Ingrained in the DNA of every male growing up in Senegal is the tradition of Laamb, the Wolof designation for the sport – and by extension the business – of wrestling. Mamadou Diallo* recalls the origins and idiosyncrasies of its practice among various groups and over centuries, and its contemporary and sometimes contested imprint in Senegalese society.
July 1994. Vacation time arrives and with it freedom from the tyranny of school. I leave Bouaké with my family. In Abidjan, we embark on an Air Afrique flight, destination Dakar, where, via the only highway in the country, we arrive in Rufisque. We are a gang of children, aged seven, nine and 10, and life is eternal entertainment. Sometimes, we decide to go rummaging in the vacant lot at the end of the street. In it are shrubs which are home to ngalés. We bind their legs with thin rope and then watch with glee as they fly around in circles. Gobi, an imposing man with skin weathered by the sun and sea salt, sometimes visits the neighbourhood and brings along basins full of crabs. Other children also join our merriment and we have so much fun, it’s almost indecent.
I also have memories of our gang, in swimsuits, wrestling at the beach. We would face each other, holding long stares, and throwing our hands about nonchalantly, in a sort of sweeping motion that would lead to preliminary contact – hands meeting those of one’s opponent. Next would come body-to-body contact: the grab, muscular tension from the spine to the toes, grimaces, the final effort, the one who defeats the weaker wrestler. I often ended up in the sand, head sideways, observing the winner jubilating with lifted arms: I didn’t amuse myself any less.
In popular Senegalese culture, wrestling is like the Sabar dance, in which our bodies viscerally understand complicated rhythms: a presence that no one in society escapes and which is ingrained into the DNA. However, the relationship of Senegalese people to wrestling has seen many changes: from a village practice before Senegal existed as a political community; to a merchant’s spectacle invented in the 1930s at the instigation of colonial commercial houses; to the money machine and idol-maker it became on the cusp of the 21st century.
Every Senegalese man has memories of wrestling with his playmates in childhood. During juvenile fights, he put himself in the skin of a great champion of the era. During my childhood, I took myself for the strongest wrestler, Manga II, whose face and renown dominated the arena at that time. Originally from the island of Joal-Fadiouth in the Sine Saloum delta, he was undefeated between 1984 and 1999, which made him legendary. Finally, on 4 July 1999 he lost to Mouhamed Ndao “Tyson”, a wrestler with a very unique style who entered the stadium that night adorned in the flag of the United States. That evening, 75 million CFA Francs were paid in fees to both fighters and a new era began. From then on, everything had to be bigger.
What we know of the origins of the practice of wrestling on this soil relies more on memory than on history. As far back as the thread unwinds, oral history bears witness to wrestling practice among the Wolof, Diola, Serer and Toucouleur Sene-Gambian societies. Well before the colonial project birthed Senegal, wrestling was part of the lives of the Waalo, Djolof, Kassa, Kajoor, Baol, Sine, Lebou Republic of Cape Verde and of Fouta Toro, all precolonial political entities. Among the Wolofs, as with the Toucouleurs, wrestling followed a war culture, hence the dominance of strikes in the practice; among the Serers, wrestling matches were part of seasonal harvest celebrations and so striking is not a part of the technique; and among the Diolas, wrestling involved both sexes and all ages.
In an interview with the journalist Serigne Mour Diop, the late Doudou Ndiaye Rose, a legendary figure in Senegalese drumming and a connoisseur of tradition, spoke about the ancient organisation of wrestling thus:
“The wrestler was chosen among the youth of the village or the neighbourhood, first for his noble stock, generosity, and for his virtues or known bravery. In addition, he had to be of grand proportions and to have shown superiority over others during the wrestling sessions in the village. One didn’t see him running in the streets because he had to be cloistered where he was fed, assured good mystic protection, immunised, and made invulnerable to weapons, before letting him into the arena… Kings chose their wrestlers, took care of them, and sent them to fight in big tournaments. From the moment one heard the sajj (a djembé rhythm unique to Wolof and Serer people) resounding from a neighbouring region, the champion was informed of the tournament and of the stakes: usually foodstuff and domestic animals. A king once even put in the hand of a young woman.”
Today, vestiges of this ancient organisation of wrestling are found in mbapats – non-televised nocturnal fights, organised on stretches of national land, which provide many wrestlers with their first exploits, far away from stadia and from cameras.
Whether or not one is interested, in Senegal one can’t escape wrestling or the faces of the most loved fighters. Their radiant smiles and their angular or plump physiques are plastered on billboards along the main arteries of Dakar. On combat days, the front pages of the big dailies feature the exposed body of the champion – dripping with mystical concoctions – who will eventually face the challenger in the afternoon. Politics, business affairs or other topics that would ordinarily captivate the press, are relegated to back pages. At moments during big matches, which are held in the afternoons, the roads of the town are deserted, silent, and the uninitiated might think the people are observing a sort of Sabbath. The epilogue of this moment – which for many days plays out in animated and speculative discussions in large plazas, school courts and bus stations – is the fall of one of the wrestlers and, the end of the suspense. One recent big fight pit Modou Kharagne Lô against Eumeu Sène (two of the most popular fighters in the quartiers of Dakar). The victory of Kharagne Lô – expressed through the passionate and combined reactions of millions of television spectators – cast over the city a terrible brouhaha. The earth under my feet seemed to tremble.
