Abuja, Nigeria – Just off the motorway that links the Italian stone mansions of the Nigerian capital’s pricey Minister’s Hill neighbourhood to the settlements of corrugated-tin roof shacks on the outskirts, is a nondescript path. It leads to Dei Dei, one of Abuja’s low-income communities.
The road is dotted with fruit sellers and their piles of mangoes; motorcyclists honking impatiently at giggling girls as they cross the street; mannequins in second-hand underwear; and stray goats, chickens and dogs.
Beside the road is a field scattered with cigarette butts, broken beer bottles and cars. Among them is a grey Toyota Corolla with a steering wheel security lock. It belongs to thirtysomething-year-old Abdulaziz Abdulaziz.
This place is a “criminal’s den”, he says. “So one has to be watchful, especially with cars that can easily be stolen or broken into.”
Abdulaziz lives 30 minutes away from Dei Dei, in the heart of Abuja. But something has lured him here, just as it does thousands of others several times a month. It’s a traditional form of boxing known as dambe.
No one seems certain how long it has been around for. But, in the past, ethnic Hausa butchers who travelled from village to village to slaughter animals for weddings and festivals would organise fights to display their bravery and attract unmarried women.
It has since evolved into a competitive martial art, practised by young people in communities across Nigeria, Chad and Niger.
These days, the fighters don flamboyant hairstyles and colours and adopt catchy stage names to enhance their celebrity-like appeal. There’s one called Horror’ and another known as Ebola.
Sani Aleka is a dambe coach who says the game appeared in Hausaland, in northwestern Nigeria, some time around the 1940s. But Ibrahim Satatima, a Hausa scholar and professor at Bayero University in Kano, northern Nigeria, says the sport can be traced much further back.
“Dambe has been in Hausaland since before the advent of Islam,” he says. “And Islam came into Hausaland between the 6th and 7th century.”
The sport is, he says, a source of pride and a symbol of cultural identity for many Hausa people.
After three rounds of kicks and jabs, the unarmed boxers are sometimes left with broken jaws, bleeding eyes, shattered teeth and cracked ribs. The punching hand – called the spear – is tied with rope called kara, while the weaker hand acts as a shield. The aim is to knock your opponent down.
But if that sounds brutal, it is nothing compared to how it used to be – when pieces of glass were woven in with the rope to ensure maximum damage. That is now banned but, still, boxers sometimes die in the ring.
The violence of the fight stuns Abdulaziz, who started watching dambe only a few months ago.
He winces as two slim young men swipe at each other’s faces. Dust rises as one stamps his foot. The other bares his teeth and slaps his thigh. Barefoot and bare-chested, they pace around the dirt ring until one is floored or “killed”, as they say here.
The fallen fighter hides his face in embarrassment as the victor parades through the crowd behind a procession of musicians, stopping to pose with his fans and flex his muscles. The 23-year-old is known as Shagon Dan Kanawa, which means “son of Kano” – a reference to the city he comes from – but his real name is Mohammed Izazuddin Hassan, and he’s been on a winning streak for months.
He thanks God and his mother before kneeling down so his admirers can drop money on him. Naira notes fall all around.
For a poor Hausa man, this is what dambe is about – a chance to be a hero and to make anything from $20 to $500. And that money can mean a lot in a place where poverty is brutal.
Snuggled in the valleys of rocky hills and eroding monoliths, Abuja’s sprawling landscape underwent a decades-long transformation to become one of Africa’s first planned cities. It is also one of the most expensive to live in.
A taxi driver who asked not to be named frowns at the mere mention of the city.
“Abuja is where the people who have stolen … this country’s money stay,” he says. “Me, I no like Abuja at all. It no be for poor man like me.”
For many, Abuja epitomises Nigeria’s cavernous class divide.
In the city of at least two million, a one-bedroom apartment can cost around $13,000 a year – and that rent is expected up front.
Business tycoons play golf at the country club named after Ibrahim Babangida, the country’s former military ruler, as the children of the elite drive the latest SUVs through tree-lined boulevards. But hidden in the shade of acacias are children with holes in their flip-flops and mothers holding hungry babies. When the cars stop at the traffic lights, they rush forward to plead for money.
Dodging between the cars are children who sell everything from ground nuts to wiper blades. But they disappear at the sight of the city’s task force officers. Street hawking is not allowed here and, if caught, their wares could be seized.
The message is clear: Abuja is for the rich.
Most of those who work in the city centre cannot afford to live there, so they reside in the shanties that are clustered along the thoroughfares.
Driving home after a dambe match, Abdulaziz observes the cars and buses heading in the opposite direction.
“It’s really cruel, this class thing,” he says. “The city is highly segregated between the rich and the poor and the poor get very shoddy treatment because actually the slums, because I wouldn’t call them settlements, the slums around Abuja are just not habitable.
“You see places with no access road, no water. Some places don’t even have light. And the arrangement is just haphazard and to access some places is hell. So, to think these are the people servicing the city, but being dismissed into some places is just not right.”
Dei Dei is one of the larger makeshift settlements. It has little in the way of a water or electricity supply and petty crime abounds, but still, every Sunday, hundreds of people head there to watch dambe.
The grittiness of dambe sits in sharp contrast to the ostentatious wealth of Abuja.
