Senegalese Wrestling

Photographs and Text by Laurent Gudin

This feature was shot between 2007-2009. A full edit of 111 images available on request. The following text was written by photographer Laurent Gudin, and is available with the images.

As one might imagine, the origins of Senegalese wrestling are ancient and ancestral. The sport is called ‘Lamb’ in Wolof, the native language of the Wolof people in Senegal, who make up 40% of the population. It used to be practised in the countryside at the end of the harvest, amongst the Serer and Diola ethnic groups. Wrestlers face up to each other, and the winner is the one who causes his adversary to fall to the ground first. This jousting battle used to be a means of measuring the strength of men, to determine the champion of each village.

During French colonisation of Senegal, these fights continued to take place in the bush, without the occupiers really knowing much about them. However it was a Frenchman who organized the first official fights in the 1920’s in his cinema El Malik in the capital, Dakar. The wrestlers were paid thanks to ticket sales. It was around this time that a form of the sport began in which wrestlers could also hit their opponents (wrestling with strikes).

After independence, this form of the sport slowly became professional and took hold in towns and cities. It used to be that all types of hits were allowed: punching, elbowing, kicking, kneeing, head-butting, biting and clawing. Some fighters even grew their nails, using them as weapons to blind their opponents. One wrestler in particular, who is still talked about, used to sharpen his teeth in order to bite off opponents’ ears, and used to enter the arena wearing a macabre necklace of these ‘trophies’.

Since then, although the rules have become stricter, with head-butts being ruled out most recently, Senegalese wrestling has remained the only combat sport with bare-fisted punches and no protection, which is why it has not yet been sanctioned by the western world.

Nowadays there are two forms of Senegalese wrestling practised. The first is traditional wrestling (without striking the opponent) which has the largest number of participants, especially at amateur level, and also takes place in Niger, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. The other form is wrestling with strikes, which is only practised in Senegal.

Traditional wrestling (also sometimes called simple wrestling or grosso modo) involves flooring the adversary so that they hit the ground with either their head, back, flank, behind, or all four of their limbs. Wrestling with strikes, in which wrestlers can weigh up to around 145kg, maintains the same principals, but also allows punches to the face or head, and can end with a knockout. A fight normally lasts between ten seconds and three to four minutes. The first to be floored loses the fight.

Wrestling has become the number one national sport in Senegal, ahead of football (soccer), and has also become a means of social ascendance. Wrestling is not just seen as a sport, it is also a slice of African life, tradition, and culture, in which there is a curious mix of animist and Muslim beliefs. Although Senegal is a secular republic, the various stands of Islam practiced there (Tidjane, Mouride, Lion, etc) encompass the religious beliefs of 90% of the population, and are therefore very much part of the political social life in the country. To witness the scale of this, one just needs to attend the Grand Magal pilgrimage in Touba, which brings together approximately two million members of the Muslim Mouride brotherhood each year for a week of worship.

Fans of the sport can therefore clearly see two distinct forces at work within the arenas as stadiums where the sport takes place: the pugilistic spirit, but also the mystical aspect.

When a wrestler arrives in the arena/stadium, they are accompanied by others from their wrestling stable/school, their technicians, and also by their ‘thimoukays’, who are close confidants of the wrestler, usually their brothers or cousins. They act as intermediaries between the wrestler and the ‘marabouts’, who are holy men who make amulets, holy water, and other mystical items. The thimoukays therefore help to manage this mystical side of the sport, while the wrestler’s trainer focuses almost entirely on the pugilistic side. The thimoukays go and collect bottles of specially prepared holy water from the marabouts that they know, in exchange for a significant amount of money (each wrestler has a large budget for this). These bottles of potions, known a ‘sarafas’ in Wolof language, are full of strange ingredients such as hair from lions and hyenas, gazelle milk, and the ground up roots of sacred and secret trees. During the preparation of the holy water, the marabouts also recite a verse from the Koran 1000-2000 times, in order to give the wrestler added courage, skill, and protection. Depending on the instructions from the marabouts, the wrestler pours the sarafas over their body, head, or can even drink them as a magic potion. Each specific mixture has as precise significance and purpose. For example, if a wrestler pours a pig’s milk potion on their head, which would seem to go against Muslim beliefs, can help to cancel out the effects of an opponent’s marabouts.

Clearly, the whole process is very complex. Whilst the mix of animist and Christian beliefs lead to the creation of voodoo (originally in Benin), the mix of animist and Muslim beliefs here have created the marabouts and their mystical traditions. There are in fact various kinds of marabouts. The more famous ones are generally religious leaders who are very wealthy, and are always accompanied by an entourage of disciples and faithful followers. The lower-level ones are more like mascots to the wrestlers.

