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African Martial Arts: Symbol of Culture, Spirituality, and Liberation

Michael D. Ford

Northern Illinois University



For years, martial arts have been regarded as a phenomenon that has its roots in Asia and the

Pacific. But a further analysis of martial art traditions around the globe began to show a different

picture. Anthropologists and archaeologists have found that Africa is home to martial traditions

that pre-date Asian arts by thousands of years. The various martial traditions from the diverse

cultures of Africa were more than just techniques used to defeat an opponent. The arts were used

as rites of passage for youth. They were also used in the invocation of the tribal deities and in

healing practices. Indeed, martial arts have been a part of the African landscape since the dawn

of the human race. These arts reflect our understanding of the human spirit and how we relate to

the Creator and the universe.


African Martial Arts: Symbol of Culture, Spirituality, and Liberation

Montu: The Earliest Martial Art

Five-thousand years into the remote past, Kemet (Egypt) was the one of the most

advanced nations on the earth. The engineering feats such as the Pyramids and the Sphinx testify

to Egyptian creativity and understanding of the principles of geometry and trigonometry before

the Greeks. Among the noble professions, the warrior class was held in very high esteem. The

peace of Egypt depended on fighters who were trained in lethal arts that would make them

victorious of their enemies. The art was known as Montu.

During the time of the Old Kingdom (2649-2150 B.C.), the tomb of the Egyptian scribe

Ptahotep shows warriors engaged in empty hand combat. This is one of the earliest records we

have of Africans engaged in martial training. By Egypt’s 11th dynasty, Thebes became the center

of worship for the deity known as Montu. The scribes and priests of Montu, who is depicted as a

hybrid deity that had the falcon head of Heru and the solar disk of Ra (Sun) above it along with

the feather plumes of Amun, were not just intellectuals and reverends, they were skilled warriors

(Faraji, 2004). What must be understood is that the fighting art itself is a manifestation of the

veneration of Montu and the cosmic principles the deity embodies. Montu, along with the

pantheon of Egyptian gods called “Neturu” are best understood as universal principles that are

symbolized in the form of the various supernatural beings imaged in the Medu Neter also known

as hieroglyphs.

The priest/warrior/scholar of ancient Egypt recognized that his art is a reflection of the

spirit and its connection to the realm of the gods. He sought to harmonize his spirit, mind, and

body through ritual prayer, chanting and eventually manifesting that harmony though his

combative arts. This was a way of self-cultivation that brings all things into balance in the life of

the Montu warrior. They were servants of Montu in body, mind, and soul. In his book “Montu

Scholar: The Rebirth of Ancient Egyptian & Nubian Martial Arts-The Ausar Form”, Dr. Salim

Faraji (2004) describes the titles as roles of the Montu warriors and how they relate to the

political culture of Egypt: “In classical Nile Valley culture, some general titles for the priests

were hem neter (servants of God) and Kheri Heb (master of texts and incantations). The scholar

or scribe was called an Esba and the warrior, Ahati, (the fighter).” Dr. Faraji also writes:

“Classical Nile Valley culture warfare, military science, and martial culture was viewed as a vital

part of Divine manifestation in the world…an inherent part of the cosmos and human life.” This

shows that the martial practice of ancient Egypt was not solely about the manipulation of joints

and destruction of the human body by kicks, throws and punches, but the cultivation of self and

harmonizing with the Creator and the universe and finding our place within the cosmic schema.

Given the historical and archaeological evidence of the Montu arts, it is safe to say that indeed

martial arts did not start in Asia but in Africa. Therefore, it is right and proper to ascribe the

cultivation of self and linking the war arts as a representation of the Divine to African people.

