The first Black History Month tribute to ancient African women focused on the women of ancient Egypt. While much has been written about that empire, there were numerous empires throughout the continent that are often overlooked. Throughout these kingdoms and empires women thrived and participated in physical activities. While there is little evidence to support the idea that the women of those times and places were athletes in the sense that we use the word today, there is credible evidence that these women favored and took care to maintain healthy physiques by engaging in physically strenuous activities. As we will see, long before the WTA had the idea, these women and their male counterparts fully embraced the idea that women too could be strong. Let’s take look at some of the “sports” of choice for those strong African women who lived outside of the Egyptian empire.
While even today wrestling is frequently associated with men and boys, there were a number of ancient African groups whose women skillfully engaged in wrestling. For instance, prior to European influence, Igbo women regularly participated in wrestling. According to Chief Gabriel Anigo Agwo, Igbo women and girls primarily engaged in wrestling against one another on four separate occasions: during the maize harvest, at the beginning of the dry season festival (only for newly married women), during the moonlight plays, and during Eke market days (for select groups). The bouts allowed women and girls to display their physical prowess, settle disputes, be punished for indecency and disrespect, and to have fun. Men and boys often served as umpires and cheerleaders during the matches, encouraging and supporting their wives’, mothers’ and sisters’ participation.
In the south-central portion of the Sahara the women of the Kel Faduy also took great pleasure in wrestling. Women wrestled as a part of a ritual ceremony that took place after the birth of a firstborn child. The wrestling celebrated the mother’s coming of age and the naming of the newborn. Rather than the organized wrestling matches of the Igbo, the Kel Faduy engaged in a wild free-for-all that allowed multiple matches take place at once and potentially placed women against girls more than half their age. The intense but fun-spirited matches reaffirmed women’s physical prowess and were seen as self-serving for the women, not as mere entertainment for the men. The matches provided a bit of a workout while boosting participants’ self-esteem.
In what is now South Africa, the San women did not participate in wrestling but chose ball games. One such ball game involved about 10 to 20 girls lining up in two separate lines (5-10 in each line) about 30 to 40 feet apart. A woman at the beginning of the line would toss a ball under her leg to the woman standing directly across from her. That woman would in turn do the same, only tossing the ball to the woman standing directly next to the woman who just through the ball to her. That would continue until the ball made it to the end of the line. While the game was not particularly strenuous, it was fun and promoted cooperation and dexterity among the women.
Whether through wrestling or ball games, African women of past days engaged in sport, and they did so willingly, proudly and in front of their male counterparts who supported their efforts. Their participation wasn’t something that took away from their femininity, but added to it. A strong, athletic woman was one to be admired, esteemed and desired, not cast out or quieted. She supported and cooperated with her fellow woman, but was not afraid of friendly (and sometimes not so friendly) competition. It is as if African cultures of the past realized that strong women didn’t make the men of their groups weaker, but made the entire unit stronger. Such a wonderful philosophy, right? It seems to me that the WTA’s Strong is Beautiful campaign quite possibly could have had it’s roots in Africa…but don’t tell them I said that.
Sports and Games of the Ancients by Steve Craig