Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Traditional Senegalese Wrestling

My family and friends would possibly be surprised to see me writing about wrestling - any form of it. I don't think I've ever watched more than a few seconds of American wrestling because the idea of two grown men (or women) duking it out as a means of entertainment holds no appeal to me. Yet while looking for photographs of gris-gris for a craft we did a short while ago, I kept coming across these wrestlers wearing them. While showing the girls, it peaked all of our interests, and here is what we've learned.

Many cultures have a traditional form of wrestling - here are a few, just off the top of my head: Mexican Lucha Libre; Indian Kushti; Japanese Sumo; the sparring of Chinese Martial Arts; and of course professional wrestling seen in North America. 

Historically, traditional wrestling was an initiation rite among the Serer people and a preparatory exercise among the warriors. Today, it's the number one national sport, surpassing even soccer (football) in its popularity. There isn't a town or village that doesn't have a wrestling arena. Although there are two forms of wrestling in Senegal (laamb is Senegalese wrestling that includes striking), traditional wrestling does not allow for striking the opponent and has the largest number of participants. Matches usually take place on a sandy surface, and the winner is the one to cause his/her adversary to fall to the ground first. Champions become national celebrities and are well compensated. The younger generation is especially enthralled, and the underprivileged see it as a potential means to change their social standing. In fact, the popularity of Senegalese wrestling has increased proportionately to the decrease in economic stability in Senegal (currently the unemployment rate is approximately 48%).

Professional Senegalese Wrestling Match.
Notice all the gris-gris (charm/amulet) worn by the wrestlers around their arms, chest, stomach and legs.
Photos adapted as collage - original photo credit to Serigne Diagne (CC)

In most of the country, wrestling matches are only between men, though there is a region in southern Senegal (Casamance) with a long history of female wrestling. BBC Africa has a great photo slideshow of Senegalese women wrestlers and the traditions found at their matches here

Senegalese wrestling at the beach in Dakar, Senegal
Photo Credit: Sebastien Lafont (CC)

What's most interesting (to me) is that wrestling isn't seen as just a sport, but a vital part of the culture as it incorporates Muslim, animist beliefs and Senegalese folklore (90% of the population in Senegal is Muslim). Whether a professional match in a stadium, or a neighborhood match at night, Senegalese wrestling is where sport meets mysticism. 

These men are performing The Simba - The False Lion Dance - as part of the spectacle & ceremony prior to a wrestling match.
Photo Credit: Robin Presta

I will attempt to offer a simplified overview of a complex system. Senegalese wrestling is very ceremonial. Although the wrestling matches are often short lived fights, spectators fill up the stadiums hours in advance to watch the mystical spectacle that precedes them. From my understanding, the spectacle is as much to increase each wrestler's popularity from the spectators as it is to imbue them with mystical charms in order to win. The Simba dance is performed (see photo above), several marabouts (holy men) and their assistants perform rituals and offer potions, the best griots (a West African poet, singer, musician and historian) make music to accompany ceremonial dancing performed by the wrestlers themselves, and there's plenty of drumming. 

Clockwise, from top left: Drumming, perhaps by a griot?; various potions for the wrestlers to either drink or pour over themselves created by the marabouts; a wrestler pouring a potion over himself as a charm; a wrestler performing a ceremonial dance prior to the match.
Photos adapted as collage - Original Photo Credit to Serigne Diagne (CC)

Each wrestler has several marabouts (holy men) in their employ, who are paid by the wrestlers. These holy men make amulets (gris-gris seen on the wrestlers bodies), perform rituals, make bottles of potions, and sometimes sacrifice an animal (chicken, goat or pigeon). The potions are made with ingredients like hyena hair, gazelle milk and ground up roots. While preparing the potions, the marabouts recite a verse from the Koran, and though some potions are poured over the wrestler's head and body, others are to be drunk. Each potion has its own specific purpose. All of these magic charms are done in order to defeat the opponent as well as to protect from the opponent's charms. 

Marabout performing a mystical ritual
Photo Credit: Robin Presta (CC)
I have to admit, I would love to watch a  match of Senegalese wrestling - especially the spectacle that precedes it! 

If you'd like to see more, you can find great photographs here, here and here.

If you'd like to make your own West African good luck charms, known as gris-gris, find our tutorial here.

Young boys playing at Senegalese Wrestling
Photo Credit: Serigne Diagne (CC)
Title image adapted from Seneweb with overlay.


  1. Why do I have the feeling some of these potions and charms have the side effect of making the guy drunk......

    1. Oh my! I hadn't even thought of that! Hm... palm wine and gazelle milk - that would be quite the combination!


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