much waist power in its movements.

Tahteeb is played mostly in the Northern regions of Egypt by tough men young and old who enjoy the challenge of a good fight, also it is a great way to show machismo and rack up potential brides. Like Surma stick fighting of southern Sudan, Tahteeb is played only by men and can get very bloody when two opponents do not particularly like one another. When Tahteeb is played nicely one man will attack and the other will only defend and then vice versa, but when men do not like each other and they play together suddenly the rules change and the real rules are announced: there are no rules. Due to the full contact aspect of Tahteeb, parrying and blocking are essentials to survival when playing the game, striking is the norm and joint locking is almost unheard off.

An Egyptian martial art that is based on totem animal movements and spirit dances.
El Matreg

A North African martial art most commonly practiced as entertainment in Algeria. In this, two players fight using long sticks – the idea is to score points by outwitting and out-manoeuvring your opponent.
Nuba Stick Fighting

Rarely practiced today, traditional Nuba Stick fights are most commonly practiced among the Moro tribe. The stick-fighting is a contest conducted by, as the name indicates, a stick and a shield between two contestants, This sport is always carried out at the end of autumn and the beginning of harvest, and it is completely forbidden during the cultivation season, in case it puts the youths off their work. Stick fighting is part of the ceremonies that follow the harvest, in which thanks is given to God for providing a good harvest. It is embedded in the spiritual traditions of the people.

A native wrestling art of Sudan.

Eastern Africa

The fighting techniques and disciplines of the Masai people of Kenya.

Testa, or Riesy, is a brutal Eritrean head butting art. It may also include kicks, hand strikes, parries, grabs, etc. Hand, foot, and grabbing techniques are very intricate and are solely used in order to strike the opponent with the “Big Knuckle”, or head. A Testaman may even bite the opponent’s windpipe or groin out of pure desperation.

Dula Meketa
The stick fighting art of the Oromo people of Ethiopia.

An Ethiopian martial art that is used as a way to convey cultural identity through a fighting system.

or Donga Stick Fighting, is a test of nerves and brute strength. The Donga of Ethiopia fought to prove masculinity, settle personal vendettas, and most importantly, to win wives. The 50 or more men who participate in each tournament represent different villages. The contestants fight in heats, with the winners going on to the next round until the competition narrows to two finalists. The winner of the last bout wins the entire contest

Arguably the first of all weapon-based martial arts, Kayti represents the origins of all weaponry. Though centred in Africa (primarily Kenya), the roots come from all over Africa. Kayti is the predecessor to modern swordplay (from China) and the better known Islamic Kali (from Philippines).

Southern Africa

This Angolan art’s sole purpose is to immobilize the opponent. However, because of the high risk of injury, the modern objective is to only knock them down. A predecessor of Capoeira.

An Angolan art that supposedly involved punching that later contributed to the art of Capoeira.

An Angolan martial art and predecessor of Capoeira, this art is much like modern Slap Boxing, it consists of bashing your opponent open-handed.

(or N’golo) An Angolan ritual martial art (used by the Bantu and Mucupis peoples) in which two males would fight in order to win a bride presented by the parents of the girl. The fight uses both hands and feet all to knock the opponent down. The winner would prove his bravery in order to receive his wife. A predecessor of Capoeira.

An Angolan art that later contributed to the art of Capoeira.
The traditional boxing martial art of Madagascar.

Isinaphakade Samathongo
An ancestral esoteric warrior system practiced by the Zulu and Xhosa tribes of South Africa. The system emphasizes strong combative techniques and ethical philosophy. It is used as an initiation into the “warrior-priest caste” of the two tribes.

A martial art of South Africa. It consists of punching, headbutting, earslaps, and knees.

Nguni Stick Fighting
Stick-fighting in Nguni-speaking areas of South Africa has an educational role, it teaches young members of society social values, gender roles, the worthy nature and respectability of physical endeavours. Zulu and Xhosa boys begin learning at an early age the utilitarian function of sport, sharpening physical skills and mental attitudes necessary for hunting game and combat. The rise of stick-fighting as a physical contest created a stage for young boys to assert themselves within a specific age-group, achieve a social identity in competition with others, and, possibly, achieve a degree of ‘independence’ unavailable to the common person.

