Æther Feature — STEAM FU(NK): African Martial Arts in the Age of Steam

These features as a way for the Ministry to highlight artists, musicians, and makers of all variety. With so many talented individuals to choose from, we know it is a challenge to feature every clever creative worthy of note, but perhaps we might endeavour to introduce to you a new name in our community of steam and cog, or perhaps remind you of one artisan’s successful efforts to bring the past that never was to the here and now.
This week’s Æther Feature from Balogun  for March 7th, 2013, submitted for your pleasure:

Most Steampunks are familiar with the Asian martial arts and many Steampunks, seeking to add martial arts to their stories or to their personas, often incorporate methods of self-defense that were used by Europeans and North Americans during the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, such as Savate, La Canne and Bartitsu.

Beyond Western martial arts, however, Steampunks – particularly those writing about characters – or cosplaying characters – in, or from, an indigenous African setting should look into the African martial arts.

WrestlingAfricans traditionally refer to their martial arts simply as “wrestling”, which, to them, means to put your opponent on his back, belly, or side in order to render him more vulnerable to a finishing technique.  This goal can be achieved by any means: strikes, throws, sweeps, joint-locks, or weapon attacks.

Traditional African martial artists follow Five Basic Principles:

The Four Elements – In African societies, there are four elements, which are considered the vital materials found in every living creature on Earth.  These four elements are:

Earth – represents stances.  Within the Earth Element, there are Three Foundations:

Wood – High, narrow stances. Wood stances are extremely mobile and are used for fast, upright fighting and self-defense.

Stone – Low, wide stances. Stone stances are extremely stable and are used for grappling and for fighting with a weapon.

Metal – Low, narrow stances.  Metal stances are extremely malleable and are used for grappling and ground-fighting.

Air – represents footwork and movement.  A practitioner of the African martial arts can move like a gentle breeze, a gale wind, or a whirlwind.

Fire – represents male energy and techniques.  Fire techniques are forceful, penetrating and explosive.

Water – represents female energy and techniques.  Water techniques are yielding, encircling and deceptively powerful.

Polyrhythmic Application – A practitioner of the African martial arts seeks to touch his opponent in two or more places at once.  An offense and a defense are usually applied simultaneously, or the offense is the defense.

The Unbroken Circle – Also referred to as “Call and Response”, this is the blending with – and adapting to – the actions and rhythms of a partner or opponent, never meeting force with force, but rather taking the opponent’s force and uses it against him.

The Wind Has One Name – There are only fifteen angles an opponent can attack from, so instead of concerning themselves with the infinite variations of attacks, African martial artists deal with finite angles.  Combat is further simplified by adhering to the philosophy that every block is a strike and every strike is a block.  Thus, when an offensive technique is learned, the African martial artist has, in effect, learned a defensive technique.

Waste No Part of the Animal – The African martial arts stress economy of motion.  The idea is: “If it’s there, use it.”  Thus, if you strike an assailant in the chin with an uppercut, you should continue that upward motion and hit him in the throat with an upward elbow, because after the punch, your elbow is in perfect position to strike your opponent.

Every African nation (“tribe”) has its own system of martial arts. While the principles are pretty much the same, weapons and tactics may differ. A few martial arts from Africa and the Diaspora include:


A spectacular and bloody martial art – practiced exclusively by the Maguzawa Hausa of Northern Nigeria – in which gallantly arrayed warriors go into battle armed with two razor sharp iron bracelets and arm-shields.

Moringue (Reunion) / Morengy (Madagascar) / Mrengé (Comores)

A form of traditional boxing practiced by Creoles – Malagasy and Comorians alike. This fighting system, of mainland African origin, is a spectacular form of fighting that utilizes bare-knuckle boxing techniques, kicking and head butting.


A spectacular form of acrobatic fighting, derived from the  Angolan martial art of Sanga – used to great effect by famed Warrior-King, Nzingha (often incorrectly called “Queen” Nzingha; she was actually a King).

A martial art similar to Capoeira – and sharing Sanga as their roots – is Congo, which is practiced in Panama. Congo is always trained between a man and woman, representing the power of opposites prevalent in African society.

Practitioners of both arts try to anticipate the movements of their adversary and then break his or her rhythm. Cunning and treacherous deception (“malicia”) play an important role in the development of fighting skills. Techniques include high and low kicks, foot sweeps, head-butts, elbow strikes and knee strikes. Practitioners of both arts also employ the use of the straight razor as a weapon.

Ag’ya or Ladjia

From the Caribbean island of Martinique this art is practiced to rhythms produced by the tambour (drum), ti-bois (sticks) and choral response singing.

Agile fighters deliver blows with the hands, feet, elbows, knees and head similar to Capoeira. Unlike Capoeira, however, practitioners of Ag’ya also employ grappling techniques to defeat their opponent.

Stick FightingNorthern Nguni (i.e. Zulu, Swazi and/or Ndebele) Fighting

Nguni children learn their martial art through stick-fighting from an early age. Sparring is used to develop good character and to train for combat.

Through stick-fighting, the youth learn to use the more lethal combat weapons.

The Zulu warrior carried the iklwa stabbing spear and a club or cudgel fashioned from dense hardwood – known, in Zulu, as the iwisa, called a knobkerrie by Westerners) – for beating an enemy in the manner of a mace. Zulu officers also often carried the Zulu Axe.

The broad bladed iklwa, an invention of Shaka Zulu, superseded the older thrown spear, called an  ipapa.

All warriors carried a shield made of oxhide, called mgobo. The mgobo was replaced by another Shaka Zulu invention – the larger isihlangu shield.

In the aftermath of the defeat of the British at the Battle of Isandlwana, many Martini-Henry rifles – and considerable amounts of ammunition – were captured by the Zulu and put to effective use by the swift and deadly warriors.

This is just a brief look at the African martial arts. I look forward to returning soon to share much more.

Thanks, Pip and Tee for this grand opportunity to share!

BalogunBalogun Ojetade

Balogun is author the Steamfunk novel, “Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman” the Sword and Soul novel, “Once Upon A Time in Afrika” and the Urban Fantasy novel, “Redeemer”. He is contributing co-editor of the anthologies, “Steamfunk” and “Ki-Khanga: The Anthology”. Finally, he is screenwriter and director of the action film, “A Single Link” and the Steamfunk film, “Rite of Passage”. On his website, http://chroniclesofharriet.com/, he discusses Steampunk, Steamfunk, Sword and Soul and the craft of writing.

14 Replies to “Æther Feature — STEAM FU(NK): African Martial Arts in the Age of Steam”

  1. This page is a Godsend! I’ve been looking for information on African martial arts for ages! However this article would really benefit from citations…I’d like to see the origin of many of the facts on here, such as the use of elements, the origin of the story of Nzingha’s use of Sanga, and the origin of terms such as “call and response” and “waste no part of the animal”

    Excellent work!

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