By Abdulahi Ahmed (Somaliyow)
Editor’s note: Istunka- A Yearly Ritual is an excerpts from the book Somali Folk Dance written by Abdulahi Ahmed (Somaliyow), a librarian at the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library. Somali Folk Dances is a great book with beautiful illustrations. It’s a fascinating and great contribution to this rare and untapped field of Somali Folk Dances. WardheerNews also plans to publish soon the Somali version of Istunka Afgoi excerpts.
This is a yearly mock fight known as ‘Istunka’ or ‘Dabshid’ which takes place at the river-side town of Afgooye, situated on the bank of the Shebeele River about 30 kilometers south-west of Mogadishu, the capital city of the Somali Republic. The Istunka tournament was developed in the middle ages and still practiced annually in the town of Afgooye. Symbolizing the defense of one’s community and honor, it coincides with the beginning of Somali New Year and the start of the main harvest season. Istunka was originally performed in full combat gear, with battle-axes, swords and daggers. However, for safety reasons, performers later replaced those weapons with large sticks or twigs. As there aren’t fights today between one village to another as in the ancient days, still the performance of istunka remains purely a traditional battle with sticks between the inhabitants of Afgooye ; those who reside on the western bank of the river delta that intersects the town confronting others on the eastern bank.
The purpose of this voluntary fight between the people of the town’s two sectors demarcated by the river-bed is, mainly, to mark the beginning of the harvesting season by the famers inhabiting in the regions flanking the course of the river, which falls about the end of July or early August. However, other significances may be attached to this important event, such as the widespread belief amongst the natives that failure to stage the fight would entail misfortune and evil omens to the people, such as failure of crops followed by famine and plague. It is also considered that the natural progressions of the population would be hindered since it is strongly believed that large proportion of the women may not conceive at all. They believe that no rain will come if the practice of Istunka stopped. Several other traditional activities are also performed in the regions of lower and middle shabelle and Banadir region. The most common one is the bonfire “DABSHITKA” where the people gather sticks and hay and set them fire. Young boys and girls jump over the fire which indicates they’re jumping over all the difficulties in the year to come “SHAR XIJAAB” at the end of the festival, the two groups embrace each other with love after their committee of elders tell them to stop the game whereas earlier, the late regime used water canoes to stop the fighting when the ran out.
Such beliefs held by the majority of the natives would, however, seem superstitious, particularly in this age of human progress and enlightenment. Nevertheless, considering the perpetuation, throughout the centuries, of this traditional fight, the practice is now a well-established phenomenon amongst the people in that it attracts the notice of the other sections of the Somali people living in many regions of the country.
On the appointed day the members of the contesting parties both young and the old take their respective sides of the arena – a spacious field that affords ample space for the necessary maneuvers by the antagonists. The dress and weapon of the participants are prescribed by usage: a loin cloth known as “ma’wis” and a “Garbassar” usually used by Somali ladies as a shawl; a cloth band tied round the head with a decorative silken tassel attached to it and hung over the forehead, and a string of amulets or talismans worn round the neck or arm, usually form the warriors décor. Each combatant is equipped with a dozen or so sticks freshly cut from a certain tree famous for its strength and durability; these he holds in his left hand in one bunch, taking one at a time until he consumes them all on the bare bodies of his opponents.
Abdulahi Ahmed (Somaliyow)
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