Zulu Stick Fighting
(or Zulu Impi) Long past its days of glory, stick fighting is no longer a common practice among the Zulu people, and practitioners struggle to validate its existence in these days of political turmoil, acculturation, and modernisation. Nonetheless, stick fighting appears to assist in upholding the traditional social system by perpetuating socially accepted modes of male behaviour and ideals. Stick fighting, as a cultural tradition, therefore continues to fulfil its traditional didactic function in some Zulu communities.

Central Africa

A head bashing style of martial arts from Congo

A martial art of Congo in which the fighting techniques are based on that of a rooster’s. Believed to be a predecessor of Capoeira.

A Martial art that later lead to the development of Kalenda.

Western Africa

Borey is from the Gambia it is a grappling art of the Mandiga; it consists of knees, head butts, kicks and holds to break the neck, leg, collar bone and arm. It is similar to Laamb.

Gambian Wresting
Gambian Wrestling is an African martial art that is a deep-seated tradition and national sport. The warriors wear loincloths called “Juju’s” and strut, dance, spar, and brag in challenge of noisy support from the drums. The fight continues until a contestant is brought to the ground. Punching, kicking, spitting and flinging sand in the eyes is all legal. After sundown, the atmosphere builds with excitement as the champions come out to fight. Note: May be the same as Borey.

A martial art of Guinea.

Dambe, or Hausa Boxing, is a fist fighting system from Nigeria consisting of kicks, punches, knees and headbutts. Dambe is a savage method of empty hand combat and a testament to the creativity of African warriors.

A kind of Wrestling practiced by the Yoruba of Western Nigeria.

Igba Magba
A martial art native to Nigeria.

A ritual martial art intertwined with the Korokoro dance of Nigeria.

A stick fighting art of Reunion.

A native style of wrestling from Senegal.

The art of Borey is also native to Senegal, and (in the Senegal style) consists of punching, kicking, headbutting, grappling, and joint locks

A native martial art of Senegal

Laamb (a.k.a. “Senegalese wrestling”) is a wrestling art that takes place in Senegal. Before the event, the beating of the drums, along with the mellow voices of the singers, will alert everyone that it’s about to start. The crowd would gather around a sandy pit and watch several bouts before the final bout of 2 champions. The fighters would wear “wrappers” around their waist, which would be provided by their fiancés or female relatives, and the rest of their body will be naked. The winner must knock his opponent’s knees, shoulder, or back to the sand. Strikes and slaps are allowed nowadays.
azo Ncha Shikana
African pressure point grappling. Most commonly practiced in Senegal.

A stick fighting art from Senegal.
A native style of wrestling from Senegal.

Evala is a wrestling sport practiced by the Kabye people of northern Togo. In wrestling competitions, boys try to prove their manhood by winning an Evala wrestling match and it is used as an initiation ceremony.

A native wrestling martial art of Togo.

Yuna Onse
An art that is very similar to Capoeira, as it is one of its many predecessors.


African Roots in the Martial Arts: An Interview with Kilindi Iyi

Interview by Thomas A. GreenCopyright © EJMAS 2004. All rights reserved.


By means of his groundbreaking essay “African Roots in Asian Martial Arts” (Journal of African Civilizations, 7, 1: 138-143), his two-part video (The World of African Marital Arts, CFW Enterprises, 2000), his television appearances (“Strange Universe,” “Masters of the Martial Arts”), and his teaching (at the Ta-Merrian Institute in Detroit, Michigan and at seminars internationally), Kilindi Iyi has become an important North American spokesperson for the African martial arts.

Kilindi Iyi, 2004

Beginning with the rise of African consciousness among African-Americans in the late 1960s, Iyi’s attempts to re-connect with what he prefers to call African martial sciences have led him to explore not only fighting systems, but also dance, music, philosophy, and ethno-medicine. His work has generated both controversy and a dedicated following.

The following is a portion of an interview conducted in 2004, during his stay as guest lecturer and visiting artist at Texas A&M University. In it, Ahati (a Kemetic title used by his students meaning, “He who strikes with the powers of the deity”) Iyi deals with two issues: the sources of his knowledge of African martial systems and his projections for the future of their study.


Green: Would you begin by telling us how you were introduced to martial arts?

