A modern juggernaut with traditional roots: Inside Senegalese wrestling

The country’s national sport preserves cultural traditions and offers a path to economic independence

Photograph by Christian Bobst
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A local wrestling tournament is held on the basketball court, or "Olympique de Ngor" stadium. Kherou Ngor participates in order to support the wrestlers in his neighborhood.
Photograph by Christian Bobst

Abdoulaye Sy’s strict combat preparation routine starts four months before the “special fight.” Every morning, he wakes up at 6 a.m., prays, and pours a mystery liquid prescribed by a marabout, or local religious leader, over his head for good luck. He then heads to the beach in Dakar to train in the brisk, pre-dawn air.

The professional wrestler, who will fight in Senegal’s new Chinese-funded arena next month, is as strict about his bodybuilding regimen as he is about getting the spirits on his side. In addition to his morning mystical “bath,” in the evenings he puts pieces of paper with excerpts from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, in a water bottle, and pours the mix over himself again.

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While it’s not uncommon to see dozens of men standing in front of a small TV screen on the streets during football tournaments, wrestling is what fills stadiums and thrills crowds in this West African country. A daily newspaper chronicles the sport’s latest happenings and fighters’ faces are often seen on public buses and billboards. (A local's guide to Dakar.)

At sundown around the Dakar peninsula, groups of young men run and wrestle in the sand, hoping to eventually get a small piece of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that some of the most famous players make. “It can be a way for young people to make it in the country, without migrating, all the while respecting tradition,” said Dominique Chevé, an anthropologist who has studied Senegalese wrestling for more than 10 years. For many, it is “la lutte ou la pirogue,” wrestling or taking a boat across the Mediterranean, in hopes of finding opportunity in Europe.

The sport, which evolved from a centuries-old way of training for war in Senegal’s remote villages to a multimillion-dollar industry, has not lost its roots. Although fighters arrive in the arena clad in tracksuits that resemble American boxers, underneath are lucky charms prescribed by the increasingly influential marabouts. (See the women wrestlers of Bolivia.)

On game day, Ndir wore traditional pagne (loin cloth), with gris-gris (amulets) peppered all over his body. On his upper arms, bracelets made of sheepskin were filled with excerpts of the Quran to give him strength. Around his neck, necklaces made from shells imparted protection. And on his head sat a tall, traditional straw hat adorned with red-tainted leather, given to him by his uncle on the advice of the marabout.

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A statue of the Senegaese wrestling legend Yekini lays disassembled in a garden in Bambilor. Yekini was undefeated for a decade before losing to Lac de Guers 2 in 2016.

The influences of globalization are felt in the arena, as the succession of traditional dances, singing, and poetry—which change according to the wrestlers’ ethnic groups and neighborhoods—is performed by groups wearing T-shirts sponsored by telecom companies. But there is a “strengthening of tradition, globalization has not completely erased [these customs],” Chevé says. “Wrestling still is a completely Senegalese field, which Senegalese people defend as such.”

Ndir says he would still be a wrestler were it not for the high risks. In laamb, the form of wrestling which allows punches, fighters only wear a mouthguard as protection. He stopped fighting a year ago, and is now in charge of a 50-men security team for his neighborhood. (See how helmets can combat concussions.)

“My mom asked me to stop fighting. That’s what all the moms say."

Christian Bobst is a Swiss photographer living in Zurich. Follow him on Instagram @christian_bobst_photography. Anna Pujol-Mazzini is a freelance journalist covering humanitarian issues, migration and gender in West Africa. Follow her on Twitter @annapmzn.