KHARTOUM – 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 fighter.
Four times this year, Yasuhiro Murotatsu, 33, a Japanese Embassy political officer, has challenged the Sudanese. Four times he has lost.
But “Muro,” as he is known in the ring, is not giving up. He said his “wrestling diplomacy” highlights Nuba wrestling as a precious part of Sudanese culture that can help unite the divided country.
The Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state are home to a linguistically and religiously diverse group of people collectively known as Nuba. Wrestling is central to their farm-based society, but for over 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 they complain has marginalized regional areas.
“Sudanese wrestling can be a symbol of a united Sudan,” said Murotatsu, who tries to spend an hour each 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 al-Haj Yousif (stadium) to support Sudanese wrestling. This is my intention.”
More than 1 million people in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile have been displaced or severely affected by fighting in the area, according to the United Nations. At the same time, tribal violence has worsened this year in Darfur, leaving hundreds dead and uprooting hundreds of thousands more.
Since February, Murotatsu has competed in special “friendship” matches during the regular Friday evening card in al-Haj Yousif, a poor neighborhood of mud-brick houses.
He said 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 the Nuba Mountains before I came to Sudan. . . . I became quite interested (and wanted to challenge them). I thought that I could win,” Murotatsu, a former oil industry administrator who is fluent in Arabic, proclaimed in an interview before his latest match in Khartoum.”I think I’m good.”
His nemesis is a thin, muscular high-school student, Saleh Omar Bol Tia Kafi, nicknamed “Al-Mudiriya,” who said he has been wrestling since the age of 12. “I would come to the ring, watch the matches, and after that I wrestled with other young boys,” said Kafi, 18.
He competes under the same moniker used by his father, a wrestler who is “one of the heroes of the Nuba Mountains” — and Kafi’s inspiration. Nuba men would hold impromptu matches out in the fields while tending their cattle, Kafi said, decked out in a tracksuit in the colors of the Sudanese flag.
Kafi traveled to Khartoum at age 8. He lives in the city with his family, but some relatives who remained in South Kordofan have fled to the mountains because of the fighting, he said.
The war has hit the sport hard in its homeland, but wrestling still takes place. It is now formally known as “Sudanese wrestling” because it has grown beyond the Nuba community, said Hassan Abu Ras Saliem, deputy chief of the local wrestling federation.
“We are fully convinced that this wrestling can unite Sudan,” said al-Tayeb Ahmed Ajoan, the federation’s secretary general.
Muro said that is his wish, too, as he sat on the edge of the circular red earth pitch, stretching before his latest match. Fans had taken up every inch of the stadium, which was built by the government a year ago.
They even perched atop the concrete wall, moving to the rhythmic music played between bouts. Small boys lugged plastic containers of drinking water and silver cups squeezed through the crowd, while women sold trays of snacks.
Far away, people are fighting and dying in Sudan’s wars, but 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, a native of North Kordofan and a regular spectator.
Another, Abdurrahman Tajideen, who hails from Darfur, said he was supporting Kafi because “he is representing Sudan.”
The widening appeal of the sport to people from other ethnic groups means it could help bring peace to the country, and to the Nuba region in particular, said wrestling fan Hafiz Sulaiman, a Nuba native. Sulaiman was hoping for a Murotatsu victory “because he lost three matches and still came back. This means he has (strong) will.”
Hands raised, concentrating in a half-crouch, the two wrestlers moved cautiously, pawing each other like cats as the match began. As the pace picked up, Kafi held Murotatsu around the waist and pulled him into the dirt before the Japanese wrestler twisted around.
Kafi was on his back. Murotatsu raised his arms, as if in victory. But they played on, Kafi’s left shoulder dusted with dirt. About three minutes later he put Murotatsu on the ground again. This time, it’s game over: another victory for Kafi.
“A lion! He’s a lion!” a female fan yelled as the two athletes were hoisted aloft.
” ‘Muro’s’ tactics were completely different from last time and his skill has improved,” a sweating Kafi said.
Vowing to return to the ring, Murotatsu said: “He’s a very good wrestler. 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,” Murotatsu said.