AFRIKAN MARTIAL ARTS:
Ancient Principles for Today’s Warrior
By Balogun Ojetade
Every tribe, or nation, in Afrika has its own complex and complete martial arts systems. In whatever language they speak, Afrikans, traditionally, refer to their martial arts simply as “wrestling”. The Afrikan concept of wrestling, however, is quite different from the Asian or Western concept of wrestling.
In the Afrikan martial arts, to “wrestle” means to put your opponent on his back, belly, or side in order to render him more vulnerable to a finishing technique. This goal can be achieved by any means: strikes, throws, sweeps, joint-locks, or weapon attacks. Thus, if you hit your opponent in the head with a club and he falls from the force of the blow, you have – by Afrikan standards – wrestled him.
How did it come to pass that the martial arts throughout the continent of Afrika would adopt this concept? For the answer, let’s look at a story about the Yoruba prophet and master wrestler, Orunmila: Orunmila, who, among other things, was an undefeatable wrestler, traveled the continent of Afrika, teaching and studying spiritual, sociological and martial traditions. Everywhere Orunmila went, he wrestled with – and defeated – the greatest fighters on the continent. Orunmila would pick up a throwing technique in one village; a weapon disarm in another. Orunmila’s opponents would ask him to teach them the techniques he defeated them with and he would teach them, which is in accord with Afrikan customs. Eventually, the martial arts of Afrika began to possess a similar rhythm and to follow the same underlying wrestling strategy.
Another story, which teaches the tenets of Afrikan wrestling, is as follows:
There was a boy named Omobe (“rascal”, “troublesome child”) that had great physical ability and was trained to be a wrestler. As he grew older his wrestling abilities grew stronger and before long he was considered the greatest wrestler in the world. At his birth the local priest/diviner warned his parents to not allow Omobe to climb palm trees. But one day while his parents were away he decided to climb a palm tree any way. From high up he could peer into the spirit world and he noticed that several divinities had gathered for a fantastic wrestling match! Omobe immediately climbed down and made his way to the spirit world to test his own luck amongst a variety of spirits. He beat every opponent: Egungun (ancestors), Oriṣa (Forces of Nature) and all others lost at his hands. Finally he prepared to wrestle Olokun. While he summoned all of his physical strength, Olokun drew on her spiritual powers.
During the match Omobe attempted to throw Olokun to the ground, but instead Olokun ended up firmly attached to Omobe’s head. All attempts at removing Olokun from his head failed and Olokun declared Omobe’s head her permanent abode as a sign of Omobe’s arrogance and disrespect towards the other spirits. When Omobe returned home the local priest/diviner advised him to appease Olokun or die. So for seven days Omobe made sacrifice. On the last day Omobe was initiated as the first Olokun priest. After Omobe’s initiation into the priesthood, Olokun loosened her grip on Omobe’s life.
Amongst Afrikan traditionalists, the palm tree represents the ancestors and the elders. Omobe climbed a palm tree even though he was not supposed to, which means he learned the higher levels of wrestling technique – and gained the ase (power) of the wrestler – through crafty means and then abandoned his teachers (he climbed down from the tree) and used what he had learned to fight those who taught him. This act of arrogance and disrespect led him to fight against the Forces of Nature, themselves. Finally, Olokun, the spirit of unfathomable wisdom and matron spirit of the descendants of Afrikans who were taken captive during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, defeated Omobe. This means, though Omobe had mastered the physical aspect of wrestling, his disrespect of – and disconnection from – the community and its spiritual support prevented him from learning the deeper wisdom found within the study and training of the martial arts.
It was not until Omobe devoted himself to the attaining of deep wisdom and respect for the Afrikan traditions as an Olokun priest, that he was able to save himself from an early death.
This story teaches us that in order to learn the depths of wisdom found in the Afrikan martial arts, reverence of one’s ancestors, respect for one’s elders and adherence to tradition is paramount.