Knights of the Sahel: Armored Warriors of Islam

Almost three-thousand years after the Egyptian empire, the Islamic religion established itself in

much of East and North Africa. During the Middle Ages (5th-15th century) in West Africa, the

empire of Mali controlled many of the trade routes that came into the region from East Africa. It

was during this time that the rulers of Mali maintained a standing military that would respond to

any threats in the region. The professional soldiers that protected the region were called “Asakir”

which meant “professional soldier” (D. Lange, 1984). Modern historians have referred to the

Asakir as the Knights of Bornu. Not much is known about their specific war training but it is

known that they were heavily armored horsemen that rivaled the knights of Europe. They wore a

form of chain mail armor and were highly skilled with the spear and sword. They were a match

for any threat that would invade the lands, trade routes and the Caliphs they protected.

Why is this important to know? What does this mean from an African perspective? The West

has used the imagery of the knights of Europe as the model for manhood, chivalry and bravery.

The armored knights fought for “king and country” as Europe slowly began to expand its

economic borders in the West and, eventually, to the shores of West Africa. This image of the

horse mounted warrior in shiny armor permeates much of Western folklore that boys are told

about at a young age. African boys in America had no images of Black men who wore armor and

rode into battle for their people. Those images were seemingly reserved only for children of

European descent. Even Asian children had tales of samurai and ninja from Japanese folklore,

the warrior priests of the Shaolin Temple, and the mystic warriors of Wudang Mountain in China.

African children also need to know that they also have a connection to mounted warriors of old

and that people who looked like them rode for glory in ancient times.

The Dahomey Amazons

When it comes to the war arts, most people assume that it is only men who participate in

martial training and warfare. History says otherwise. From the 17th to 19th century, Dahomey,

now modern day Benin, was the home to of the fiercest armies in world. Forty percent of that

army were women. The European explorers who encountered them called them “Amazons”

because they were a breed of warriors that invoked the images of the legend of the Amazon

women of ancient Greece. When the kingdom of Dahomey was formed in the early 17th century,

a standing army was created that used women as the king’s guard. These women were built in

such a way as to be almost indistinguishable from the men. (Jones, D. E. (Ed.). 2002). A 19th

century Catholic priest by the name of Father Borghero is said to have witnessed the female

warriors in one of their training modes. Author Stanely B. Alpern describes what Father

Borghero witnessed: “Two or three hundred of them carried giant straight edged razors folded

into wooden handles.” (Alpern, 1998). Apparently, these razors were large enough to literally

slice a man in two! Their skill in warfare was unquestionable as well as their fierce loyalty to

their king.

The training of the women warriors was just as grueling as it was for the men. They went

through regimens that included calisthenics, use of firearms, blades, bows, and hand to hand

combat. It was written that these exercises lasted for days. This type of training would be

reminiscent of “Hell Week” that the U.S. Navy S.E.A.L.S. are known for. From a European

perspective, the idea of women fighters that rivaling males is disdainful, especially if the soldiers

are African. To the chagrin of the British and French male soldiers, who had the unfortunate

experience of being defeated by the Dahomeyan women, many male soldiers had a modicum of

respect for these so-called “savages”. One of the training evolutions Amazon recruits had to

endure was that of deadening the mind to the cruelty of warfare. It was a form of insensitivity

training to get one used to bloodshed so that the young warrior would not freeze up or break

down in battle. An account was written about a king named Kpengla that gave swords to five of

his “wives” known as “ahosi”, and made he them cut off the heads of five women captured in

battle (Alpern, 1998). This was the ultimate display of loyalty to their sovereign and their sisters

and brothers in battle. What can we take from this? From the African view, the fact of women

participating in the guarding of their king and their fierceness in battle was a picture of the

duality of nature, embracing both male and female identities. It was a symbol of completeness,

unlike the European view that believes only men are worthy of fighting and dying for their

people and their principles.

Capoeira: The Sacred Circle and the Maafa

When the people of Kongo and Angola were stolen and brought to what would become

South America, the war arts that had been practiced for centuries came along with them. The art

of Kipura (incorrectly called Capoeira by the Portuguese), it was also known as N’golo. Both

terms can be used interchangeably. N’golo was far more than a war art. It was a spiritual ritual

that sought to connect to the realm of the ancestors and gain power in combat (Desch-Obi, 2005).