Iyi: I started out with boxing. My father taught me boxing as a young boy, because he was a professional boxer. Basically, his most productive years of his boxing career were short-circuited by World War II, where he was stationed in the Philippines. He came back from World War II and married my mother, and he still had the fever of wanting to continue his career. With a family, it really wasn’t feasible to do anything like that, so he got into coaching, and I learned boxing from him. My mother didn’t particularly care for the boxing as far as me going into professional boxing, or going into Golden Gloves and tournaments. I did sneak over to the recreation center and places like that anyway.
A Lansing, Michigan, boxing card featuring Kilindi Iyi’s father, Jimmy Johnson

Then, around 1965, I went to the Michigan State Fairgrounds and saw judo demonstrations and karate, aikido, and taekwondo demonstrations, and I was fascinated by that. I wanted to learn when I saw that at the State fairground. As far as learning was concerned, money being scarce, my father wasn’t going to pay money for martial arts lessons. “You know how to box, and I taught you how to box.”

So I had to buy books and read Black Belt Magazine and things like that until the day I got the chance to train. My first instructor was a man by the name of Woods who had learned in the Army. I trained with him and other people around the neighborhood [in Detroit]. I eventually got a chance to train in a little bit of karate and a little bit of this and a little of that.

By that time, it was getting to be the late ‘60s, ‘68 or ‘69, and black consciousness was on the forefront of the American scene. It became a focus of identity on Africa: “Black is beautiful,” “Black Power,” and things like that. And I got involved in that. I had begun to get involved in the martial arts and learn Asian martial arts, and thought, “If all people around the world have martial arts, well, Africans must have martial arts, also.”

So I began to do as much research as I could. I really couldn’t find anything. I would talk to people, and then I said, “Well, maybe some of the African students from different colleges might know something.” If so, I could ask them when I’d see them on the campuses of the University of Detroit or Wayne State University or the University of Michigan or Michigan State.

I started asking African students about martial arts, “Do you know anything about martial arts?” And they’d say no. And in truth, they were telling the truth. Because there wasn’t anything called African martial arts, but the Africans did have their systems of warfare and fighting and wrestling, punching systems and systems of weaponry, and I began to discover things like that. So, once I got to the knowledge base of being able to ask in a proper way, I started getting responses.

We had several people in town who were Africans, who guided me in certain directions. There was a brother from Zululand named Zukele who had a South African restaurant in Detroit called Fechu. I learned Zulu stick fighting and martial art from him. There was Mr. Kupalui who had an African shop in Detroit who would tell me about different things. Meeting the students and talking to people led me to other ways to do research into African martial arts.

Once I started studying and researching in the early ‘70s, I started to go to New York to do research at the Schomburg library. The Schomburg collection is the largest repository of African and African-American history in the country. (EN1) In New York, I would research there on the African martial arts, and I started meeting people. One of the greatest influences was Baba Ishangi, the head of the Ishangi Family Dancers, who had basically came to the forefront in African culture at the Guinea Pavilion at the 1965 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. I met him in the mid-70s, and followed him for several years. (EN2) In fact, he introduced me to other people — Nana C.K. Ganyo (EN3), Dr. Hodari Mqulu (EN4), and others who were instrumental in developing my African sensibilities and of being able to understand the gist of African arts.
Hodari Mqulu, an isangoma (healer/diviner) from South Africa who was instrumental in Kilindi Iyi’s training.


I eventually trained in Naboot (EN5) with a brother by the name of Mohammad. I hooked up with his uncle in Egypt later on in the late ‘70s, who was also named Mohammad, who I continued my study of Naboot with, and I was just training and learning and getting the chance to visit Africa. I based myself with West African tribes, to try to understand the arts based in Senegal and Ghana and The Gambia. Although I’ve never been to Nigeria, I had people from Nigeria who taught me Nigerian martial arts. Baba Adeboye was one of the people who was advising me on Nigerian martial arts. He lived in the Nigeria. He was the son of a paramount chief there. He learned things from warriors under his father from all the different Yoruba societies. Things like that are part of my learning experience

So that’s basically the background on how I started and the people I got with to learn a lot of the things I do. I don’t stick really to one system. I blend the systems from Africa and from different people, because I think, in my studies, they’re one. They’ve just been dispersed, and there are certain areas that have preserved more than others. So I blend the arts of Africa rather than sticking to one particular mode such as the Akan, the Yoruba or Hausa, or the Mende. I blend them all together. I see them as one and that’s my own personal viewpoint as far as the martial arts of Africa.

