Traditional and Popular Games and Sports in Kenya & South Africa

Traditional Kenya sports: Bullfighting is one of the most popular traditional sports in Kenya

This post is about sports in Kenya & South Africa. Let’s begin with traditional games and sports in Kenya.

4 Traditional Kenya Sports

Some of the traditional games and sports in Kenya since antiquity have included wrestling, racing exercises, stick fights, hunting (using spears and arrows), board games, bull fights and dances.

Read on to find out more about traditional games and sports in Kenya.

Traditional Games and Sports in Kenya #1. Bullfighting in Kenya

Bullfighting is prevalent among the Luhya community of western Kenya.

The sport was originally practiced to mark key events in the community, such as funerals.

However, the sport has evolved to become more competitive, and is a source of income on occasion.

The lovers of this sport have vowed to ensure that this treasured traditional sport lives on.

Kenyan bull owners have formed an association, and this has led to the establishment of a stadium in Ikolomani constituency for bullfighting called Malinya Stadium.

Bullfighting events are usually held on Saturdays and public holidays.

The bulls that participate in the fights are usually prepared by keeping them in zero-grazing situations and isolating them from other cattle so that they can become wild.

They are also given a balanced diet.

On the eve of a bullfighting event in western Kenya, the competing bulls are usually given a local brew known as busaa so that they become aggressive during the bullfight.

An image of bulls fighting Kenya

Traditional Games in Kenya #2: Board Games (Bao)

Bao is an ancient mancala board game played by the Swahili community in Kenya and Tanzania.

Bao is the Swahili word for board or board game.

A person who masters bao well is referred to as bingwa (master) or fundi (technician).

Bao is still popular today at the Kenyan coast, especially in Lamu, where bao tournaments are held regularly.

These bao tournaments may not be popular enough to get listed on platforms such as Betway, but they attract considerable attention.

Bao usually attracts scholars because of the strategic and complex thinking required to win the game.

Scholars of disciplines such as psychology, complexity theory, and game theory are fascinated by bao.

Kenyan communities, other than the Swahili, also have their own versions of bao, including the Turkana, Luhya, Luo, and Samburu.

Men playing Bao in Lamu

Traditional Games and Sports in Kenya #3. Wrestling (Enyameni, Ndikano)

A number of communities in Kenya practice traditional wrestling, including the Abagusii where it is known as enyameni and the Ameru where it is called ndikano.

Generally, these games feature two strong (preferably married) men, aged between 25 and 45 years.

These men battle it out in an open field with a charged crowd cheering them on.

Winning the game requires a combination of both strength and strategy. He who fells his opponent is declared the winner.

These traditional forms of wrestling risk losing their significance as people shift their interest towards foreign forms of wrestling.

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Traditional Sports in Kenya #4. Stick Fights

You will find some sort of stick fighting among several different communities in Kenya, especially herding ones.

Stick fighting Pokot Kenya
Two Pokot boys stick fighting

The sport is also very popular in Lamu on the Kenyan coast.

If you visit Lamu, you will often find crowds enjoying a stick fight at the waterfront.

This form of stick fighting is believed to have originated from Oman, which has historical ties with Lamu that stretch back more than a century.

Final Thoughts on Traditional Kenyan Sports

Despite the influence of western culture and modern sports, Kenyan communities seem to be fighting hard to safeguard their heritage, including indigenous sports.

Even though these sports are not popular on platforms such as Betway, they remain an important cultural treasure.

If you travel to remote villages in Kenya, you will still find locals taking part in these beloved traditional sports.

Samburu Warrior Jumping

The Most Popular Sport in Kenya

Football (soccer) is the most popular sport in Kenya, although Kenya’s national soccer team, the Harambee Stars, has had little international success.

The Most Popular Sport in South Africa

The three most popular sports in South Africa are football, rugby, and cricket.

Other Kenya Popular Sports

Basketball, volleyball, and netball are also popular sports in Kenya.

Kenya is making a name for itself in rugby union. Rugby is popular in Kenya especially with the annual Safari Sevens tournament.

The Kenya sevens team ranked 12th in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series for the 2020 season.

Cricket is another popular sport in Kenya. In fact, it’s the most successful team sport in Kenya.

Kenya has competed in the Cricket World Cup since 1996. Since then, they have played in five Cricket World Cups from 1996 to 2011, with their best result being a semi-final appearance at the 2003 Cricket World Cup in Southern Africa.

The Kenya cricket team also won the inaugural World Cricket League Division 1 hosted in Nairobi and participated in the World T20.

Popular Sports in Kenya: Baseball

The Baseball Federation of Kenya (BFK) and Kenya Little League (KLL) have been promoting baseball in Kenya since 1992 and 2010 respectively.

The sport was flourishing in the ’90s before slowing down in the 2000s.

When it comes to baseball, Kenya has previously participated in the All Africa Games–and is currently ranked 5th on the continent–the Kenko games in Zambia, and The World Children’s Baseball Fair in Japan (4 times).

Kenya hosted the World Cup Baseball U18 Africa Qualifiers at the Meru University of Science and Technology (MUST) in December 2014.

