DAKAR, August 2, 2013- A typical bank holiday afternoon in Dakar unveils a laid back feeling, with streets deserted as most residents stay indoors to avoid the sweltering heat.
But this day was different; there was some tinge of excitement in the air, some rush and unusual urgency.
The noise on
the streets, with men dangerously hanging on the hoary colourful minibuses Car
Rapide chanting and waving placards heading towards the Demba Diop stadium, the
mythical stage of Dakar, nestled in the Liberte
The July 2012 post-election fever shadowed by the violent protests had
since waned off and there were no signs of the preying Teranga Lions who
had been hunted out of their turf, following crowd trouble last year.
Politics and football fire up Africa’s most western point capital of a million inhabitants.
A teeming creaky Car Rapide snakes its way down the dusty road bordering the stadium, chants of ‘Niang! Niang!’ fill the air. They must be supporters of a politician, I conclude as another group of men troop by bearing posters emblazoned with the portrait of their hero ‘Thies’.
It was hard to make out what it was all about as they spoke the local Wolof dialect. Whatever the event, it had gripped the city moods, I mused, as I weaved my way through the crowds and policemen outside the stadium trying to figure out the exact location, hall wherever the wrestling bouts would be staged.
“Go inside!” a burly man brusquely gestured pointing towards the main stadium entrance after scanning through my media pass and credentials.
He must have thought I am going to cover the ‘political rally’ at the stadium.
‘Ou es Lutte?’ I pose to a security agent.
“Inside!” he confirms as I spot a familiar face amongst the eager crowd, a Senegalese sports journalist.
“Wrestling in Senegal is often staged outdoors due to the huge number of supporters,” he explains as he guides me to the designated media tribune, next to the $40 ticket VIP area in the stadium already filled up 15 000 capacity stadium, well two hours before the expected start.
A heavily branded stadium decked with advertising by disposed corporates keen on associating with the most popular sport and the stars that easily appeal to the locals’ heart.
There is a carnival feel to this. The distinctly different flavours of Senegalese rhythms blend the air and an aura of entertainment rises. The Sabar drumming rhythmically belts out the popular mbalakh beat as a group of muscular men perform an eye catching dance routine; women dressed in their colourful, elegant traditional regalia belt out ear-splitting tunes in support of the wrestlers drowning the public address announcements, a wild acoustic intensity of vibes.
These are gatherings that have literary gripped the land of Teranga for years.
There is heavy police presence. Security remains a key aspect of the fights here.
Bloody neighborhood brawls before and after the fights; knife assaults within and outside the stadium are common.
“There is no Senegal without wrestling, it is our culture,” explained Khalifa Sow, the President of the Commission of Wrestling center referees which works under the vibrant Comité National de Gestion de la Lutte, (CNG).
“One of the oldest and revered Senegalese tradition is wrestling, it’s the oldest past time. Traditionally, it was used to show manliness and bring pride to people, today the sport has become a source of hope and livelihood for our young men.”
It’s a common sight to find groups of youngsters practicing wrestling moves along Dakar’s sandy beach area Le Corniche.
The wrestlers here are performers on and off the ring.
Each of the wrestlers has a chance to charm the crowd with the latest mbalakh dance moves backed by his sabar drummers.
The dance itself is a spectacle to behold; from lifting of the legs like a dog, combining with some swaggering arm movements, capped with some cocky back and pelvic moves as a show of prowess and pride.
The drumming subsides, the wrestlers retreat to their stations packed with bottles of magic liquids ranging from sour milk, herbal waters and clear waters. The fights should start. Not yet.
This is the part that makes or breaks the bouts. Performing unusual rituals from applying and partaking mysterious concoctions prepared by the revered spiritual marabouts/spiritual mediums mostly associated with tribal superstitions in most parts of the continent.
The sport is deeply embedded in the ancient marabout practice as evident in the tens of amulets worn by the combatants around their hands, legs and even on their waists safely tucked in their loincloths, Ngimb - the customary coverings which emphasize the humane display of their muscular physique and also provides the grip for opponents.
The wrestlers spend chunks of the mega earnings in payment for marabout services whose commands are followed to the book.
“Marabout is only good spirit to help the wrestlers fulfill their potential,” explained Idrissa Sane, a seasoned Senegalese Wrestling journalist at the leading daily L’obs, as Sa Thies from the ‘Double Less’ stables releases a dozen white doves into the air, part of his pre-bout ritual.
As the doves soar into the air, some into the crowded stands, his opponent Niang wraps up running in circles around the improvised sandy ring after soaking himself up with a milky potion, followed by a ritual bath with water, blessed by the marabout, one last step to the coveted bragging rights.
Every gait matters in wrestling. If the marabout instructed left foot first on the ring, so it is!
The common belief here is that the marabouts are sought to disarm your opponents and improve your skills and energise your powers.
