Donga: Traditional stick fighting of the Suri people

Photography and text: Henk Bothof

ethiopië-suri-donga-strijders-onderweg
Suri fighters on their way to the battlefield

The Suri is a people that lives in the southwest of Ethiopia, far away from the modern world. During the annual traditional stick fights, also called the Donga, the naturally peace-loving Suri men show a very competitive side to gain prestige within the tribe.

The fights take place after the harvest around the end of July/August. During these fights, referees are present to ensure that the rules are observed. The Suri stick fighters paint their faces and bodies to impress the women. They also wear elbow, hand, leg and head protectors against injuries, made of cotton. The fighting stick has a cut-out phallus symbol on the point that symbolizes masculinity and fertility. It is possible that both warriors are injured, but killing each other is strictly forbidden.

The Suri is a proud people who live in the southwest of Ethiopia, far away from and unaffected by modern, contemporary civilisation. They honor centuries-old traditions, such as the annual Donga. During the annual traditional stick fights, also called the Donga, the naturally peace-loving Suri men show a very competitive side to gain prestige within the tribe. The aim is for young men to duel with stick fights in order to show their strength and masculinity and to gain respect from their family and the community. And of course they conquer the hearts of young girls before marriage. The groups sometimes consist of hundreds of men, coming from different villages. They use their best warriors and approach the battlefield in a large clearing. They do this while singing and try to impress their opponents.

The duel winners continue to fight each other until one last victor remains. Losers are expected to accept their defeat gracefully and withdraw from the field. The last victor is carried on a platform with poles and taken to a group of unmarried young girls, one of whom will choose him as her future husband.

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