At the Dei Dei dambe boxing ground, Abuja’s labourers cheer on their local champions as a toenail cutter walks around with rusty nail clippers, making hissing sounds to attract custom. A guy spoons ice cream from a cooler for 100 naira ($0.50) a cone.
“This is a poor man’s sport,” says Jafaar Jafaar, a friend who accompanies Abdulaziz on a Sunday morning when almost 1,000 spectators are present.
As middle-class men who live in the city centre, Abdulaziz and Jafaar are a bit of an oddity in this crowd. Abdulaziz says his friends jeer at him whenever he tells them he is going to Dei Dei to watch dambe.
But it isn’t only those watching who are poor. Many of the boxers are teetering on the poverty line. A win, and they may be OK for a while. But a loss could mean being without money for weeks.
So, they play with passion. Each strike could determine whether or not they can afford to pay next week’s rent.
Drumming builds up the excitement among the boxers and the crowd. The singer’s voice rises. “If it is your turn today, tomorrow it will be someone else’s turn,” he sings in Hausa.
The fighters are decorated in amulets – strands of animal hair wrapped around gemstones, verses of the Quran written on scraps of paper. Although most of the boxers define themselves as Muslim, syncretistic spirituality is deeply entrenched in dambe.
Each boxer undergoes an elaborate fortification ritual. They wear charms around their neck, drink homemade herbal tonics and mix leaves with their blood.
Their arms are lined with the scars of dozens of self-inflicted cuts.
Victorious boxer Hassan says some of his are just a few weeks old. First, he cuts with a small blade, he explains. Then he stuffs ground leaves inside the bleeding gash.
The palm of his punching hand is painted red and black with herbs and henna. “When I don’t use this, I won’t have power in the hand,” he says.
A few weeks ago, he was punched in the chest by a boxer who he says used spiritual power.
“Him use poison to blow me in my chest,” he says. “You know the blow that is not normal.”
Like other boxers who experience injuries, Hassan did not go to a hospital. A spiritual healer gave him a potion to drink. Afterwards, Hassan says he vomited green liquid. He believes that represented the supernatural poison leaving his body.
After that, Hassan says he regained his power and returned to the ring, winning one match after another.
This spiritual element elevates dambe to something more than a sport. This is Hausa culture.
“It’s the only traditional thing that I can spend time on,” says Lawal Mohamed. “I come here several times a week. If I am not here, my mind will not be at rest. I will be thinking about dambe.”
The 51-year-old second-hand car salesman started watching dambe when he was nine years old.
Today, he was so eager to go to Dei Dei that he told a customer who was about to pay for one of his cars to wait until after the game.
It is these sorts of fans that keep dambe alive, but few would want their children to participate. Deep down, they know that even though dambe boxers are celebrated in their local communities, the glamour is fleeting. Theirs is a rough life.
With each blow, dambe fighters sacrifice their bodies to preserve a cherished Hausa tradition.
After three hours of fighting, the crowd disperses. The photographers selling printed photos of champion boxers leave. Prostitutes stoll away with their customers; musicians pack up their drums; boxers hop onto motorcycles or into the back of vans.
Hassan and some of the other boxers live in the red-light community of Tafa. It’s a noisy truckers’ stop along the motorway from Abuja, where drug dealers go about their work in the open.
Abdulaziz describes it as a place for “people of the underworld”.
The son of a housewife and an Islamic scholar, Hassan does not smoke and is critical of boxers who take drugs.
“Some boxers are not going to school and they can’t speak English or Arabic. They no know Allah. Me, I want to go back to school. I finished secondary school. I speak Arabic,” he says.
He hopes to study electrical engineering at university.
With the money earned from dambe, he has bought five cows. He supports his widowed mother and six siblings and pays for one of his brothers to attend university.
But he knows that his days as a boxing hero are numbered; the constant beatings could destroy him or leave him penniless, just as it has other one-time champions.
Fifty-two-year-old Abdulkadir Lawan fought for eight years. He was a champion, but now he says he regrets being a dambe boxer.
“I don’t even want my eight children to do dambe,” he says.
Still, Lawan wears the charms worn by other retired boxers to symbolise the spirit of dambe and shows up at the Dei Dei boxing ring every day to entertain the crowd with his dancing and jokes.
But now, he says, he’s planning to retire from that role as well.
Dambe faces an uncertain future in Abuja. Pressure from the government has forced the dambe organisers to relocate at least five times in the past 10 years, according to coach Aleka.
But the owner of the Dei Dei boxing ring, Ali Zuma, is optimistic about dambe’s future. Men from other ethnic groups in Nigeria, such as Igbo and Yoruba, are also starting to play, and Zuma says this cultural assimilation can help preserve the sport.
Zuma tries to get wealthy men to patronise the sport. But some say he is part of the problem and boxers complain about his management.
Many say he does not pay them well.
Hassan says that when his chest injury left him out of the ring for five days, Zuma did not compensate him, although he felt he should have.
Hassan thinks about money a lot. He wants more of it so that he can move from where he lives. It’s a dark, single room with a cement floor which he finds so embarrassing that he doesn’t even want his siblings to visit him there.
On this Monday morning, Hassan finds the door to his room locked. His landlord has locked him out for the third time this year for failure to pay his rent. It’s 2,000 naira ($10) a week.
Hassan will have to sleep at a friend’s place tonight. But he doesn’t seem fazed. It’s the life of a dambe star.
“You see, this old room is my room,” he says. “And because of only 2,000 naira they done close the door.”