This is in fact a simplified explanation, because wrestlers of different ethnic backgrounds will have their own traditions and folklores to follow, and will belong to different strands of Islam practiced in Senegal. For example the wrestler Yekeni is a Tidjane Muslim of Serere origin, while the wrestler Baboye is a Mouride Muslim of Toucouleur origin.

Hundreds of adolescents dream of becoming ‘King Of The Arenas’, and train hard on beaches and in school playgrounds all over the country. They start out battling in ‘mbapatts’, which are unofficial events with little organization or planning, and are somewhat clandestine in nature. This is the grass roots level of the sport, and the atmosphere at such gatherings can be electric. They normally take place on empty wasteland at night, with no seating, so the spectators form a circle around the wrestlers. All the necessary ingredients for a good wrestling match are present: amulets and lucky charms of all kinds, ritual dancing, and traditional Senegalese ‘djembé’ hand drums hit by hand and with a green wooden stick. Little by little, the young wrestlers gain experience this way, and build athletic physiques. They can then enrol in one of the many official tournaments across Senegal, organized by the CNG (Comité National de la Gestion de la Lutte - meaning ‘national committee of wrestling management’). There isn’t a town or village that doesn’t have its own wrestling arena. Victory in such tournaments can bring prizes of a cow, a taxi, or a significant sum of money. This enables the most motivated of wrestlers to take a further step towards the higher profile form of wrestling with strikes, first via smaller fights, then the CLAF (Championnat de Lutte Avec Frappe e meaning ‘championship of wrestling with strikes’), which is the top division of the sport. By this stage, the wrestlers have put on a lot of weight and built up their muscles through intensive daily training routines. The spectators fill up a stadium at one of these events, to watch the mystical spectacle which can sometimes last all afternoon, in contrast to the often explosive and short-lived fights themselves. The amazing Senegalese folklore is in full effect for all to see: the ‘Simba Gaïndé’ dressed up as lions accompany the marabouts, the best ‘griots’ (West African poet, singer, and musician) in the country accompany the ‘bakkou’ ceremonial dancing that the wrestlers perform, increasing the fervour of their fans in the stadium stands.

The champions are well-known throughout the country, and have inspirational stage names. Some of the ones that stand out are Bombardier (or B52), Tyson, Gris Bordeaux (grey-Bordeaux), Manga II, le Tigre de Fass (the tiger of Fass), Elton, Tonerre (thunder), Lac de Guiers (Guiers lake), Bazooka, Super Etoile (superstar)...

To spread out the wrestling season across the full eleven month period (August is their one month off), they intersperse it with special events. These are the most important fights, which are regularly referred to locally as “the fight of the century”! The whole nation is gripped for such events, with all the television and radio stations covering them, as well as the national print press. The organizers are major businessmen, such as Luc Nicholaï and Gaston Mbengue. Their event management companies handle a lot of money coming in from major sponsors such as the omnipresent telecommunications provider Orange. The purse (prize money) at such events can be huge in local terms, up to about €150,000 Euros (USD $190,000) for both of the main wrestlers at an event (in a country where the average monthly income per capita is around €35 Euros / USD $44). These highest profile wrestlers are treated like demigods, similarly to how sumo wrestlers in Japan were treated not so long ago.

For the past few years, the wrestler who is referred to as ‘The King Of Senegalese Arenas’ is Yékini (real name Yakhya Diop). His record of achievements is exemplary. Having won more than sixty traditional wrestling tournaments between 1992-1997, he won the African heavyweight Grecco-Roman wrestling championships three years in a row (1998, 1999, 2000), and was voted the best overall African wrestler in 2000 and 2001. At the same time as his Olympic disciplines, he also simultaneously began taking part in wrestling with strikes in 1997, and still remains unbeaten in 2010.

This fisherman’s son is very close to his Sérère culture, and proudly represents the Siné Saloun where he is from, and where he is profoundly adored. He is an extraordinary individual, and is very generous. He is 1.92m tall, and weighs 135kg, a fine specimen. He works relentlessly, and his life is based entirely around training and prayer. His power is matched only by his humility. Although he may seem like a smiling Buddha figure, he regularly beats opponents with disconcerting ease. He is the only person to have been able to floor the leading wrestlers from three generations in the sport, the older generation, his own, and the new younger generation. He has been officially crowned the ‘King Of The Arenas’ on Senegalese television after his victory against Gris Bordeaux in 2009. However, for mystical reasons, he has still not placed the actual crown on his head.