Technique, strength—and, of course, a good Gris-gris.
These are the three keywords to win in the Dakar Arena and find yourself lifted up by the crowd in celebration.
In Senegal, wrestling is a highly respected sport—a practice dating back to folk traditions of ancient times. It was practiced in tiny villages for many reasons: to demonstrate strength and virility, to prepare for war, to court women and to support families with prestige and money.
In recent decades, it has become something of a national sport in Senegal, followed passionately by people across the country. The combatants themselves also take the endeavor very seriously. Each fighter trains for months in preparation for a competitive bout. Men practice the sport all over: on the beach, in fighting schools or in multi-discipline boxing gyms.
During match day, the ritualistic roots make themselves clear. A marabout—a Muslim holy man, often itinerant—accompanies the wrestlers into the ring. He is responsible for attending to the various religious activities surrounding the fight. He is also the maker of the aforementioned Gris-gris, a necessary good luck talisman.
Meanwhile, each of the fighters performs a ritual dance in front of the griot—a traditional storyteller and minstrel—who fills the air with the sound of drums. Both combatants coat their bodies with magic potions and, often, with the life-giving strength of milk.
The sport itself consists of bare-handed fighting (striking with hands is allowed in the traditional version). Each bout occurs on a large patch of sand, with bleachers erected for the energetic crowds.
The match ends when one of the two contenders is put on the ground (or forced out of the ring). Beyond the immediate elation of victory, success in the sport can promise even greater rewards. The most acclaimed champions become bonafide public figures, appearing on television and reaping financial gain.
But even in the lower categories, the hours of training and dedication are often well-rewarded through celebration and acclaim. Indeed, many of the most famous wrestlers come from the humblest side of the society. For the poor suburban youth, the dream of fighting in Dakar’s Arena is really an opportunity for social emancipation—perhaps the only way out.
—Luca Meola, Alexander Strecker