It was unusually tight security at Senegal’s 2sTv premises on Sunday, July 11th.
It was ‘Face-to-face’ night for two of the country’s biggest names in West African Traditional Wrestling. The fighters – Bombardier and Balla Gaye II, were scheduled to faceoff on July 31st.
As it is ahead of every bout, the months, weeks and days leading to the showdown are characterized by war of words, fought on the pages of newspapers, on the airwaves of radio and TV stations, and during ‘Face-to-face, which is a day when the contenders meet, talk and brag about what’s in store for the opponent.
Traditional wrestling or Lutte Traditionelle in French, is a style of wrestling popular in West Africa, particularly Senegal, where it is known to have originated from, rooted in the culture and community of rural villages.
Laamb, as wrestling is called in Wolof, the Senegalese lingua franca, has been growing in popularity from country to country.
Like all other wrestling styles, Laamb is characterised by working out, weight cutting and mental warfare. But its cultural and supernatural elements makes it unique.
Wrestlers wear lambskin loincloths, and all sorts of charms tied to the rest of their body. Top fighters have a coach, a griot who sings their praises and also a shaman who prepares the charms and liquid concoctions poured over their body for good luck.
Laamb is done solely in the sand, especially along beaches, where bouts take place within a circle of about 20 meters in diameter. The first contender to fall, or even touch a knee to the ground, loses.
A match can last for as brief as one minute. It can last longer; if there is no winner after a stipulated time, both fighters can be declared losers in a tournament. In a two-man contest or during final rounds of tournaments, fighting continues until there is a winner.
Prohibitions include punching, biting and grabbing the loincloth of the opponent.
According to historians, wrestling began as tribal preparations for battle, transformed into a village ritual and, over the last 50 years it become a major source of entertainment. At one point in West Africa’s history, wrestling was an important feature at village festivals celebrating the harvest season.
Biggest national sport
Seven countries: Senegal, Gambia, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, have dominated traditional wrestling. These are where the sport is more organized with national tournaments, federations and arenas.
In Senegal, where it is the most popular, wrestling is considered the biggest national sport, ahead of even football, for a country with one of the best football teams on the continent and some of the world’s best footballers.
Bouts involving top wrestling can attract between 20, 000 and 30, 000 spectators. And thousands more watch via radio and TV sets.
In Senegal, so popular is the sport that there is now even a women’s game and it’s growing in popularity.
There is an estimated 8,000 professional fighters in the country. Some accounts put the number of young people involved in the sport at over 50,000 in Dakar alone.
Giant billboards advertising fights are a common sight in the streets of the capital city.
But wrestling is fast growing beyond Senegal.
In neighboring Gambia, where it is called ‘Boreh’, wrestling is the second largest sport after football.
In 1994, the Francophone African Games included wrestling to its list of sports. There has also been the African Traditional Wrestling Championship since 1995.
The regional bloc ECOWAS in 1986 adopted wrestling as the official sport of the Community, through which it hopes to attain its vision of moving from a community of states to a community of people. An ECOWAS traditional wrestling championship has been staged since 2008. It’s the single largest international competition dedicated exclusive to the sport.
Since then, about a dozen competitions have been held, up to 2018.
After a break in 2019, plans to resume the championship in 2020 were stifled by COVID-19.
Sering Modou Faye, President of the Gambia Wrestling Association (GWA), says barring the pandemic, Senegal is hosting the event in November.
Gambia is ranked among the top four countries in the region. Due to lockdowns, a lot of bouts were postponed in the country in 2020, after promoters had invested their monies. Cham says not only did that affect the association, but also the wrestlers, some of whom had to accommodate more number of bouts than usual when the restrictions were relaxed.
Nonetheless, the Gambian wrestlers can’t wait for the start of the season. And as part of the preparation, a major bout pitting a local wrestler and the reigning Senegalese champion – Modou Lo is planned. That march is expected to kickstart the beginning of the season which runs from October to July.
The association in June laid foundation stones for the construction of eight wrestling venues, as part of a D29 million (over US$500, 000) investment designed to promote the sport in the country.
The goal, says Cham, is for Gambia to host international competitions.
“Wrestling used to be a traditional sport but now it’s a commercial sport. It’s a way of earning and a way of living. We envisage that in the near future it will be the number one sport in this country,” he says.
When it was first staged, 11 countries participated in the ECOWAS championship. Since then participation has gradually grown to a maximum of 14 out of the 15 countries that constitute the bloc, with the exception of Cape Verde.
The three-day event involves over 60 wrestlers competing in five weight categories and featuring over 100 fights in both team and individual events.
Senegal has dominated the championship. The only country close to it is Niger. Little wonder that throughout the competition’s 14-year history, it has been hosted by only the two countries. Cham says this is because they are the only ones willing to foot the cost involved in hosting it.
So important is hosting the championship for Senegal and Niger that sometimes the competition has been staged twice in one year, as in the last edition in 2018.
But over three decades since ECOWAS adopted the game, some member countries are still struggling to fit it into their priority sporting lists. While some are struggling with infrastructure, others don’t even have a reliable base of wrestlers.
According to Cham, the secret is perseverance and investment.
About eight years ago, he says, Gambian wrestlers were paid a mere D200 (US$5). Today, they receive up to D400, 000 (US$10, 000) per bout.
In contrast, in Senegal a winner earns as much as US$80, 000 per match. In Niger, they get $4,000 in prize money.
According to reports, in Nigeria and Ivory Coast, there are year-round competitions with even bigger prize money, which attract fighters from other countries.
Being a wrestling star in countries where the sport is doing well also comes with opportunities for lucrative endorsement deals.
But with the increase in the stakes come more problems for the sport, especially cheating.
Some fighters eliminated in tournaments allegedly receive bribes to lose to undefeated rival.
Wrestling is also becoming synonymous to violence, especially in Senegal and Gambia, where both fans and fighters have been called out. Two of the most recent bouts in Senegal ended in violence, with properties in and around the arenas destroyed.
In June, about a dozen wrestlers and clubs in Gambia were fined for various offences, including violence. Two fighters were suspended for attacking people after a match. Another one was fined for pouring charms on his opponent.
There have also been concerns around illegal performance enhancing drugs.
All these were the subjects of a summit in 2019, which replaced the usual sporting events. It entailed trainings and conferences designed to revisit the rules of the game.
A number of innovations have since been introduced into the sport as part of this effort, including doping awareness campaign and testing, mainstreaming intellectual contributions and refresher courses for referees to ensure that best practices are kept at all time.
Judges now have the opportunity to watch videos of fights to determine whether a fighter has cheated.
Traditional wrestling also faces a challenge to becoming a true global sport from another quarter – Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), which has been growing in popularity across the continent.
In Senegal itself, many wrestling champions are reported to have switch to the American dominated sport. In 2019, an undefeated Senegalese heavyweight champion Oumar Kane made his debut fight in MMA.