Crossing Continents producer John Murphy describes entering the chaotic world of mysticism, singing, drumming, excited crowds and superstars that surrounds Senegal’s most popular sport.
Having half your money stolen from you as you’re standing outside the airport is not the best introduction to any country.
I had been warned by a colleague who loves Senegal that the Senegalese love money – be careful.
It all turned out well, though, as our indomitable fixer-come-translator succeeded somehow in getting the money back.
I won’t go into all the details but the money episode was, somehow, appropriate.
Presenter David Goldblatt and I were in the capital Dakar to look at how one traditional, rural pastime has been transformed into a lucrative, urban, sporting spectacular – and one which thousands of young men hope will be their route to fame and fortune.
In a country with massive unemployment, the lure of sporting success and riches is a powerful one, even if it involves intense training, bulking up and a willingness to be punched.
Senegalese wrestling – or at least the version that draws the crowds to the stadiums in the capital – is called Lutte avec frappe. In other words, with hitting.
The violence, combined with the commercial and media success of the few superstars at the top of the wrestling pile is certainly a potent brew for the crowds. Particularly those from the suburbs and youngsters aspiring to make their way out of poverty.
He’s a good boy, he listens to his parents, so Allah has already decided he’s going to be a champion," says the aunt of one young hopeful, Boy Soce.
And he’ll buy us a house and take us on the Haj to Mecca.
We interviewed Boy Soce and his aunt in a crowded bedroom, our backs pressed up against a cupboard.
A baby was asleep on the bed and a crowd of relatives and neighbours were lounging about. Meanwhile outside a racket was going on as a couple of young girls shouted from their balconies to each other.
Without getting overly technical, that doesn’t lend itself to an easy recording experience. But in Africa, noise of all sorts is part of the experience – traffic, horses and carts, children everywhere, drumming and goats, unaware of their forthcoming fate during Eid.
Boy Soce’s fight against his fellow 16-year-old, Forza 2, takes place in a Mbapat, a neighbourhood competition. It’s the first rung on the wrestling ladder.
Canvas sheets form a makeshift amphitheatre on a bit of sandy ground in the suburbs.
The drums beat an incessant rhythm, pulling in the crowd from all around.
Children run around with banners, chanting the names of their local heroes.
For hours before the bouts start, the various wrestlers, ranging from young, skinny kids to the larger, more muscled Boy Soce and Forza 2, strut about the arena, scooping sand over themselves, performing dance routines and pouring various potions on the ground and on their heads.
Once again the volume dial appears to have been turned to 11.
Dancing and drumming are integral to Senegalese wrestling.
Talk to the drummers and they say they’re the most important element of the spectacle.
But if you can track down a preparateur mystique [mystical preparator], then he will be clear that he’s the most important member of any wrestler’s retinue.
Thierno Gaye is a preparateur mystique responsible for getting together the vital potions, charms and protective amulets for one of the country’s top five wrestlers, Bala Gaye 2.
We met him in an unprepossessing cafe on the beach front in another Dakar suburb.
He begins speaking in a barely audible mumble.
Mysticism really exists, he says. Even if you don’t believe in it, we can get you. There are some secrets I can’t tell you.
But he seems to begin enjoying revealing some of those secrets.
During the interview he pops out to his car, returning with a little black plastic bag.
Inside there’s a padlock covered in snake skin. Apparently he can use it, backed up with incantations from the Quran and animist beliefs, to lock up Bala Gaye’s opponents, freezing them to the spot.
But there’s also a whiff coming from the bag.
We’re too polite to say anything, until he discretely reveals a small monkey’s head.
At first he seems a little reluctant to pull the head out of the bag altogether, but the wish to show off this powerful magic wins out.
He’s clearly proud of what he’s got. It’s very difficult to get this, he says.
He doesn’t explain exactly how or where he got it, though he does tell us that the way the monkey is killed (again unexplained) is most important.
You need to have the mouth open and the four teeth showing – that’s really important.
Given that all wrestlers have their own preparateur mystiques, how does he know that his magic is going to be more powerful than that of his opponents?
By the results, he says.
Senegalese wrestling has superceded football as the country’s favourite sporting spectacle, making some of its superstars very wealthy and fuelling the dreams of thousands of others.
It draws in wrestlers from across West Africa.
There is a worry, though. What happens when the dream ends for most, when those thousands of hopefuls have their hopes of success eventually dashed?
As one TV wrestling anchorman put it: It’s worrying. What will become of this muscular mass?
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