Furthermore, the “deep wisdom” Omobe had to learn in order to redeem himself and to save his life, was the wisdom rooted in respect for, and understanding of, the “Aje”, which is the primal power of the female principle.
It was Olokun, a female Force of Nature, who defeated Omobe and threatened to take his life until Omobe became her priest. Omobe was socialized by Olokun, which is in accord with Aje’s function as a biological, physical and spiritual force of creativity and social and political enforcement.
War, defense and anything associated with Ogun, the Warrior Spirit of the Yoruba, is also associated with Aje.
It is recognition of – and respect for – the power of the female that gives the Afrikan warrior the authority to defend and to take life. An illustration of this is the application of martial arts technique. In the Afrikan martial arts, we say “Footwork drives the technique”. Footwork, or the Element of Air in Afrikan martial arts, is female. It is the power of the female, manifested in footwork, which allows us to effectively apply our martial arts techniques.
THE FIVE PRINCIPLES
The martial arts of Afrika follow Five Basic Principles, which are the principles that govern traditional Afrikan life:
THE FOUR ELEMENTS
In Afrikan societies, there are four elements, which are considered the vital materials found in every living creature on Earth. These four elements are:
Earth – The element of Earth represents the stances in the Afrikan martial arts. Within the Earth Element are Three Foundations:
· Wood – High, narrow stances. Wood stances are extremely mobile and are used for fast, upright fighting and self-defense.
· Stone – Low, wide stances. Stone stances are extremely stable and are used for grappling and for fighting with a weapon.
· Metal – Low, narrow stances. Metal stances are extremely malleable and are used for grappling and ground-fighting.
Air – The element of Air represents the footwork and movements in the Afrikan martial arts. A practitioner of the Afrikan martial arts can move like a gentle breeze, a gale wind, or a whirlwind.
Fire – The element of Fire represents the masculine energy and techniques in the Afrikan martial arts. Fire techniques are forceful, penetrating and explosive.
Water – The element of Water represents the feminine energy and techniques in the Afrikan martial arts. Water techniques are yielding, encircling and deceptively powerful.
Like the Afrikan drum, the techniques in the Afrikan martial arts are polyrhythmic; meaning a practitioner of the Afrikan martial arts seeks to touch his opponent in two or more places at once. An offense and a defense are usually applied simultaneously, or the offense is the defense.
THE UNBROKEN CIRCLE
The principle of The Unbroken Circle is also referred to as “Call and Response”. A practitioner of the Afrikan martial arts seeks to blend with, and adapt to, the actions and rhythms of his partner or opponent, creating a never ending circle. A practitioner of the Afrikan martial arts does not meet force with force, but rather takes his opponent’s force and uses it against him.
THE WIND HAS ONE NAME
The Afrikan martial arts simplify self-defense by dealing not with a specific attack, but with the angle of the attack. The Afrikan martial arts recognize that there are only fifteen angles an opponent can attack from, so instead of being concerned with the infinite variations of attacks, the Afrikan martial arts deal with finite angles. The Afrikan martial arts further simplify combat by teaching that every block is a strike and every strike is a block. Thus, when an Afrikan martial artist learns an offensive technique, he has, in effect learned a defensive technique.
WASTE NO PART OF THE ANIMAL
The Afrikan martial arts stress economy of motion. The idea is: “If it’s there, use it.” Thus, if you strike an assailant in the chin with an uppercut, you should continue that upward motion and hit him in the throat with an upward elbow, because after the punch, your elbow is in perfect position to strike your opponent.
We have looked at the strategy of wrestling, as well as the Five Basic Principles, both of which are inherent in the Afrikan martial arts. Now, let’s examine Egbe Ogun, a comprehensive, synergistic system of the Afrikan martial arts, which is growing increasingly popular in the United States due to its efficient and effective techniques and the dynamic teaching methods of its instructors.
