It was a Coca Cola umbrella that first caught my eye. It seemed somewhat incongruous, flailing around in the middle of traditional Africa … rather like the opening scene from the movie Even the Gods Must Be Crazy. For a moment, I mused if the parent company was taking a stranger-than-fiction moment and propelling it into a larger-than-life television commercial until a sharp, shrill whistle jarred me to reality.
In The Gambia, wrestling is serious business. It’s the country’s national sport and, deep seated within its culture, wrestling is a source of community honor, personal pride and cold, hard cash. To be a Gambian wrestler is akin to playing in the National Football League and this, the weekly championships at Serrekunda, are like the regional finals!
Candidates, the best of their village, come from all over the countryside and when they reach Serrekunda, Mandinka is pitched against Fula, Jola against Wolof, Serahuli and others. The competition is fierce and while wrestlers in the preliminary rounds look as if they’ve had too much Yamba (local palm wine) the night before, the action soon takes on a life of its own. Superstition also plays a big role in traditional wrestling and most fighters enlist the help of the Marabout, a medicine man, and wear small amulets and shells in the belief they hold various protective and strengthening taboos.
Like their North American counterparts, these young Gambians must be as skilled at bringing their opponent to the ground as they are as posturing their “in your face” egos around the arena. Sound familiar? However, unlike All Star Wrestlers, these village warriors wrestle each other in a sand pit arena, the rules are minimal – no fancy hand-locks or technical throws – just get him down, and candidates must be extraordinarily adept at strutting, dancing, sparring and bragging any challengers into action. To wrestle and win is to make money so pity the six foot tall, 350 lb champion who cannot find a challenger for the night.
And they don’t do it alone; every one of the fifty or so athletes is accompanied by an enthusiastic band of noisy followers. Beating drums and blowing whistles, these groupies trail their heroes in a discordant chorus and when their man wins the entire troupe does a victory lap of the arena, holding out cache bags into which appreciative spectators throw Delasi coins.
With up to twenty matches being wrestled simultaneously, it’s easy to lose track of who’s on parade, who’s touting for a challenger or who’s wrestling who. Heads are locked into shoulders, hands grasp frantically for any advantage and feet look as if they’re dancing on hot coals, kicking up clouds of sand until there’s an eye level haze around each tussle. And above it all, a red and white umbrella, attached to a soda-filled cart, wobbles its way through the crowds – one cultural icon trespassing upon another.
By the time the final championships arrive, the feverish atmosphere has given way to hushed expectation. Side bets are heavy and spectators are at the edge of their seats which, by the by, found their way into the stadium thanks to NASA. Yet another anomaly.
The Gambia’s strategic geography made it one of the Space Shuttle’s back up landing sites and Uncle Sam was quick to replace the Air-force inspired K-fields – metal flats used as rough-and-ready runways – with tarmac. It’s virtually the only paved road to be found in the country and today, those metal flats are landing strips of a different nature with their chain links sinking an impression into every derriere. But, for 10 Delasi entrance fee, no-one complains. Seated or standing, Saturday night wrestling at Serrekunda is still definitely one for the books.