The sun has gone down, it’s New Year’s Eve and the flames from the campfire is lightening up the place where everything will take place. We have crossed the sand banks along the lagoon towards the village near the lodge we live on. It was easy to find the way; we just followed the sound of the drums. As we reach the goal, there is already a party in progress between the big trees with slender branches stretching towards the dark sky. We have been fortunate enough to be invited to a wrestling match in Senegal.
Wrestling is the national sport in Senegal, as well as in Gambia. This is not the kind of wrestling we are used to in Europe, but a traditional wrestling form originally from the Serer people of Senegal. The Serer people’s warriors used wrestling in preparation for battle and also as an initiation ritual for young men. Before the match itself, every wrestler must dance his personal dance in order to call for victory.
At national level there are many tournaments sponsored by the business world. Good performers are super stars in Senegal and can earn a fortune. Many young men across the country exercise hard with a desire to achieve such stardom. Wrestling is also used among young boys for pure joy or to prove their manhood. On the beaches in Senegal you can often see young boys wrestling in the sand and still a proper wrestling match will take place on sand.
Traditionally, wrestling was not just a sport, but also associated with spirituality and shamanism. Much of this is still present in the rituals many wrestlers go through before a match. Therefore, it is also a lot of superstition associated with the wrestling matches in Senegal. The wrester must not only be skilled and strong, but also equipped with luck or a power they call marabout. This force should prevent loss and damage during the match.
I have no trouble feeling mysterious and spiritual forces in the air while sitting in the sand, in the dark by the fire. The wrestlers are getting ready. They are lubricated with oil and their muscles shines. The audience is getting impatient. The drumming increases the pace and the sound is getting higher and the women interfere with loud screams. One woman comes out into the light from the fire and makes her personal dance while we are waiting.
Finally, the judges appear in the campfire light and bend, the entertainment can start. The young men have branches in their hands and dance their own dance in front of the campfire. There will be a lot of dancing before they can wrestle one against one. But then the audience will finally see what they came for. Two and two battles for 5-6 minutes until one is down or until the judges decide who wins.
In this darkness it’s hard to see how big the audience is, but I can clearly hear the present of the local audience and I know that we are 10-12 tourists from different countries. All I can see is what’s going on in front of the campfire between the crooked trees. The silhouette of the trees is clear and cheeky towards the black sky. I believe this is the most exciting and best New Year’s celebration I’ve ever experienced.
Wrestling Grounds from 2006 is a great film and tells more about wrestling and its significant in Senegal.
We spent 3 weeks in Senegal, most of the time in Dakar, December 2014. You can read more posts about Dakar and Senegal on Destinations: Afrika.