BY AGNES NWORIE, ABAKALIKI
For the people of Afikpo Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, the traditional wrestling contest known as “Mgba” in their local parlance doesn’t only serve as a sporting activity, it is also a means of taking youths off the streets and also uniting the entire natives.
The community holds the wrestling festival between June and July every year. According to findings, this is because in Afikpo, after the planting season, most farmers don’t have so much to do again on their farms and there is a need to engage the youths productively.
Stakeholders in the community said the yearly practice also served as a uniting force, “reduces crime rateamong youths and gives male victorious wrestlers an edge over their counterparts in terms of wooing spinsters and getting brides.”
To participate in the festival, natives who had left the community arrive in their number to either compete with other wrestlers or cheer contestants. During the festival, wrestlers adorn their skins with white chalk known as nzu and wear beautiful regalia, which adds glamour to the ceremony.
Some stakeholders of the community, including Oyim Chukwuemeka, Ogbonnia Nwachi and Charles Otu, during their separate interviews with The Point, gave insights to the history and significance of the wrestling festival to the people of Afikpo.
Chukwuemeka explained, “As a traditional sport, wrestling shows strength and courage, although strength alone cannot make one a good wrestler. For one to be a good wrestler of the order of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, Sanbeya of Mgbom or Breeze of Ndibe, one must combine strength with great wrestling skills.
“All festivals and traditional sports in Igboland are linked to the Igbo agricultural calendar. In the Igbo native philosophy, healthy competition is a way of life. For instance, when a farmer distinguishes himself in yam cultivation, he becomes Ezeji or Okuji; when a young man emerges number one in Okwu Oha (communal mound making), he receives a prize of Isi Uba (fish head) while his peers will be looking at him with great admiration.”
“In Afikpo, agricultural activities usually start from February and end in May. Around June when the rain becomes heavy and little or no farm work is done, wrestling becomes one of the sports that engages the entire community. Mgba needs strength, strategy and sustaining powers for one to be declared a winner, but the skills vary,” he added.
Explaining the factors that distinguish wrestlers and make them favourable to maidens during and after the festival, Nwachi said, “In the olden days, great wrestlers were great celebrities. You cannot contest any beautiful girl with them because the young girl in question and her family want to identify with the strongest who will always defend her at all times.
“The wrestling confers honours and respect to the winners, especially those without records of defeats. If one starts his wrestling career from infant till he retires as a member of Ikpo age grade without records of defeats, he is made to move round all the Isi Ogo Ehugbos with a glorious beans-sowing (Iku Azama) signifying his exit from the wrestling contest without any records of being flawed. It used to be a great celebration in those days.”
Historically speaking, Otu revealed that Nkpoghoro community in Ehugbo was regarded as the originators of the wrestling festival in Afikpo-Igbo cultural areas, saying, “According to oral tradition, a certain man from Nkpoghoro went to farm, while in his farm, he heard great exciting noises from a distance, he cautiously went to the scene and watched great numbers of monkeys wrestling among themselves based on age variations.
“The farmer was thrilled and loved what he saw, thus, he came back home and domesticated what he saw. The festival actually started as a family sports before it spread to other communities and nearby cultural areas.
In the olden days, overall winner got a portion of land among other gifts, privileges and fame.”