Al Jazeera World

Senegal: Wrestling with Reality

Traditional wrestling has outgrown its local roots to become a major national sport and even a means of exiting poverty.

Filmmaker: Adil Mimdal

In Senegal traditional wrestling has its roots in the culture and community of rural villages – particularly among the Serer people.

What began as tribal preparations for battle developed into village ritual and soon a form of entertainment. Men traditionally fought at village festivals after the harvest season as a way of attracting women, proving their virility and bringing honour to their communities.

But in the past 50 years traditional Senegalese wrestling has grown exponentially to become a major national sport for both men and women – with celebrity fighters competing for big prize money in large stadia and in front of thousands of fans.

“We can say that it is not just a sport,” says sociologist Aly Tandian. “It has always been a socially stimulating factor in the Senegalese society.”

There are certain places - like the suburbs of Dakar - where young people only have two options: wrestling or leaving the country.

by Aly Tandianhttp: sociologist

“Today there are villages that have become well known in all of Senegal because they have given birth to great wrestlers,” he adds.

Today the professional wrestlers at major events – like “Bombardier” and Eumeu Sene – are household names winning over $80000 a fight.

Up-and-coming fighters like “Lacrymogene” – who we meet in this film – win more modest sums, from a few to a few hundred dollars. But the winnings mean that for some of the poorest, Senegalese wrestling can genuinely represent a means of clawing their way out of poverty.

Traditional wrestling is part of a wider phenomenon of combat sports in West Africa, including in countries like Gambia, Guinea and Gabon. In Senegal the sport has attracted both genders with the women’s game now popular and well respected in its own right.

Olympic fighter Isabelle Sambou has won the African Championships nine times. Safiato Biola has competed in women’s events in Europe and North Africa. And Anta Sambou says winning three golds at the 2017 Francophone Games has built her confidence and transformed her life.

“Wrestling is part of our culture,” says Isabelle.

“If you wrestle when you’re young you can wrestle through your whole childhood and as an adult you can still wrestle. Especially the girls don’t be afraid of a wrestler.”

“I love my achievements so much that it has made me stronger,” she says. “I also represent a force in my village and that has made me reach the top.”

In this film, we explore the popularity of traditional wrestling among Senegalese fighters and fans alike – men and women, urban and rural – from small village festivals to arena events in the capital Dakar.

We look at wrestling as an expression of pride and cultural identity, but also to show how sport – at even the lowest levels – can mean the difference for some between modest local success and a miserable existence on the margins of society.

As Tandian says: “There are certain places – like the suburbs of Dakar – where young people only have two options: wrestling or leaving the country.”