The war art of N’golo consisted of very acrobatic moves which included leg sweeps and kicks

that could change direction when the attacker executed the moves. As the warrior stayed in

constant motion, this made it very difficult for the warrior to be hit by arrows or spears. In

modern defensive tactics, “blading” is a way to stand so that the torso is facing away from an

assailant. The surface area is smaller so the defender is much harder to hit, and the vital organs

are better protected. In N’golo, constant motion is the rule.

The spinning kicks, sweeps, and punches were more than just techniques. There was a

spiritual aspect to it that the outsider would not know unless they were initiates into the various

“secret societies”. One such society, called the Imbangala, were the ancestors of the modern day

N’golo fighters. T.J. Desch-Obi describes the Imbangala initiates and the symbols of ritual

power: “…ancestors of the contemporary engolo practitioners, were bound by initiation into a

warrior cult centered around a magical ointment called maji a samba, believed to have been

made from human fat. Warriors could enter this society through initiation rites in which the

initiates were trained into the martial culture of the group.” (Desch-Obi, 2005). During

enslavement in South America, the Angolans managed to keep their art and ritual, but at a cost.

As Roman Catholicism was the de facto religion in the Portuguese slave colonies, the slaves

adapted some of the Catholic rituals into their war rituals. It was no longer a “pure” African

ritual, but one adapted to the new situation the enslaved Angolans found themselves in. The war

art of N’golo itself also had to be adapted to the new world. When the slave masters saw the

fighting spirit and power of the Angolan’s, the practice of N’golo was banned upon pain of

death. As a result, the Angolan’s disguised their war art as a dance that persists to this day. The

slave masters did not mind seeing their slaves entertain themselves, but when slave rebellions

occurred, the dance the slave masters once laughed at became a deadly weapon that took many

of the slaver’s lives.

The powerful, circular “dance”, kicks, and sweeps were far more than just attack and

defense techniques. They were symbols of the divine; a link between the spirit world and the

material one. The N’golo warriors would try to tap into the power of their ancestors by being in

the ontanga, the circle of warriors that move in a counter-clockwise motion. The circle

movement is a representation of the bisected circular symbol in Bakongo cosmology (Desch-

Obi, 2005). The circle is divided into four sections by what is called the “yowa cross”, with each

point representing part of the Bakongo understanding of their relationship with the Universe. The

horizontal bisection represents the “kalunga” line, the median between the realm of man and the

realm of the spirit world, while the circles that were drawn on the outside of the main circle

represented the movement of the Sun (Desch-Obi, 2005) Once in the circle, the fighters moved

within it from right to left. They felt that by moving within that shape, they could invoke the

powers of the spirit world to aid them in defeating their enemies. This was the spiritual root of

modern day Capoeira.

In the American South, specifically, the Sea Islands off the cost of South Carolina,

“Knocking and Kicking” became part of the spiritual culture of the slaves who accepted

Christianity. As the Angolans did with N’golo, so did the Christianized slaves do with Knocking

and Kicking. Since many of the Sea Island slaves were of Kongolese descent, it’s not surprising

that the Bakongo cosmogram found its way into the martial and spiritual worship styles of the

African Christians. Although dancing was frowned upon by the Sea Island African Christians,

the “ring shout” was a part of their worship. People would leap, kick, and spin as their ancestors

did, but they attributed it to “gettin’ happy” in the Holy Spirit (Desch-Obi, 2005). Despite our

captivity, our ancestors were able to overcome and adapt their ancestral martial practices to fit

their present reality. The spiritual and physical power which these martial rituals held were the

scourge of many a plantation and slave master throughout the time of the Maafa.

Power to the People: Neo African Martial Arts and the Liberation Movement

The 1950’s and 60’s saw the birth of a new movement that would change the American

social, political, and economic landscape in a way that had not been seen since the Civil War.

