Senegalese wrestling: Where sport meets mysticism
Issued on: Modified:
“Balla Gaye II” vs. “Tapha Tine”: these names may not mean much to you, yet wrestling fans across Senegal will be glued to their screens when the two fighters go head-to-head on June 2nd. Senegalese wrestling, which combines mysticism with big bucks, is the country's favourite sport. A diehard fan introduces us to this unusual world of muscular demi-gods and magic charms.
“Balla Gaye II” vs. “Tapha Tine”: these names may not mean much to you, yet wrestling fans across Senegal will be glued to their screens when the two fighters go head-to-head on June 2nd. Senegalese wrestling, which combines mysticism with big bucks, is the country's favourite sport.
Senegalese wrestling traditionally took place between villages following the rainy season. After the fights (known as mbapal), the winner won part of the recent harvest or some livestock. A contact sport, wrestlers are allowed to deliver blows. It turned professional in the 1970s, and in the 2000s, the top wrestlers started earning tens of millions of CFAs, the equivalent to tens of thousands of euros.
The rules: the combat area is delimited by a circle, and the first man to have all four limbs touching the ground, to be lying on his back, or to fall out of the circle, loses the fight.
The fights are highly ceremonial. The baccou, a chorus of women, introduces each fighter into the arena, praising his strength in order to both intimidate his opponent and get the spectators on his side. The fighter is flanked by several holy men that pray for him and cover him with magic charms.
The wrestlers are organised in to teams and the National Wrestling Organisation (CNG) hosts a countrywide competition.
“This passion for wrestling helps channel the frustration - and so the violence - of our often idle youth population”
Aliou (not his real name) is a journalist in Dakar. His website “Senelamb” covers all news related to Senegalese wrestling.
Currently, in my country, being Senegalese is synonymous with loving wrestling. Everybody loves it, especially the young generation. Youths from underprivileged neighbourhoods see in this sport a potential road to success. I am thinking in particular of Tyson, the most famous wrestler, who was very big in the 2000s. For some, it has become a career. There are now tons of training schools. The students all dream of becoming a famous wrestler one day. And there are many careers that have cropped up around this sport, including in communications, graphics [for the advertisements], and journalism. I like the social aspect of this sport. It helps channel the frustrations, and so the violence, of our often idle youth population.
A fight in 2010. Photo by Serigne Diagne of Dakaractu.
“Even though wrestlers hit each other, spectators aren’t out to see blood”
The passion for this sport is ever increasing. It seems that wrestling is even more closely followed than football, especially given the recent defeats of our national football team.
A good fight is a short fight. Even though wrestlers hit each other, spectators aren’t out to see blood. The goal is never to hurt your opponent, but to throw him down. We don’t like the “punchers” [Editor’s note: one wrestler who often caused blood to flow was nicknamed “the Butcher”]. We want to see good technique, but above all we want to see the wrestler giving it his all.
A wrestler dressed up in a traditional lion costume before a fight in Dakar. Photo taken by Erica Kowal.
The wrestler Baboye poses with his magic potions. Photo taken by Serigne Diagne.
“The holy men do whatever they can to increase the wrestler’s popularity”
We also like the whole mystical element. The holy men do whatever they can to increase the wrestler’s popularity among the crowd. And popularity is key, because as a wrestler, you need people to want to come watch you fight in order for promoters to organise fights. Holy men are also present to protect their wrestler with magic charms that, according to our traditional beliefs, work to defeat the opponent, who is also protected by his own charms. In the arena, the struggle is also one between holy men. Sometimes they make sacrifices several days before the fight or even in the arena. In these cases, they kill chickens, goats, or pigeons. They are paid for their efforts by the wrestlers themselves. And the wrestler who forgets his holy man should be very, very careful, since the holy man may turn his powers against him.
Spectators watching Tapha Tine training in May 2013. Photo by Aroum Ndiaye.
“We all know that doping takes place, and I personally would not want young wrestlers to follow this path”
There is also the issue of doping by famous wrestlers. Lately, some have come back completely unrecognisable after a short training stay in the United States [See video below]. We also started asking questions after the fall of a famous wrestler, SaCadior, who strangely lost his balance in the middle of a fight. We all wondered if it was related to his recent weight gain, which seemed abnormal [Editor’s note: several famous wrestlers have spoken about doping techniques that allow a rapid increase in muscle mass. When contacted by FRANCE 24, sports doctor Jean-Pierre de Mondenard explained that rapid weight gain, generally caused by anabolic steroids, can cause weakness and loss of balance.] We all know that doping takes place and I personally would not want young wrestlers to follow this path. In fact, the CNG is considering putting in place a testing system [Editor’s note: in March, the organisation announced wrestlers may be subject to surprise tests].
Internet users voice surprise at how quickly wrestlers’ bodies can change
Video uploaded to YouTube by Basile Niane.