The Suri (or Surma) practice a stick fight sport which is known as Donga. Donga is also the name of the straight hardwood stick that is used in the sport. Men take part in this sport settle disputes, challenge one another for fun and to win the attention of girls. This is not an event often witnesses by outsiders due to its remoteness. This may change as a new road finaced by Chinese investors is being constructed deep into Suri country, but for now, few tourists venture this far into the back country.
The lifestyle and persona of the Surma people is wholly aggressive and proud. Both sexes are raised to be assertive and self-reliant. The living conditions are harsh so this makes some sense. This is not an area served by food aid, medical care, suitable hygiene or water treatment. Droughts are frequent and extract huge tolls on the people. Dislocation is often done at the hands of the government looking to expand the national parks and assert more control over a lawless countryside. The Suri have always been a warring tribe, fighting to protect their cattle and land from their enemies. The civil war in South Sudan has unfortunately resulted in ready access to Kalashnikovs that are not only a significant status symbol but also a serious competitive advantage.
Donga is a ritualized fighting sport for young men to prove themselves to the young women. These fights are held between different Suri villages, with as many as 20 or more warriors on each side. Men fight naked to show their bravery. While some head and joint protection can used, it is minimal and the the risks are high. Stick fighting is dangerous and people do encounter injury and sometimes die. We witnessed many serious soft tissue injuries and at least one significant concussion. While warriors may proudly display their blood and wounds, they do not exhibit pain or discomfort. There is no medical tent.
Referees are also present to ensure the rules are followed, which is necessary to prevent violent reactions from the side that might feel wronged. Not that there are a lot of rules, except that you cannot hit a man when he is down. Doing so would be a serious infraction that could result in a more serious reaction from the family and friends of the wronged. The large audience of a true Donga further increases the chances that violence will escalate. If rules are broken and a village feels cheated, shooting can easily break out in an attempt to settle the argument. There are a lot of automatic weapons so such a development is potentially highly dangerous.
After a match, the winner may proceed to the girls that are always there observing. If the girls present the man with a beaded necklace, it signifies that she will date him. If he accepts the necklace, he also agrees. The popular champions swaggered about with huge collections of necklaces.
Access to a true stick fight requires careful negotiation with the elders who expect a sizable fee for the privilege of witnessing their traditional sport and especially when taking photographs. Disregarding this requirement could also result in violence so needless to say we paid up. Even after taking these precautions, we there was a disagreement amongst the participating villages that resulted in much shouting and waving of sticks and automatic weapons. It is apparently common, but it was a relief when our car finally pulled away.