I don’t believe I’ve mentioned this aspect of Senegalese culture very often, if at all, but it is a major one that deserves some spotlight. And as I went to my first wrestling match this past weekend, this is an ideal time to talk about it!
There is a rather large wrestling circuit in Senegal, and, I believe, in West Africa; wrestlers vary from children into the streets all the way up to celebrity professionals on a wrestling career track. Much like soccer is to South America, wrestling is to Senegal. Everyone gathers around any available TV or radio to share in the anticipation and excitement of the next match.
First, we’ll go over the basic technical aspects
of wrestling. It’s very simple, really, and often matches last less than five minutes; but essentially, the object is to get three of your opponent’s limbs onto the ground. That can be either two knees and an elbow, or two elbows and a knee. There is only one round, so whoever goes down first is the loser, no questions asked.
There is a low of showboating that goes along with this as well; it’s quite a spectacle. Firstly, the wrestlers enter the ring after the crowd has been pumped up with some traditional drumming. They come in very slowly, wearing some sort of robe, followed by an entourage of young men shouting motivational phrases. The crowd goes wild as they remove their robes to reveal a rather scantily clad body underneath. The traditional wrestling uniform is what I would liken to a loincloth, but made out of leather, along with some protective bracelets or anklets (known as gri-gris).
After liberating themselves from the bonds of clothing, they stomp around the ring, do warm-ups, douse themselves in specially blessed liquid concoctions (I have it on good authority that these mixtures do not smell nice), and basically find any way to express their superiority of muscle and skill.
This goes on for several minutes, if not up to a half hour or more, and all the while the spectators are walking around showing off their beautiful new clothes, hairdos and dancing skills in front of the drums. After a lot spectacle, the whistle finally blows, and the wrestlers get down to it.
Everything starts off calmly as they feel each other out, throw sand onto their bodies (not sure why they do that), and smack each other around a little. Outright hitting is not allowed, but they swat at each other to get a reaction and provide some entertainment. After any length of time they actually start the wrestling, although the wrestlers are so sturdy that, from the spectator’s view, it looks like they’re just standing still, possibly hugging in a strange way. But really, they’re pushing against each other with all their force and straining to get those knees onto the ground. Eventually one of them hits a weak point, moves too soon, or just gets tired, and they start really pushing and pulling. Once this part of the match happens, it’s a quick jump to finding the winner. Someone makes a false move, or just proves to be the weaker of the two, and then the match is over. The winner is announced, and is allowed to advance to the next level, while the loser leaves the rink, either quietly or in a highly dramatic fashion.
Several matches occur, depending on the tournament size, and after an hour or two the wrestling is over, the winner takes the prize (either cash or a cow), and the soirée starts. All the young people who came to watch rush into the ring and show off their awesome dancing skills, socialize, and have an all-around good time. This party lasts till the wee hours of the morning, and so on wrestling weekends, everything moves a little more slowly as everyone recovers from the rigors of the night before.
Typically the Sereer ethnic group is most actively involved in wrestling, but I believe that anyone is welcome to join the circuit if they are skilled enough. I happened to be in a Sereer village last weekend, which is why I was able to witness this class of entertainment first hand; although I definitely did not have the energy to stay up all night dancing with the Senegalese teens. Maybe next time.
The most famous wrestlers that I’m aware of are Yekini and Tyson. They are both massive men who compete with each other for the title of champion each year. They are ubiquitously known celebrities, and I’m guessing they enjoy all the perks that a rock star would have in America (fewer illicit substances, though, I’m guessing). People are particularly vocal about their love for these guys on match days. When there is a match on TV you’ll know it; everything goes quiet during the warm up, and as soon as someone downs the other guy, the entire city bursts in to uproarious cheers and celebration. It’s really fun to hear everyone so excited, even though I’ve never been a part of the TV audience on any such occasion.
As you see in the pictures above, these guys are huge! You can also do your own research for videos, if the mood strikes, just to give an idea of what it all looks like in action. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get to see the real thing some day!
Happy weekend to everyone, I hope it is well spent and relaxing. Peace and love to all!