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

Thursday, October 27, 2005

South African Knife Fighting

Seems to be a popular subject this week.

I have just finished checking my stats for this blog and there seems to be a pretty good discussion on some of the martial arts forums regarding South African knife and "Piper".

This is a nice coincidence as I have just given my first public presentation on what (little) I know of this material at our Fall Gathering of the Tribes.

Since there is some interest, I thought it would be a good time to post something on the subject.

As some of you know, I have returned a little while ago to the States after living for the better part of a year in Africa, where I worked teaching English, computer graphics and Pencak Silat.

I also had the chance to learn a few things as well, the two that apply here are learning a little something about the fighting methods and weapons of the Maasai tribe, one of the very few peoples to have preserved their traditional culture in East Africa, and something of the knife fighting methods used among the "underclasses" in and around Cape Town South Africa.

I have written a little about what I learned from my Maasai friends elsewhere on this blog, but I haven't really addressed the material from South Africa.

I should state first though, that I am not an "expert" on Piper or any other form of African combat. I am just a student and observer without even half the skills of someone who has grown up developing these skills because they were needed to survive. The best I can hope to offer is that I am a trained observer with a background that allows me to understand what I experienced, and a good enough teacher that I can pass on what little I know.

I had the opportunity to learn about South African knife work because I made the acquaintance of two brothers from Cape Town, South Africa who had immigrated to Arusha, Tanzania in hopes of finding a better life. They were willing to teach me something of what they had learned running the streets of Cape Town for two reasons, The first being that I had a good recommendation (one of my students was the girl friend of the older brother) and because I was willing to pay them for their knowledge, and money is an important motivator in Africa. All told I spent no more than six months working with them to develop what skills I have.

That being said, let me tell you what I do know about "Piper" and knife Use from South Africa. (The guys I trained with never called it Piper or any other name BTW, they just called it knife fighting)

First, it is neither a martial art or self defense. It is a set of skills developed for use in the commission of a crime or to wage war on rival gangs or individuals.

It is no better than high level knife fighting found in other cultures and no worse. It is however different, and those differences give it a real advantage if one has not trained to deal with them, or have never experienced them before.

The story goes that Piper was developed from Zulu spear fighting. I suspect that there is some truth to this. I think that much of the way Piper is done also comes from the type of weapons it uses, which are often home made and/or of poor quality. It takes a good piece of steel and some time and skill to make a cutting weapon that will hold an edge and not break. It is however possible to make a stabbing weapon that will work well and last, out of much poorer quality metal and in a much shorter time. You can't get a good edge on rebar, and it would take hours of work to grind it down by hand, but you can put a killing point that will hold up just fine on the same piece of rebar in less than a half hour of work.

So it is likely that some of the focus on stabbing motions comes from the traditional use of the short Zulu thrusting spear, and some of the focus comes from expedient use of materials at hand.

Most people have heard the saying that "there are only so many ways a human body can move". This is completely true as far as it goes, but misses something important. Every culture has a unique way of moving that is found in the timing and rhythm of the movement and in how the different portions of a person's body are united (or not) in a movement.

For example, (please bear in mind that I am generalizing here so there will be plenty of exceptions to be found) Americans tend to keep their pelvic girdles locked to their torsos, whereas many African cultures will allow the pelvic girdle to "gimble" freely during movement. This will give two significantly different methods of power generation.

The other major thing that makes us all move differently is the "rhythm" of a culture. It is somewhat difficult to describe this intellectually, but it is quite easy to see (and feel) it experientially. The single best way I know of to experience the "rhythm" of a culture is to listen to its music and watch/learn its dance. These two things, culturally defined limits to movement and cultural rhythms give an almost infinite variation to the ways a person can move the standard two arms, two legs, torso and head.

South African knife moves with a very different rhythm than will be found in either the East or West, and the looseness of the body generates speed and energy very effectively but very much in its own way.

Another thing that makes African knife use so dangerous is attitude.

For instance, one of the first things I learned about the Maasai is that they are considered very dangerous because they will not hesitate to kill someone who crosses them. If you step over the line with a traditional Maasai he will not "woof" or threaten, he just attacks, ant there is no holding back on the attack, the intent is to kill.

In Africa, frankly life is cheap, and there is not the instilled fear of "authority" or consequences that tends to inhibit Westerners from being quite so decisive.

So one thing that makes South African knife so dangerous is a complete willingness to kill one's opponent and the committed intent to do so.

What I have done is to take what I was taught and extract a set of higher order principles from it that will make the learning of these skills both more effective and more efficient. The biggest weakness to the South African knife as I learned it is that the information is not organized at all and the skills are acquired by "hit or miss" (no pun intended).

So that is the basic information on South African knife fighting as I understand it. As always I will be delighted if there are any questions.


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