Nuba Wrestlers by George Rodger, 1951

In 1947, the same year he co-founded Magnum, George Rodger took off across Africa on an assignment for National Geographic. While travelling in the Kordofan region of the Sudan, Rodger and his wife Cicely learnt of the Nubas, a people who lived as their ancestors had lived millennia before.

Rodger was granted permission by the Sudanese government to document the tribe. Fording rivers, skirting herds of elephants, and crossing a treacherous bush trail, he finally reached the Nuba Mountains in 1949, becoming the first ever Westerner to photograph the Nubas’ rituals and way of life. For six weeks, communicating only with their hands and smiles, the couple lived among the tribesmen.

His contact sheets show how he and Cicely carefully posed the tribesmen and women, but his most remembered photos were of simultaneous athletic events, tribal ceremonies and dances. Young men and women of the tribe walked around naked, except for a belt round their waists. Each day, the men celebrated their bodies by painting new designs on themselves, while the women were self-adorned with yellow or red oil and ochre. Oil played a big role in their lives. It formed the basis of the males’ body-painting, a medicine, and, without it, the women did not leave their huts – the sole function of which was to store cosmetics. To be unoiled was to be unclothed.

The Nubas’ main sport was stick-and-bracelet fighting, a fierce, bloody activity shared by the male tribesmen of all villages. The fighters held sticks and had sharpened bronze bracelets, which they used to cut their opponents’ heads. The fight ended only if a contestant could not continue from loss of blood or exhaustion, or was stopped by a referee. The girls were not allowed to watch the fighting, but spent their time preparing for the post-fight, when they danced and picked a warrior as dancing partner for themselves (which would also signal a wish to meet the men later). The dance itself was erotic although the fighters were forbidden to watch them and had to stare at the ground while they waited to see if they had been chosen Any fighter left out registered his dismay with walls.

Rodger’s iconic image from the assignment was that of a victorious Nuba wrestler, ashen, ghostlike, naked and invincible astride the shoulders of another man. It had been reproduced everywhere from postcards and posters to textbooks. For many years, it was a definitive portrait of Africa. When the photos first appeared in National Geographic in February 1951, over a generous 24-page essay, they caused a sensation, eventhough the magazine had ordered its photo-department to liberally airbrush out exposed male genitalia and blood stains from wrestling matches. Three years later, the photos were published in Le Village de Noubas, an instant classic.

For Rodger, who took on the assignment to escape the devastation in Europe he saw at the end of the war, it marked the end of a emotional period. His wife Cicely died not soon afterwards in childbirth. In a melancholic short recollection of that trip, Farewell to the Nubas, Rodger wrote: “Although we had already trekked through 20,000 miles of tribal Africa, it was not until Kordofan that we found real peace and tranquillity. It seemed the good nature of the Nubas was contagious . . . it affected also the Baggara Arabs who grazed their herds in the flatlands below the jebels (hills). Nubas and Arabs lived contentedly side-by-side.”

This Kordofan and this comity Rodger saw was no more. But that is the story for another post.

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