Never before have the Kpelle people revealed their secret of the traditional Cassava fights to outsiders, until this year, when I stumbled over one of the traditional cassava swords and – puzzled – asked my local friends about its purpose and meaning.
The century old tradition of cassava fights takes place as both a functional approach to ease tensions between villages and a rite of passage for young men on the edge of manhood. After successful participation, the young cassava warrior – ca’wa – becomes a formal member of the agricultural group, now being allowed to assist in the annual cassava harvest.
During the traditional wars, all other disputes are suspended – a tradition that seems remarkably similar to the Olympic games of ancient Greece. However, it was not possible to reveal the origins of this tradition.
The traditional cassava fight is an artistic challenge – whose cassava breaks first looses the game. Great honors await those who succeed! Combatants stand face to face in close distance and conduct a complex row of traditional moves – including vocal utterances and stomping. On a sign, the fight starts. Winners earn great merits and are allowed to call themselves cassava king for a period of one year, hosting the annual cassava dance and being part of the traditional cassava committee during their reign.
Over the centuries, different schools of fighting have evolved, with their own training grounds and cafimas (cassava fight masters), who train the young boys and girls from the early age of one year. Only the most gifted among these are allowed to represent their village in the annual gathering, which are selected after accomplishment of challenging tasks.
Over the last decade, however, modernity has settled in. Nowadays, the traditional garments until then composed of banana leaves and gold are replaced with modern shirts that last longer and can also be used outside the training ground. This has opened up the tradition to a wider group, with expensive dresses having been the major reason not to take part in this important tradition.
With the diversification of the region, massive drains to the bigger cities and a rather strange growing notion of changing towards western cultural practices, the cassava fights today are more and more replaced with other ways of competition, mainly card- and die-games.
It is sad, yet unstoppable: While this year, cassava fights are still held after the traditional harvest in early September, the committee of cassava winners (coocawi) has decided to suspend further games due to lack of interest. Several tv stations have not answered their request for live broadcast, and the local farmer’s association has not extended its advertising contract.
Further research needs to be conducted. There is still no answer to the close correlation with the traditional Klingon Bat’Leth, and other traditional fights.
It seems, as if this Kpelle tradition either comes as a well-defined blend of worldwide cultures, or marks the root of the Olympic games, Asian martial arts and American football, whose egg-shaped ball resembles the form of an elite cassava blade. This sheds a new light on early globalism and the question of our ancestors.
For the Kpelle people, however, public attention might be too late. As of today, much knowledge has already been lost, and those to pass it on refuse to reveal it, until this old tradition has been recognized formally by the county government. Yet the two warriors shown here – James and Junior – can be happy: They successfully got through the 2013 games!