Green: So that’s why you chose the name Ta-Merrian rather than African?

Iyi: Well, the Ta-Merrian Institute, that’s just the name of our school. It’s not the name of any art or anything like that. That’s the name of our building, and we gave it that name out of respect to the old empire — Ta-Merri. Ta-Merri actually means “the loving earth” or “that which sustains and protects us.” So the Ta-Merrian Institute or the Ta-Merrian Institute per Ansar; Ansar is “the house of resurrection.” So it’s actually the house of the resurrection of the knowledge of the ancestors.
Ta-Merrian students training in Ghana during 2001


The institute deals with many different areas of African knowledge. Martial arts was one of them. And many people have taken that wrong, because I get called on that quite a bit and they say, “Well, there’s no such thing as Ta-Merrian martial arts.” And, of course, if you understand, like my group understands and people who know who look at history know, that there’s no martial art in Africa called Ta-Merrian martial arts. But they [detractors] don’t know that’s just the name of our building. The institute itself.

Green: What is your view of the future of African martial arts?

Iyi: My vision for African martial arts is to make it a viable part of the African American scene and the general martial arts population scene, so that it brings martial pride and a better understanding of culture all the way around. In viewing Africa as something that is positive and that has given a positive contribution.

So my vision of where African martial arts is going? I see it coming into the mainstream of the martial arts community very soon, as soon as we can get certain aspects of it to a point where it’s viable. People are seeing the same growing pains that the Asian martial arts had in the ‘50s when they were just coming out.

Originally, you didn’t really have a way of teaching Asian martial arts to Westerners. The curriculum of the martial arts world came out of judo, out of Jigoro Kano’s way of trying to put the thing together. And he used a lot of Western influences inside of doing that, because in martial arts, even when [U.S.] soldiers brought back karate and things like that from Japan and Okinawa after WWII, they didn’t have a way of teaching it either. That’s why you have the jumping jacks and the pushups and the things like that for conditioning. That’s not how martial artists taught. Your lifestyle gives you strength and exercise.

We’re about to go through the same type of problems with promoting African martial arts as Dan Inosanto did [with Filipino martial arts]. He had difficulty when he was first bringing out kali. When he’d try to promote it, people said, “Oh, he’s taken things from aikido and he’s taken things from this and he’s taken things from that and put it into kali to make it more viable.” And later you find out kali had all these things. It has the outward wrist press and all the type of things you see in other arts. Then he had problems with the Filipinos who were native-born Filipinos on the island because he was born in California. [They believed h]e didn’t really know anything because he didn’t live in the Philippines. He’d never been to the Philippines, and then he couldn’t even go to the Philippines, because if he goes to the Philippines those people there would try to challenge him and cut him up.
Kilindi Iyi at the site in Kumasi, Ghana, where Okomfo Anokye, a leader of Asante (Ashanti) unity during the 1700s, reportedly drove his sword into the ground with such force that it subsequently became immovable.


African martial arts are just coming into that point, where the controversy of who’s legitimate and who’s not legitimate and what styles are real and what styles aren’t real [has emerged]. All these lineages and who’s this teacher and who’s that teacher and all these things come into play. And the worst part of any art in our time is coming out in a society that is no longer hand-to-hand combat martial. It’s just the flavor of what things were in the olden days. And in the olden days, the proof was in the pudding. It wasn’t in the talking or the writing on the Internet. It was in what you can do, and that’s how it still is in Africa.

I go to Africa and I say I’m a stick fighter, and they say, “Well, okay, get you a stick and let’s see.” And when you stick fight with them, they say, “Okay, show us what you know and we’ll show you what we know.” It’s not a thing where you say,” I’m a stick fighter,” and they say, “Sit down and let’s have some coffee.” We’re talking about street fighting. And you say you’re a wrestler or you say you’re a fighter. “All right, come on out and show us what you got.” And if they like it, they say “Fine,” and if they don’t like it they say, “Well, you ain’t that good.” They don’t play and mince words and do this whole armchair warrior type of thing.

So African martial arts are starting to go through growing pains. I don’t have any problems with what they say about me because I have luckily documented my teachers, and many of the things I’ve talked about with you I can show in those old [film] clips where I get the things that I do. Like I said last night [after a lecture at Texas A&M], the guy who had studied arnis, he didn’t look at the clip. He just looked at Kenny [a senior student who demonstrated African stick fighting], and he said, “Well, that’s arnis,” and I said, “You didn’t look at the clip.”