Baseball is popular in Nairobi, Meru, Migori and Makueni.

It is played in both primary and secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities led by MUST.

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Swimming and softball are also popular sports in Kenya.

Kenya National Sport / National Sport of Kenya

Kenya does not have a specific national sport, though as mentioned above, football is the most popular sport in the country.

Traditional Sports in South Africa

The three most popular mainstream sports in South Africa today are football, rugby, and cricket.

South Africa has many traditional sports too, though. Here are a few.

Traditional African Sports, South Africa #1: Dibeke

Dibeke (also called Nikkies, Skaloulo and Kimberley Jim) is a multi-running ball game played with two teams of 12 players. The teams take turns to attack and defend. Individual attackers are called and must kick the ball beyond the centre lines towards the attackers’ box. Watch a game of Dibeke in the video below.

2.Boers Folk Wrestling

The Boers, or Afrikaners, are South African people of Dutch, Flemish, German and French (Huguenot) descent.

Usually the Boers folk wrestling matches along with other rustic sports (the Boeresport) like climbing the slippery pole, foot racing, sack race, leaping, three-legged race, running with an egg in the spoon, tug of war, arm wrestling, archery, spit sheep manure, stick fighting and etc. were played on the annually held festival called the Farmers’ Day (the Boeredag).

A 1902 newspaper article had this to say about Boers wrestling: “Amongst the young Boers wrestling is exceedingly popular. The champion wrestler of a district is as much thought of as is his confrere in the North of England. Such a man can always have the pick of the prettiest girls in the district for a wife.”

Wrestling customs of the Boers were of Dutch/Flemish origin.

The wrestling styles (worstelen, wrestling, or werpen/gooien, throwing) of Dutch and Flemish people existed in two distinctive modes: the standing wrestling for a throw and the up and down wrestling for taking someone down and overcoming him on the ground/keeping him underneath.

Among the wrestling techniques used by the Dutch/Flemish farmers were aanklampen (catching holds) and vasthaken (hooking legs). Plukharen (grasping hair) as well as any other non-wrestling or deliberately brutal acts were strictly prohibited during the wrestling contests.

The folk wrestling styles of Boers were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they slowly became extinct after the introduction of traditional British wrestling styles to South Africa in the early 1900s.

Nowadays the international/Olympic styles of wrestling (namely Greco-Roman and freestyle) are the only wrestling styles practiced in South Africa.

3. Musangwe

Musangwe is a bare knuckle annual boxing competition. Combatants range from 9 years old to 90 years old.

The fighters are split into different groups: Mambibi is for young boys 9-12. Next is Rovhasize or Rova for teenagers 13-18. These groups compete early in the morning until it gets later and it’s time for the groups of people to come to see.

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The fighters aged 18 and over are called, “Ngwenya” or Crocodiles. Fighters aged 35-45 years are called the “Masters” and those over 45 are referred to as “Legends”.

Rivals are separated according to the side of the Lundevine River on which they reside.

Northerners are always paired with Southerners in fights. Winning is done if a fighter bleeds, gets knocked out, or surrenders.

Looking like regular boxing, the fist fighting escalates into unnatural, uncontrollable, and unpredictable pugilism.

Musangwe also allows head butting, knees, and clinching. Fighting a knocked down opponent is against the rules, but people have been known to stomp on their opponent and taunt them to gain crowd support.

Once a downed competitor regains his composure the fighting starts back up.

When a fighter wants to admit defeat, he raises both hands in the air in surrender. Winning the fights doesn’t normally offer any money or a reward. Fighters choose to participate in Musangwe because it feels empowering.

4. Intonga

Like in Kenya, South Africa also has traditional forms of stick fighting. One such form is called Intonga. Watch an Intonga fight below.

5. Isinaphakade Samathongo

The Isinaphakade Samathongo is an esoteric ancestral combat sport practiced by the Zulus and the Xhosa in South Africa. This system emphasizes powerful combat techniques and an ethical philosophy. It is used as an initiation to the caste of priest-warriors of the two tribes.

6. Nguni Stick-Fighting

Nguni stick-fighting is a martial art traditionally practiced by teenage Nguni herdboys in South Africa. Each combatant is armed with two long sticks, one of which is used for defense and the other for offense. Little armor is used.

Although Nguni/Xhosa styles of fighting may use only two sticks, variations of Bantu/Nguni stick-fighting throughout Southern Africa incorporate shields as part of the stick-fighting weaponry.

Zulu stick-fighting uses an isikhwili, or attacking stick, an ubhoko, or defending stick, and an ihawu, or defending shield.

The object is for two opposing warriors to fight each other to establish which of them is the strongest or the “Bull” (Inkunzi).

In modern times this usually occurs as part of a wedding ceremony, where warriors from the bridegroom’s household and area welcome warriors from the bride’s household and area to meet to “get to know each other”. Other groups of warriors may also be welcome to join in.

Warriors do this by engaging in combat with one another. An induna, or war captain/referee, from each group of warriors keeps his crew in check and keeps order between fighters.

Photo Credit: Washington Examiner, The Elephant, Eric Lafforgue, FurnitureAndDecorNY, Discover Walks Blog


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