Blood drips. Sun blazes down the yellow scorched field. There’s a musk that emanates and permeates throughout. The sounds of sticks making brutal contact and the whipping of misses reverberate in the air. Children watching wince at every slash while other tribe combatants size up their enemy.
As I look onwards, I am still at awe that I’m part of the circle and watching what I’m seeing. As if straight out of a National Geographic magazine, this rare event is something that most people will never be able to see in their lifetime.
They call it Donga.
Donga is a Mursi tribe stick fighting tournament that only happens once a year. Every local village sends their top male fighters to an undisclosed location once a year for village honour.
Why you ask? As you spend more time in the villages and get to know their culture, you realize how deeply rooted honour really is. Representing your own village is these men’s chance for glory and status. Champions have a legitimate chance to become chief and to marry well.
Somehow we happened to be at the right place at the right time.
This is the story of how it all happened…
Day 4 of my trip through Omo Valley started off with me stepping out of my tent to find Chief Nogali lying comfortably on animal skin with AK-47 within arms length. As his guests, he takes security quite seriously.
The sun was barely creeping up behind the Mursi tribe huts and I could hear the slow ringings of cowbells. Just your typical day right?
The morning was the type of unusual that you come to expect from Ethiopia. I set up my tripod to take sunrise photos and eventually one male tribesman came by to see what I was up to. He was fascinated with the camera and my GoPro. It was quite the comedy as I tried in vain to explain what I was doing in various made up hand signals and exaggerated enunciations. All of this eventually lead to the realization that the reason why he kept showing me five fingers and pointing to himself was because he really just wanted 5 Birr for photos. That is the reality of being a tourist here. I played ignorant and continued with my shooting.
Once everyone was up, we spent the morning packing, eating some morning fruit, and watching the men of the tribe going about their morning cattle herding routine. Little kids were walking around unclothed. Women made their way over to our camp to say hello to the guides and find out if there were any water bottles they could take from us. Baby lambs were causing a ruckus.
We loaded the 4×4 and we set off to head back into the town of Turmi with our friendly Chief Nogali in tow. Apparently he needed to go to town to buy some supplies. I remember remarking how complete of a transformation he made going from being scarcely clothed to being a modern Ethiopian in jeans, t-shirt, and hat.
As we rumbled over the unpaved roads, leaving a wake of sand and dust, we started passing by men in war paint and coated with sand all over their body, with peculiar clothing, and armed with a long wooden stick walking the other way. We passed one and then two and the stream kept coming. I knew there must’ve been something going on.
Intense debate started between our guides and Chief Nogali. At this point we didn’t know what was going on but we soon found out about Donga. We pulled over to discuss and the situation was this. The guides had planned for us to visit a market and another tribe but this once a year Donga tournament would put a dent into those plans and would also cost extra money. With the full story in our hands, it was a no brainer what we wanted to do.
Fate was on our side because with the help of Chief Nogali whom he himself was a two time champion of Donga, he guided our driver, Billy, back around the way we came. Suddenly we stopped. At first I wasn’t sure why but as we watched a few warriors disappear in the thick African bush, I knew where we were headed.
Well at least I thought I did. Under the sweltering heat, we marched through grassy lands and every so often a fighter would pass us.
Wearing shorts turned out to be a big mistake on this day. Halfway through this good 40 minute hike, we had to navigate through thorny bushes. My clumsy self wasn’t able to stay away and ended up getting my left ankle cut. I bandaged myself quickly but it wouldn’t hold and as we continued to make our way, my paranoia of disease and infection started to take hold.
We passed through a small village along the way where Nogali seemed to know everyone. We kept marching forward seemingly to nowhere. Then like an oasis in the middle of the desert, we could see a large grouping of bodies by the trees and could hear the faint sound of a whistle.
Let’s be clear though, we were still officially in the middle of nowhere. The reason for the secrecy is that this type of fighting is outlawed by the government.
Trying not to be distracted by my cut and fumbling between my GoPro and my camera, I started snapping and taking in what I could. I remember it being all too fast to follow. There were warriors gearing up in one corner and in another corner there was the intense clashing of sticks. Fighting would start. Whistles would blow. Bells would jingle. The crowd cheered on. Do I record? Do I take photos?
All of a sudden there seemed to be some commotion coming from the open area beyond the tree line and everyone started to flock over. One arena closed and another opened.
Intense fighting ensued as everyone seemed to want to get into the action. Even after some explanation, it didn’t look like there was a whole lot of logic to the fighting. Stoppages would happen after every 30 seconds. The flow of the fighting would climb to a crescendo and then abruptly stop.
What I figured out was this. All fighting that took place was one on one with a tag team of sorts happening with each village having their team of representatives. With no limits to the armour except one’s access to random recyclables and twisted up fabrics, the two warriors would fight in the ring. Like a boxing match, there would be a sizing up of the opponent and stick-type jabs before both warriors went all in. Intensity would climax to a point until someone was hit in some sort of off limits area or if armour started to unravel. At this point the referee would blow the whistle and separate the two fighters. Fellow tribe mates would rush out to assist before resuming fighting. This went on and on.
What I never figured out was how a winner was ever declared especially for those evenly played matches nor how the next matchup was determined. Of course we also didn’t stay long enough to find out how they determined a final champion.
The brutality of the fighting was all too apparent as I spotted Mursi tribe members with deep gashes on their head where the stick’s blunt end made contact. You couldn’t help but wince every time there was a clap of lightning as one fighter made contact on his opponent. There weren’t any deaths while we were watching but with the way that they were going at each other, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were any by the end of the tournament.
As the morning went on, local women and children started to come in from another entryway into the field. Word had spread out.
As if that wasn’t enough to keep all my senses occupied, there were two rabid dogs in the crowd. Every once in awhile I would hear their aggressive gnarling. With a cut to deal with, I really didn’t want to get rabies. I tried my best to stay away but I knew that if it was meant to happen there wasn’t much I could do.
Our driver and second guide eventually found a closer route around the other side of the field and came with lunch in the form of injera in a black plastic bag. I ate what I could.
There was quite the dramatic entrance of a group of new challenges from another village. The other tribes took notice there was almost a warring of words in the form of chanting and dancing.
The entertainment wasn’t limited to just the fighting. Towards the end of our time there, a large group of tourists walked in but just as face as they came in, they left equally as fast. It turned out that they were also passing by and found out about the tournament. Their guide tried to arrange for admission at a low price (probably because it wasn’t included in their tour package) but was strongly refused by one of the chiefs and subsequently told to leave.
Soaked in sweat, we eventually decided to call it quits and head back to our car. At this point, the guides said their goodbyes. That’s when one of the tribe members spoke up and let us know that one of the fighters was dangerously injured. One man had sustained severe head trauma and looked to have a crack in his skull. They were looking to us for medicine. We walked back to the car and I offered my gauze, Advil and bandages. We never found out what happened to him.
This was truly one of the most special moments in travel, this is one of those things that you really have to see and when you have time to reflect on it, you still can’t believe you beat the odds to be part of.
How Do You Plan For Donga?
So the question I’m sure you have is how do you plan a trip around this. The simple answer is that you don’t. The best you can do is talk to your Ethiopian guides while you’re planning to see if they have any inklings of when it might be.
If you’re curious, we worked with Solomon Mulugeta of Tour Ethiopia (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Melak Tadesse (email@example.com). I will have a much more in-depth review of our Omo Valley trip in an upcoming article.
Oh and in case you’re wondering, my cut ended up healing fine and I did not get rabies. I do however recommend wearing long pants.