West African wrestling remains a true contest of courage and strength.
Outlandish costumes, good guys, over-the-top villains, raucous fans, Coke and peanut vendors, an excitable announcer whipping up the hullabaloo in advance of every bout — and the whole thing building up to the much-anticipated main event. Yes, it’s wrestling. But not as we know it.
The venue is a vacant plot in Serekunda township, within walking distance of the Atlantic beaches in the tiny West African nation of The Gambia. The plot is hedged by red-brick walls on three sides, with a temporary corrugated iron fence blocking off the side closest to the main road. A gap in this makeshift fence serves as ticket office and turnstile.
Hundreds of spectators have paid the few coins of admittance. Local dignitaries and foreign tourists have been ushered to the haphazard rows of plastic chairs and wooden benches closest to the fighting area. Everyone else jostles for a standing view.
In one corner, traditional drummers pound a mesmerizing rhythm. The beat never relents. It is the primal pulse of Africa. You can sense your breathing, perhaps even the beat of your own heart, falling into time with it.
All eyes are focused on the arena. The announcer calls out the first two combatants. They are young, lanky, visibly nervous. They are dressed only in briefs. They each splash water onto their torsos, then, glistening in the late afternoon sun, they come to grips. At a shouted signal, their muscles burst to life.
Variations of this spectacle are played out in virtually every culture, from Mongolia to the Amazon rainforest, from the Nubian Desert to the Staples Center. Wrestling began as one of the purest sports: Two men test their strength against each other. In Africa, on the whole, that’s how it remains. Strip away the hoopla, and you are left with an honest contest that will produce a worthy winner and a downcast loser.
“First fight for both,” says the Gambian man standing next to me as we watch the two young wrestlers push and pull each other back and forth. “They are trying very hard.” He shakes his head, laughing.
Soon both men are struggling for breath. Bursts of effort give way to lengthening lulls during which they appear to be propping each other up like a pair of drunks. Finally, one wrestler reaches the point of exhaustion and is thrown to the ground. The crowd erupts. The drumming intensifies. The announcer screams hysterically.
As the bouts progress, there is steady advancement in the age, physique and stagecraft of the wrestlers. The older fighters have colorful monikers, and they strut into the ring wearing animal-skin cloaks and wooden masks that they discard before their fights begin.
The drums beat, whistles screech, the noise of the crowd ebbs and flows, and in the background the two star fighters are making their final preparations. On one side is Yuba Jatta Combat, a wrestler from neighboring Senegal. On the other is Tyson of The Gambia — real name Abdoulie Sonko — the local favorite. With their backs to one another, they each sprinkle the contents of various little bottles onto their skin. Potions. They are dabbling in what they hope will be performance-enhancing witchcraft.
At last they are in the arena, impervious to the frenzy of noise. Their eyes are ferociously intense. When they stoop into the preliminary grip, their bodies seem carved from ebony. The announcer shouts, and the fight begins. This is violence at its most poetic. Arms strain for a hold, legs absorb each onslaught. Finally, Yuba Jatta Combat prevails. Tyson of The Gambia is left bleeding and broken.
It is wrestling, but not as we know it. This is the real thing.