In the thousands of years of Sudanese Nuba wrestling history, there had never been anything like it: A barefoot Japanese diplomat in a tight-fitting blue singlet stepping onto the sandy pitch to take on Sudan’s toughest.
Four times this year, Yasuhiro Murotatsu has challenged the Sudanese. Four times he has lost.
But “Muro” is not giving up.
He says his wrestling diplomacy highlights this “precious culture” and can help unite a divided country.
The Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state are home to a linguistically and religiously diverse group of people collectively known as “Nuba”.
Central to society
Wrestling is central to their farm-based society, but for more than two years a more modern form of combat has devastated the region.
Non-Arab rebels from South Kordofan have joined with other insurgents from Darfur, in Sudan’s west, in rising against the Arab-dominated regime which they complain has marginalised the regions.
“Sudanese wrestling can be a symbol of a united Sudan,” says Mr. Murotatsu (33) a Japanese embassy political officer who tries to spend one hour a day training for his bouts.
“That’s why I am fighting. This is very important. I will be very happy if all tribes... come to Haj Yousef to support Sudanese wrestling. This is my intention,” he said .
Mr. Murotatsu has competed since February in special “friendship” matches during the regular Friday evening card in Haj Yousef, a poor neighbourhood of mud-brick houses.
He says the Sudanese sport is similar to the more widely-known freestyle wrestling, in which he finished among the top eight when he was in junior high school.
“I read about wrestling in Nuba Mountains before I came to Sudan... I became quite interested” and wanted to challenge them.
Mr. Murotatsu’s opponent is a thin, muscular high school student, Saleh Omar Bol Tia Kafi, who says he has been wrestling since the age of 12.
It is now formally known as “Sudanese” wrestling because it has grown beyond the Nuba community, says Hassan Abu Ras Saliem, deputy chief of the local wrestling federation.
“We are fully convinced that this wrestling can unite Sudan,” says Al-Tayeb Ahmed Ajoan, Sudanese wrestling federation’s secretary general.
And that is Muro’s wish, as he sits on the edge of the circular red-earth pitch, stretching before his latest match.
Fans have taken up every inch of the stadium, which was built by the Khartoum state government a year ago. Far away, people are fighting and dying in Sudan’s wars but here in the stadium, fans from different parts of the country have come together in joy.
“I think this wrestling can have a role in ending racism in Sudan,” said Mutasim Ahmed, who is from North Kordofan and is a regular spectator. The two wrestlers move cautiously, pawing each other like cats as the match begins. The pace picks up.
Mr. Mudiriya holds Muro around the waist and pulls him into the dirt before the Japanese twists around . Mr. Mudiriya is on his back. Muro raises his arms, as if in victory.
No, not yet.
After about three minutes Mr. Mudiriya puts Muro on the ground again. Game over. Mudiriya wins.
“He’s a very good wrestler,” the Japanese diplomat says, vowing a return to the ring. “I cannot withdraw until I get at least one victory.” A win in Khartoum would, he hopes, pave the way for a bout in the wrestling heartland of Nuba itself. “It will be a very good message for peace,” Mr. Murotatsu says. — AFP