That movie had nothing to do with arnis, with kali, or the Philippine Islands, or any of that. It was an indigenous African dance to Ogun (EN6) with a machete that could be translated into stick fighting. The spinning of the stick, the spinning of the sword, they learned those things as children which I showed in the clip of the little boy at the initiation. He wasn’t in his initiation, but he had on his initiation clothes, the costume that they utilize when they go out for initiation. They had to show what they’re learning out there [during initiation]. And this is one of the dances they’d do in front of their elders. That was footage we took right outside of the village that we go to [in the Gambia]. And that’s what the young boys do. You could get up in the morning and see the masquerade[r] that takes the young boys to the bush, coming down the road with machetes. He’s in all black, and he has two machetes, and he’s running down the road, and all the young boys are running away from him because they know when their time comes they’re going to be snatched out to that bush.

It [martial practice] is still real [in African village contexts]. It’s not the kind of thing where you go and pay money at the school. You’re a young boy, and you’ve been given all the areas of what you need to survive. And when you go out there you need to step up and aspire to learning what you need to know to come back to being a man in that community. But the thing is, you already know those things. Because you’ve observed them, and you’ve participated in them, and you’ve done the things that are necessary, because they don’t take folks out who aren’t ready. If you’re in the society, you’re ready because the people in your family have the responsibility to have you ready when that masquerade runs down the road.
Lamin Sonko teaching a class in Ghana, 2003.


Well, we’re building a curriculum teaching method that best serves Western aesthetics. Because you’re not going to go to the village and live there. That’s the only way you can learn anything natural. In the African martial arts, we’re taking an ancient martial arts core that’s not really suited for modern living and trying to put it into a modern academy. If you’re going to learn it three times a week for $60 a month, it has to be a different type of curriculum to be palatable to the practitioner here. So those things are being developed over here to try to get the flavor of how the training was, a curriculum that will give you the flavor of what was in the traditional sense, but will still be something that people can deal with and still be able to go home and kiss the wife.

So, African martial arts are having growing pains, but I think that’s good because it clears the air from the beginning and leaves room for growth.
About the Interviewer

Thomas A. Green is an associate professor in anthropology at Texas A&M. His recent books include Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2001) and Martial Arts in the Modern World (Greenwood, 2003).


EN1. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture link is part of the New York Public Library system. Its web site is

EN2. Baba Ishangi (d. 2003) was in Detroit in 1975, at the International Theater Olympiad ( This is likely the occasion of their first meeting. For an obituary and brief biography, see

EN3. Cornelius Kweyku Ganyo (d. 2003) was Ewe, from Ghana. He played bembe and djembe drums, backed Charlie Parker, the Grateful Dead, and Fleetwood Mac, and taught classes at Arizona State. For an obituary, see

EN4. For a brief discussion of the powers and role of the isangoma in Nguni life, see and; for a discussion of an isangoma’s specific involvement in Nguni stick fighting, see

EN5. Naboot is the long staff used in the Egyptian art of tahtib. Peter Kautz mentions tahtib at, and according to dance scholar and filmmaker Magda Saleh in a 1980 interview, it is the oldest form of Egyptian martial art to have survived, reasonably intact, from remote antiquity. See

EN6. In Robert Farris Thompson’s description, Ogun, the warrior orisha (‘deity’) of the West African Yoruba, “lives in the flames of the blacksmith’s forge, on the battlefield, and… on the cutting edge of iron” (Flash of the Spirit. New York: Vintage, 1984, 52). Transplanted to the New World during the African Diaspora, Ogun has since been reinterpreted in various American contexts.



One thought on “Afrikan Martial Arts, A Comprehensive Overview

  1. Greetings,

    Thank you for an in-depth account of African Martial Arts. There are two photos labeled as originating in Ghana, which were actually taken at the Ishangi Kunda compound in the Gambia. The two photos show Gambian wrestlers engaging with the Ta-Merrian Martial Arts organization. In the photo with Lamin Sonko, Baba Kwame Ishangi is playing the drums in the background.

    I am leaving the same comment with the source of your info.

    Peace & harmony,

    Akua N. Ishangi

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