Realities Created, Maintained and Destroyed, WHILE-U-WAIT!

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The legacy of Umslopogas

More African Lessons

When I was a kid I devoured everything that H. Rider Haggard wrote.

Yes, yes, I know; by today's standards Haggard was a Racist Running Dog lackey of the Imperialist British Government that raped and looted its way across the continent of Africa.

But in his own time he was something of a liberal, and at the age of ten I thought more of adventure than I did of the politics of racism.

So I followed Allan Quartermain across Africa, and explored the land of She Who Must Be Obeyed.

But my favorite character in all of Haggard's books was Umslopogas, the great Zulu Chief.
He was, I think, the only true hero that Haggard created, braver, more noble and honorable than Quartermain, and with a richness of inner life that Haggard did not give to many

And Umslopogas' nickname was " The Woodpecker". Umslopogas had become Chief of his village by winning an ax in single combat with the old chief.

Afterward, when he used this ax in battle he did not do the brawn over brain "Conan the Barbarian chop down the enemy" style of fighting that you might have expected Haggard to give him. Instead he reversed his ax and used the long spike on the back of the blade to "peck" at his opponent with rare style and skill. Umslopogas was nicknamed 'Woodpecker" because of this unusual style of fighting.

So the first time I saw Zulu knife fighting as practiced by two brothers form Cape Town, I though of Umslopogas. They favored short blades held in reverse grip and watching them play was a lot like watching a woodpecker chip away at a tree to get a tasty grub.

This particular form of fighting uses short, very fast stabs, a lot of wrist motion which makes doing any kind of a check against the knife hand problematic, and exceedingly deceptive hand and footwork.

If one were to look at it one way, South African knife fighting is just like every other kind of knife fighting. The human body moves only in certain ways, joints hinge the same for everyone.

But if one did look at it this way, one would be wrong.

Even though humans are all issued the same basic model body, (omitting the cosmetic differences) different cultures produce profoundly different styles of movement using that general issue body.

This is because each culture moves to its own internal rhythm, and each culture has its own definition of what is and is not "acceptable" movement.

The rhythms of a culture are discovered in its music, its dance, the cadence of its speech and walk and in the habitual patterns of breath.

The cultural limits put on movement are directly related to this.

What do I mean by cultural limits?

Let us take for instance "white people" in Europe and America. There is a strong cultural inhibition against allowing one's core to articulate. (The core consists of the area of the torso below the ribs to the base of the pelvic girdle). In the West this inhibiting is very often stronger in males.

So when you watch "White" Americans move you will most often that they move their entire torso as one unit rather than letting it articulate throughout all the joints of the spine and pelvis. This will also carry over into dance.

Often, when a male in this culture is encouraged to start freeing his core by allowing his pelvic girdle to move, he will feel embarrassment and shame, because culturally we have associated a free core with negative sexuality.

Regardless of all the work of the missionaries the West has sent to "civilize" Africa, Africans do not have anywhere as much of this negative association, and tend to be freer through the core.

This allows a somewhat different pattern of joint articulation than people outside of Africa are used to. When this is coupled with the rhythms of movement unique to the culture you have a extraordinarily dangerous style of knife fighting.

It is unlikely that we will see much Zulu knife on the world scene in the near future. It is viewed very much like Caporia was fifty or sixty years ago in Brazil, as something the lowest classes do, with a very heavy overtone of the criminal element associated with it.

In the months I was able to explore the Zulu knife, it taught me a great number of things abut human movement. It has definitely changed my approach to the knife a bit, and I am happy to say that my South African friends found the Silat approach to the knife to be equally informative.

The Silat and the Zulu have sort of blended together to produce a knife training subset I have somewhat whimsically named Kisua Umslopogas (which in Kiswahili means "the Knife of Umslopogas") in honor of my favorite Haggard hero and his "woodpecker" style.

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