It is dusk. You are one of the thousands in the roaring crowd at Demba Diop stadium in Dakar. You catch snippets of conversations in Wolof and some French – but such sports events rarely need explaining. You look down at the stage to see the two opponents preparing for their big fight. Each has a marabout or two who leads him through a series of rituals that while steeped in traditional Senegalese culture also heavily borrows from mystical Sufi Islamism that is practiced by most Senegalese. A huge well sculpted loin-cloth clad wrestler walks through a wooden loop four times to ward off any negative spells that might have been placed against him to cause his defeat. Another equally huge sculpted loin-cloth clad wrestler wearing leather charms and amulets douses himself in an oily looking liquid handed over to him by his marabout (spiritual leader). This potion is to increase his strength, make him invincible and assure him victory. The match is about to begin and there are hundreds of people in the sandy stage below. You take a minute to assess everything else that is going on there – just a minute – any longer and you might miss the actual fight. Awrestling school’s members are run-dancing a lap round the field. They are clad in their jerseys – every so often they stop and break out into the most amazing dances – each wrestling school has their own signature songs and dances. To the right you see a drumming troupe – the crowd gets more excited the faster the sabar plays. Near the drumming troupe there is a dancer who moves as if he has no bones in his body – the drumming tempo increases, he dances with even more vigor, the crowd is elated. Near the center stage there is a group of women singing. You are taking it all in then you remember that the main event is the fight. You look back at the main fight – they have started. Years of preparation for the wrestlers, hours of smaller fights and the side-shows at today’s event – all culminating in this one large fight. If you are lucky it might last four minutes. If not so lucky it might be a quick fight where one wrestler simply knocks the other on the head and within less than 5 seconds the whole match is done – once the wrestler falls to the ground howling out in pain (as was the case the evening I watched a match between Ama Baldé vs. Gouy Gui). In any case, you will have been fortunate to see a 14th century Senegalese wrestling match come alive right before your eyes in a 21st century stadium.
La lutte or laamb as it is known in Wolof has existed since at least the 14th century in Senegal when the first known wrestler – Boukar Djilak Faye lived. While traditional wrestling is also common in other West African nations, La lutte is unique in how it has managed to grow, adapt to the times while still holding on to the interesting cultural and mystical elements that make it a must watch. It is one of the few bare-fisted wrestling forms that exists worldwide. The fame of modern day wrestling in Senegal is attributed to a wrestler called Tyson who started off in the 90s. He is credited with changing it merely from a sport to a real business becoming the first Senegalese wrestler to earn lots of money from the sport. Traditionally wrestling served various purposes In Senegal. It was a form of entertainment – after the harvest season villages would organize wrestling matches against each other. It was sometimes a way of paying homage to respected leaders – wrestling matches could take place at funeral remembrances of community greats. Sometimes it was used during initiation, to court wives or a show of masculinity. The sport has now grown to become even more famous and attract larger sponsors that football.
In a country where at least half of the population is unemployed. The fame and fortune that wrestling promises attracts many fighters – especially those from less privileged backgrounds. But what really is the potential earning from wrestling? There are around 3000 registered wrestlers in Senegal. Of these, only a dozen or so earn the legendary figures sometimes quoted of $100,000 - $300,000 a fight – and most times these wrestlers will only earn that once a season – wrestling season runs from January to end of July. Majority of the other wrestlers make around $2000 per season (which is still significant in a country where the UN estimates of annual income per capita are less than USD 1000.) As such people who are turning to wrestling might still not be wrong in thinking that this might be a good alternative option for them to create a livelihood.
But what about all the violence that such sports encourage? It might be counterintuitive but with high unemployment and frustration, violence is typically on the rise (as seen in many countries.) To create an outlet where people can channel these emotions within a controlled environment might calm some of these tensions. In reality the option is not really between wrestling and formal employment for many, but really wrestling and unemployment (or underemployment.) Senegalese society is also quite peaceful in general. Even during the matches themselves, people are not out for a bloodbath, but really for entertainment. Many Senegalese will speak of a wrestler known as “The Butcher” with derision – he was known for leaving his opponents bloody – the fans did not like it. During the matches, people are not baying for blood but really for an entertaining match that combines skills, culture and technique. Violence among fans as a result of the sport is also a concern, but the incidences reported are nowhere near as serious in magnitude as those witnessed in European countries after English Premier League matches or even sometimes in my home country (Kenya) after some football matches. Past incidences have been attributed to the fact that betting on the matches is really high and a vast proportion of youth from neighboring environs who place bets get violent when they lose their money – if the match does not end in their favor. Increased security at the matches can ensure that they remain safe for all who wish to watch it – sports betting globally increases with popularity of a sport.
Why La Lutte is really fascinating is that it is further evidence of a growing trend on the continent where we are beginning to look within ourselves, embrace some of our unique cultures and find ways to grow them locally and then internationally. It is Africans refusing the rhetoric that arts and culture on the continent never existed before colonialism, that the most interesting thing about our countries is colonial history and post-colonial struggles and that the only good things to be found in our countries are those we got from the West. There is a cultural revolution taking over the continent – one that has started with music and literature and is spreading into even more aspects of our cultural heritage. We need to realize that even across the different African countries, people hunger to know more about other African countries. My education system taught me little other than we had some kingdoms, then we enslaved each other, then Arabs and the West came and took slavery to another level, then colonialism happened, we put up a good fight (The Battle of Adowa, Mau Mau rebellion, and so many other not so successful rebellions including using some magical potions that were to ward off bullets (Maji Maji rebellion). After that the colonial powers left us to our own defenses and we made a mess out of everything – descending into war, famine, disease etc. The West then came back to save us in various forms and anything good or interesting taking place on the continent right now is because of the benevolence of the West.
We as Africans need to change this rhetoric – and what better way to do that than owning and embracing our unique cultures, discovering them and monetizing them (La lutte attracts numerous corporate sponsors, but has still managed to remain authentic.)
La lutte in Senegal is a must see – now my next article will be on this little pesky visa situation that makes it EXTREMELY difficult for an African to travel in Africa. Thank you Senegal though for not requiring a visa for most people – lots of other countries need to take up this initiative.
First published on Suluzulu