By BRUCE DENNILL
We pull over on the side of Route de L’Ouest, the main street that runs through Dzamandzar, a small town on the west coast of Nosy Be. It’s the biggest thoroughfare in the area, but it’s still barely two vehicles wide, so I presume Mohamed, my guide, knows what he’s doing leaving his vehicle there. Mind you, an extra ding or three would hardly reduce the resale value any further, given the old jalopy’s already advanced state of decay. My suitcase and jacket – all my possessions in the world for the next week, though the latter is utterly pointless in the sticky November heat, are perched on the back seat, an easy target for any passing bandit with a half-brick. Again, I defer to Mohamed’s confidence, not least because he was born and raised on the island, knows everyone and their extended families, and would be able to track a missing bag via his network in a couple of hours. And we’re on a smallish island. Unless the potential criminal had a Cessna fired up and ready to go on the runway at Fascene Airport, which we left half an hour before – an unlikely possibility outside of a Wilbur Smith novel – my battered little wheelie-case would never make it far.
I try and shed my paranoid big-city concerns as we dodge scooters, tuk-tuks and the occasional brash 4×4 (the latter exclusively driven by foreigners) during the short walk to the town’s central square, which usually functions as the parking lot in front of a popular bar – one of several bearing the name of a local politician aware of the enduring value of bread and circuses. Today, it’s been rented by a moraingy – Malagasy bare-knuckle boxing, a national sport – promoter who’s cordoned off the entire space with eight-foot-high shade cloth broken only be a ripped out square manned by a ticket seller and a narrow space through which spectators can enter and exit.
The crude ring in the centre of the dusty lot is the focal point for the slowly gathering crowd (we’re a little early; you need to be to get a good vantage point). Fighters are identified once they take off their shirts, revealing ripped, lean abdomens, and begin strapping their hands with bandages or strips of cloth. Some have seconds to assist them; others run their operation out small shoulder bags, standing off to one side and glowering at anyone who approaches. Supporters gather in groups or stand alone, chewing khat leaves – a mild natural amphetamine – until their cheeks are hamster-full before spitting fibrous red wads into corners.
There’s a long undercard of amateur fighters. Some are clearly nervous, requiring encouragement from assembled friends and associates and even a fatherly word from the patient referees to get in the ring and get on with it. Even the losers at this level come out of it okay, receiving a small monetary gift as a reward for risking their bodies for the entertainment of others. Winners – as well as those who are vanquished but enjoy considerable support – get their remuneration from members of the crowd, who hold up bills and wait for their champion to make his way to them for a handshake or to pose for a selfie.
It’s initially a confusing spectacle as a first-time spectator. Each bout consists of three rounds, but these are not necessarily sequential, so participants may tussle for one round and then retire to their retinues for 15 or 20 minutes while other fighters have their turn, and then step forward for round two before repeating the process. It’s more like the stop-and-go stammer of NFL football than the thud and crunch of hostile combat.
The end of a fight is more clearly defined, as the winner is required to bear-hug the loser and lift him off the ground. After the defeated party is deposited back on the dirt, the participants roll their fists at each other in the manner of a John Travolta dance move from Saturday Night Fever, a bit of sign language that suggests “see you next time”, before they part on good terms (if all has gone according to plan and the rules have been adhered to).
Like their infinitely better-paid associates in the pay-per-view arenas of Las Vegas and elsewhere, the young Malagasy fighters strut, preen and speak with careless arrogance, their self-indulgent showmanship wasting the time of their opponents and the referees, one of whom is more or less perpetually blowing a shrill whistle in an attempt to maintain order.
Often, the scenario inside the ring is not much different, with the fighters not exhibiting much in the way of technique or timing, their gleaming muscles at odds with their stuttering hesitancy or, alternatively, having a tendency to throw enthusiastic haymakers that result in a comical loss of balance if they don’t connect.
A stocky, stone-faced fighter and his second have slipped under the shade-cloth on the opposite side to the entrance while the rookies are scuffling. Nobody has dared confront him – even the few armed soldiers scattered around the now bustling venue, charged with keeping the peace should the punters get a little too well-lubricated or opponents too lippy outside of the ring. It transpires that he is one of the contenders in the day’s main bout, a scowling local bulldog pitched against a flamboyant interloper from the city of Diego-Suarez on mainland Madagascar.
The former wears a plain Adidas tracksuit; the latter swans in in a hooded satin robe. Their contrasting personalities are confirmed during a ringside altercation before their bout, with the hometown hero shoving and spitting in response to a verbal taunt and the fighters in the ring at the time left bemused as the audiences’ attention switched to the unexpected sideshow.
The challengers retire to different parts of the arena, where friends and trainers fuss and fret over them, rubbing white cream into bulky shoulders; tying bandages around feet in such a way that the knot is on top, where it will cause the greatest damage should it collide with a cheekbone (the “bareknuckle boxing” tag is inaccurate in that it ignores the kicking aspects of each fighter’s arsenal; it’s kick-boxing, or informal mixed martial arts, really); and slipping their charges a couple of pills, which I’m assured are prophylactic anti-inflammatories, given in anticipation of a damaged limb or bruised joint.
The hype invested in this final fight proves misleading just moments in, when the prancing visitor easily takes the first round, to the dismay of the local man’s supporters. Large parts of the crowd are more open-minded, however, and express their admiration of the out-of-towner’s charisma and athletic prowess with so many cash donations that he requests a shopping bag to carry around, proffering it like a preacher at some dubious outdoor evangelical church.
The second round is more even until a twist in the script sees the neighbourhood hero react as though he’s been poked in the eye – something not many spectators could categorically swear to catching a glimpse of. The mainland man is yellow-carded by the referee, at which he vociferously protests, earning himself a red card and disqualification. The crowd, having waited most of the afternoon for this match-up, closes in on the ring, adding their voices and opinions to the melee.
It feels like a good time to slip out, before a combination of khat, endless beers and the hot sunshine is set off like a tinderbox by the controversy in the ring.
As a sporting spectacle, the afternoon has had only a few highlights, but there is the feeling that the event is a rite of passage for many of the athletes involved, an opportunity to confer value on young men in front of their community, who are then allowed the chance to respond using their fists and feet.
Mohamed’s car is where we left it, undisturbed. He gets in, leans across to wrangle the passenger door open and then pops open the centre console to retrieve the keys from where he left them, grinning knowingly as he catches my eye.
I sigh, then smile.
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