Let’s first look at the meaning of the phrase “Egbe Ogun”:
In the lands of the Yoruba speaking people of Afrika – which encompasses Western Nigeria, as well as parts of Togo and Benin – each city and town has a number of societies called “egbe”. Each egbe preserves the wisdom and technology of various social and ceremonial functions within the community. Each egbe also serves as a craft guild and is closely associated with a force of nature. Farmers belong to Egbe Orisa Oko; market women belong to Egbe Oya; woodcarvers, blacksmiths, surgeons, barbers, hunters, warriors and those who facilitate male passage rites belong to Egbe Ogun.
The Yoruba word for the physical heart – the organ that regulates the flow of blood through the body – is called “okan”, In traditional Afrikan societies, there is a basic concept that what appears in the physical world is always supported by its counterpart in the spiritual world. It is believed that within the okan is a spiritual heart, or power center, which regulates the flow of emotions. This spiritual heart is called “egbe”.
The word egbe is also translated as “society” or “collective”. In this context, the meaning is similar to the English expression: “the heart of the group”.
The dual meaning of the word egbe suggests that the spiritual force that supports the heart of an individual also supports the hearts of the community.
In Egbe Ogun, students are taught to draw spiritual power – which is regulated by the egbe – into the body through various power centers that control the constant flow of energy between self and world. These power centers are called “awuje”. The awuje draw on a form of energy called “ase”, which is the dynamic energy that brings Creation into being.
“Ogun” is the Yoruba word used to describe the forces of nature that have the unique function of removing all obstacles that block the path of physical, mental and spiritual evolution. These forces – Ogun – are regarded as the Warrior Spirit. It is the function of Ogun, as a warrior, to clear away the obstacles that exist along the road towards attaining balanced character (iwa rere). In Egbe Ogun, it is understood that these obstacles may be either internal or external.
Ogun represents aggression, which is an integral part of the dynamics of nature. This aggression is linked to the will to survive, which exists in all species on Earth.
As part of the socialization process, the aggression associated with the Warrior Spirit remains a necessary aspect of survival.
This socialization process is based on the relationship between the forces of nature called Ogun and the forces of nature called “Obatala”, the spirit of peace, laughter, patience, intelligence, cleanliness and morality. It is the function of Obatala to determine when and how the Warrior Spirit is to manifest. Those warriors who maintain their martial arts discipline learn to access – and to suppress – the powers represented by Ogun. The dynamic, aggressive element of Ogun is kept in balance by the principles of justice and equality.
We have examined the concept of “Egbe” and the concept of “Ogun”. Now let’s look deeper into the synergy of these two concepts, manifested as the martial art Egbe Ogun.
In Yorubaland, the word “Ijala”, on one level, means “warrior”. “Ijala” is a contraction of the word “ija”, which means “to fight” and the word “ala”, which means “White Cloth”. The symbol of the white cloth is associated with Obatala, which means “King of the White Cloth”. One of the functions of Obatala is to maintain ethical standards within society. The word “Ijala” suggests that the essence of the warrior is aligned with moral principles and the ideals that are at the foundation of spiritual transformation.
Ijala are also the poems chanted by Warriors in honor of Ogun. These poems (Ijala Ogun) are the source of today’s rap and hip-hop movement.
On a deeper level, Ijala translates to mean “warrior skills guided by White Cloth”. This indicates that the Forces in nature that guide life on Earth form the foundation of the fighting techniques in Egbe Ogun.
In Egbe Ogun, Warriors learn to connect to the inner self (“Ori Inu”). It is through this connection that the student of Egbe Ogun can invoke the forces that give added power (ase) to acquired – and inherent – fighting skills.
The integration of ase (power) and iwa rere (balanced character) is the responsibility and goal of every Afrikan Warrior. It is said of those who achieve this state of oneness with power and character (Ogun and Obatala): “Ijalagun molu”, or “Those who integrate the power of Ogun and Obatala never lose.”