Initiation wrestling in Togo
BY JEAN-BAPTISTE BAT
Evala, an initiation ritual, is a crucial stage in the growth of the young man in the Kabyè ethnic group in Togo, West Africa.
In the Kozah province, 260 miles from Lome, Togo’s capital, a die-hard ancestral tradition attracts huge crowds from all over the world in the month of July every year: the evala traditional wrestling among the Kabyès. This is both a sporting competition and an initiation ritual that stands as a “required passage” in the young man’s growth into adulthood and a full-fledged member of his community.
According to the legend, the evala traditional wrestling among the Kabyès grew out of an ancestral sport practiced with sticks. Competitors used to throw their opponents on the ground using a baton until the day the batons fell off the hands of two competitors who decided to finish it up by grabbing each other vigorously. Thus was born evala which, over the years, became an exercise aimed at preparing the young Kabyè man physically and mentally and to open for him the door to adulthood.
The young Kabyè man does not become a member of his community unless he goes through an initiation ritual. “This is a crucial stage, among others, in a long process that forges, shapes and models the individual in his preparation for adult-age responsibilities,” says Kao Blanzoua, a journalist-anthropologist and a Kabyè studies expert. “One is not born an evalon (the singular for evala), one becomes it. To do so, one has to go through the initiation process,” he stresses.
Among the Kabyès, the young man’s initiation is in two stages that cover the teenage and the adult age. It is a three-year apprenticeship during which the evalon has to test his endurance by wrestling with his peers during the rainy season, with the championships organized at the neighborhood level, then at the village level, and finally among villages.
A sporting competition
As a sport, the evala wrestling helps test the physical strength, the endurance and the agility of the initiated over a one-week time span. On the wrestling field, each team forms several rows of wrestlers, with the best in the front row. The most valuable ones are energized by the crowd of fans gathered around the arenas cheering them to the tune of drums, flutes and other instruments.
So this is how the Kabyè young man shows his ability to defend his community by beating his opponent, and, this being a sport after all, his ability to remain dignified in defeat.
Dog meat consumption, the evala’s secret to endurance and agility
The consumption of dog meat is an important aspect in the course of the three-year initiation process, the dog being considered cunning, enduring, courageous, smart and faithful, all of which qualities the evalon needs to be able to defeat his opponents during the fights.
During the week preceding the competition, the evala get ready by going in isolation and by stuffing themselves with dog meat. They refrain from shaking hands with girls and from having sex, in an effort to keep their physical and psychological potentials to the maximum. After the three-year initiation, the evala must never eat dog meat again.
The doorway to adulthood
Beyond the tough physical confrontations, the formidable shock of muscles flexing and unflexing in the arenas to the rhythm of the fans’ cheers, the young evalon earns via wrestling his key to the adult class where he can enjoy several privileges. In addition to the respect of his community, “he now has the right to consult a witchcraft doctor in case of a loved one’s sickness; to take up arms to defend the community in case of enemy’s attack; to get married and raise a family, or, when he dies, to be buried in an adult’s tomb, which is different from the children’s,” says Blanzoua, the Kabyè studies expert quoted earlier.
And the tradition goes universal
The Kabyè people’s evala initiation wrestling has now grown larger than a meeting among natives of the Kozah area. It is now an annual event that attracts a diverse crowd, an expression of the quest to preserve the cultural tradition, and, at the same time, a business opportunity, given the many tourists that attend it.
Initially practiced in the nine Kabyè districts, the evala wrestling has crossed the borders of the Kozah province. The Yaka district in the Doufelgou province also practices it now, not to mention at least 13 other districts — Lama, Pya, Tchitchao, Yadè, Bohou, Kouméa, Sarakawa, Landa, Djamdè, Yaka, Tcharè, Soumdina and Lassa.
To some, this expansion signals a guarantee for the survival of the practice, while others feel that the time has probably come to consider modernizing this wrestling so it can become professional, thereby opening it to other cultures.
In any case, if you plan to spend your vacation in Togo, you would be well advised to come in the month of July and head to the Kara region where you can enjoy thrilling moments.