Unlike in conventional sports, the wrestlers are paid way before hand by the bout promoters, and share equally the prize money. Niang and Thies were paid $30 000 apiece, indications of the sought-after superheroes lives they lead.
“There is a lot of money in wrestling, which has transformed lives of poor boys, from struggling taxi drivers to superstars. In a way wrestlers are regarded higher than our star footballers because they are the average boys who lived next door and the neighbours have witnessed first hand how much their lives have changed,” said Sow in reference to the foreign based footballers most of whom live abroad unlike the wrestlers who own houses in the posh neighbourhoods of Dakar.
As I marvel at the authentic sporting heritage, a black SUV speeds into the stadium, announcing the arrival of a prominent guest just before the ‘duel of the giants’.
Bodyguards surround the car, one yanks the door open and a brawny, blonde haired man steps out whipping the crowd into frenzy. “The king is here,” a journalist blurts out.
“He just arrived yesterday from a months’ stay in the United States where he had gone for training,” whispers Sane.
He is the top of the four ‘VIP’ wrestlers - the best of the best.
Balla Gaye II, 27, the elder brother of Thies was propelled to the top after he ended 15 years of unbeaten champion Yakhya Diop’s ‘Yekini’ reign. Gaye comes from a lineage of wrestling. His father Double Less, a celebrated wrestler is now a manager and coach.
“I was born and brought up with the money from wrestling. As you all know my father used his earnings from wrestling to pay dowry for my mother,” has been one of Gaye’s recognizable quotes in local media, a proud son who grew even more imposing than his father, and takes pride in his family’s strong link to a sport that has a cult-like following.
To get access to him is not easy. He is a star. The fame every wrestler craves for. With it comes unwavering loyalty from fans, family, friends and the beauties. Gaye restfully enjoys the company of his two wives. In the predominantly Muslim nation, polygamy is permissible. For the swaggering wrestlers it is a sensible indulgence, after all the energy is evident!
Gaye II ‘the king’ was here for the pre-match promotion, where the top two wrestlers who will combat in a month’s time, face off in front of the television cameras at the stadium.
It is the most popular and publicized sport in the country, and on this day five Television cameras televised the bouts live and was widely covered by the publications including the popular daily wrestling newspapers.
I recognize the King from one of the billboards dotting the capital; the wrestlers faces are widely used by advertisers to champion their merchandise.
No banter, the two wrestlers like the rest, have a chance to flaunt their strength, techniques; mbalack styles to impress their fans. Each is ready to prove he is the swiftest and fittest.
“Sponsors put their money in the clubs where this wrestlers are attached and put millions more into the bouts and endorsements, for instance the biggest bout next month could be valued at CFA 175 000 000($355 000),” Sow added proudly an indication of what makes Lutte the desired sport in a country where more than half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. The fight total cost was projected at $800 000 for the prize money, promotion and organization fees.
Rags to riches
Most of the 5000 wrestlers registered by CNG and attached to various clubs, languished in the banlieue or poor suburbs of Dakar mixed in with misery and poverty. A far cry from the lives they lead now basking in grandeur and prominence, the country’s most popular figures. It is a path so rich in wonder well worth watching, celebrating and wishing.
“Wrestling is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It transformed my life and is changing other young boy’s life,” offered Boy Kaïré the President of retired wrestlers in Senegal told me from his base where he works as a discotheque manager in central Dakar.
Teenagers from as young as 17 can be signed up for bouts with the retirement age set at 45.
“The best thing that happened to my life is when my son now 20 picked it up and is already becoming a household name in wrestling,” Kaïré adds proudly.
Wrestling is a wanted distraction for boys in the slums that keeps them away from vices, as boys as young as 10 are seen practicing wrestling strikes, kicks, a hobby supported by their hard-up parents.
Money is the main motivation behind the current craze of wrestling amongst young Senegalese, even girls are now taking up the sport, perhaps consumed by prospects of windfall.
I brace myself for the titanic clash. In a flash of luminescence the crowd broke with common celebration practice, chants of ‘Niang!Niang!” reverberates around the stadium. The two rounds 30 minutes bout was over in just eight seconds! Disappointingly short for me and by extension Niang’s fans.
The predictions, marabouts had indicated it would last eight minutes. Dead wrong!
I struggled to catch the replay on the hazy stadium screen. Niang’s uppercut blow had sent Thies down. The wrestler, who goes down first, loses outright. Overconfidence cost him. He was keener on avoiding imaginary punches. That’s when Niang attacked from below. Within minutes hundreds of adoring fans had mobbed him.
An evening of Senegalese wrestling ends as the rival fans troop out in turns. The party begins for Niang. The reviews, commentaries from the stables and interactive radio and television programs continue for days, weeks on yet another progressive improbability in Senegalese wrestling…A rich cultural heritage embedded in myths and blended in sport.