African-Diasporans were beginning to assert their humanity in such a way as to prompt a

response from the likes of the FBI and other clandestine agencies of the United States. As groups

like the Black Panthers, UNIA, Deacons for Defense, and others started to form, many of them

realized that if they were to be successful, combat training would be necessary. Terrorist groups

like the Ku Klux Klan committed acts of savagery against African people for one hundred years

at this point. Consequently, Black revolutionary groups began to train because they knew that

law enforcement would not be of any help, as many in law enforcement sympathized with the

KKK. By the late 60’s and early 70’s, Black men and women were routinely training in Asian

arts such as Karate, Judo, Kung-Fu, Ju-Jitsu, and the like.

As the mantras of “Black power!” and “Black is beautiful!” became almost ubiquitous

among the Black youth, two men who had previously trained in Asian arts designed an entire

system that would be based in Pan-African ideologies and concepts. The two men, Shaha Maasi

and Nganga Tola Naa, created the Kupigana Ngumi system of self-defense. “Kupigana” and

“Ngumi” are derived from the Ki-Swahili words meaning “Method of combat” and “extension of

the fist”. Together, the simplified meaning is the “Art of self-defense” (Tyehimba, 1994).

Kupigana Ngumi is a paradigm shift in terms of how Black people perceive martial arts and how

it attempts to raise Black consciousness within the Black community. Shaha Massi explains his

vision of the Kupigana Ngumi system: “From its inception in the late 1960’s, Kupigana-Ngumi

was never meant to be a form of “Black Karate” as claimed by some, who by the way, were not

involved in the work and struggle of those times to raise the consciousness of Black People. Nor

was it intended as a vehicle for self-aggrandizement.” (Maasi, S, 1967). He also states:”

…Kupigana-Ngumi was devised as a tool to awaken consciousness! A means of displaying self-

determination (Kujichagalia). A way or path to learn of, gain appreciation of, and practice those

elements of African Culture found throughout the African Diaspora.” (Maasi, S, 1967).

In the wake of the founding of what is termed “Neo-African” martial arts, other systems

evolved from already known arts that were present in America. In the American penal system,

Black people who were jailed began to develop an art that is used to help defend themselves

against the predators of the prison. This system is known by many names “52”, “That Thang”,

“Stato”, “Skull and Bones”, and the most famous name that those inside the prison system and

those on the street known as “Jailhouse Rock”. Jailhouse Rock is the child of American boxing

and street fighting. The form uses flashy blocks and strikes with names like “Butterflies”,

“Birds”, “skull and bones”, peek-a-boos”. These techniques are designed for fighting in close

quarters as jail cells are normally 6ft by 6ft cages, so long kicks and strikes are impractical in

such small spaces. This adaptation represents how Africans used their environment and martial

spirit to deal with the adverse situations that we find ourselves in.

From the 1980’s to today, African martial arts have adapted ancient African cosmology and

religious concepts and brought them into a martial arts form for the 21st century. Among those

who stand out is Balogun Ojetade Abeegunde, who is an Ifa priest teaching African martial art

concepts based upon the Yoruba orisha Ogun. Balogun teaches that when one practices this art,

one becomes part of a community with a common thought. These “collectives” are called

“egbe”. He describes it thus: “In traditional African 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 (physical heart), is a spiritual heart or power center, which

regulates the flow of emotions. This spiritual heart is called “egbe” (Abeegunde, 2008). His

students learn that when they learn a block, strike, or throw, it flows from the egbe.


As we have seen, martial arts has been part of the African cultural landscape since the beginning.

Our arts have been designed not only to defend ourselves against man and nature, but as a form

of self-cultivation and expression of “worship” of the Creator and the cosmos. The symbolism of

N’golo, the fierceness of the Dahomey Amazons, the consciousness transforming art of

Kupigana Ngumi, and the street wise Jail House Rock are all a testament to our understanding of

spirit and how we adapt to ever changing circumstances. The hell of the Maafa our ancestors

were forced to endure did not conquer our spirit. Those who colonized Africa were met with

martial forces they had not encountered before and many European lives were taken by those

who understood the universal principles of the spirit and how to apply them in warfare. This is

our legacy. This is what our children, and their children’s children need to be taught so they will

remember who they are and how we survived.



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