Among my Dakar connections is the popular rapper Canabasse. For some time now, I have seen him in press images in the company of a very tall and hefty man, at whose side he himself appears thin. I discover that the man in question is a wrestler and he calls himself “Imposer” (To enforce). I get Imposer’s number from Canabasse and he agrees to meet me at the offices of Sunu lamb, a newspaper dedicated to wrestling, and, on major combat days, the paper with the biggest print run of all the Senegalese press.
When I arrive in the building and scale the stairs, I meet a security guard who responds to my inquiries in Wolof in perfect French. He directs me to the newsroom and there I find Imposer sitting with two members of his entourage and a reporter with a recorder. I sit beside Imposer, like a small hill next to a mountain, and stay silent listening to his responses to the reporter’s questions. In the presence of such a large person I marvel at the considerable range of proportions that exist in the human race and wonder if we truly are part of the same species.
I learn from the conversation that Imposer started off as a rugby player and that Senegal boasts over 5,000 licenses and 50 professional wrestling teams. I learn of a wrestler spectacularly nicknamed “Usine Doolé”, Fitness Plant. The interview ends and Imposer suggests that we chat in the fast food restaurant across the street. The place is alive with talkative schoolchildren. A waitress takes our orders: burgers for most and Coca Cola.
Imposer is 26, he is a wrestler, but also has other businesses, including chicken-rearing and bodyguard services. “Canvassing promoters,” he tells me, “obtaining fights, that is not my business, it’s for my staff. My role is to train and eat.”
Imposer was born and bred in Thiaroye, a suburb of Dakar. In 1997, as a child he was marked by the fight of Tyson against Moustapha Guèye, the tiger of Fass. “This fight,” he remembers with a big smile, “I have reinterpreted many times. Tyson became my idol. I told myself, why shouldn’t I have the same destiny?” After passing through the mbapats, Imposer entered the big time and has since been solicited by key promoters, including Aziz Ndiaye, Gaston Mbengue and Luc Nicolaï.
A big tournament is being held in Dakar as we speak (January 2016) sponsored by Télévision Numerique Terrestre, but Imposer is not participating. He doesn’t express bitterness, but deplores the absence of a national federation modelled on other sports. He tells me that the CNG [the body governing the sport in Senegal] sanctions wrestlers for nothing: being 10 minutes late, for example, can result in a 10,000 CFA Franc fine. For early career wrestlers, who don’t receive more than 50,000 CFA per fight, this is a substantial loss. The CNG, whose leadership is made up of notables from Dakar, is all-powerful. They have a slew of sanctions in their arsenal. For using a bottle of a mystical concoction of more than five litres, Modou Kharagne Lô saw four million of his 15 million CFA fee slip into the pockets of the CNG.
I ask Imposer why he continues to enter the arena, to endure the crowd’s stare and the punches of his opponents.
“Victory,” he responds, “is a sensation one has to know to understand. Failures discourage, but the memory of victory has made me an addict of the arena. It’s in my blood.”
The status of major wrestling figures, whose renown in Senegal far surpasses those of notable writers, savants and artists, gives rise to perpetually sorrowful sighs in certain circles. Even the professions peripheral to wrestling – those of promoters and commentators – assure their practitioners of celebrity, as well as financial success, of the order that “intellectuals” could never dream of. In Senegal those who have the means, patience, and submission to stay in the halls of school up to age 25, are labeled intellectuals, even if their ideas are just mined into textbooks. That wrestlers, who do not go through this effort, have more financial capital and status than people leaving university, leads to obvious resentment and concern, usually expressed along the following lines: “Today, Senegalese society promotes flipped values. Instead of positive models, such as educated persons, we’re giving the youth illiterates, feather-brained brutes.”
Another reason for the frowns of the Senegalese western-trained elite, whom I call “black Greco-Latins”, and the followers of orthodox Islam, is the exaggerated performance of witchcraft used shamelessly in the stadia and on television during wrestling matches: pieces of pierced cartilage through which wrestlers scrutinise their opponents; powders with complex and mysterious compositions in the grass of the stadium; and litres of magical concoctions poured on their bodies. All this is too pagan for the average black Greco-Latins and Arabized: they are a little ashamed of it.
Certain members of Senegalese society maintain a wide berth from wrestling arenas, from wrestlers and their public. The representatives of the Senegalese middle class, who go to school and value higher education, have a hard time imagining a destiny outside that framework, and would be horrified at the prospect of competing in the arena clad only in an ngemb. Although I am Senegalese, I have personally only been to the arena once, and it was at the behest of a recent invitation from a Kenyan friend on vacation in Senegal. As for wrestlers, they are most often recruited from towns and villages in the hinterland and from the quartiers of Dakar – where poverty is most apparent and where children often have to leave school to start apprenticeships. It is only in this social universe where wrestling appears as the imaginable way to get ahead and to attain greater status.
* Translated by Ayesha Harruna Attah
This article first appeared in print in the Chimurenga Chronic (April 2016).
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