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Published: November 1st 2006
The makeshift rice sack screens fail to keep shadows in or curious noses out.
“La Lutte” has several meanings in French - it’s often used to signify a “struggle” or “fight”, as in “the fight against poverty”. When it comes to traditional wrestling though, La Lutte surely has to mean the struggle the largely female audience has to contain itself.
Picture in your mind those well-screened images of screaming women (and men), beating their own heads in hysteria as John, Paul, George and Ringo played inaudibly on a stage in the middle of a stadium somewhere in the states. Now dress the audience in colourful sparkling robes and dresses and dim the lights to near darkness. Add a deafening rhythm from 10 drums, strip the Beatles down to their underpants (no, actually take off their pants and give them some hot pants and a thong), put them on a high protein diet for a couple of years and roll them in mud and dust and you just start to get the picture.
I had been told by an American Peace Corps volunteer that the wrestling was “always a blast” and so was ready for a Big Daddy Vs Giant Haystacks kind of affair. What I got was a taste of
Drums and hot pants as the wrestlers strut around the arena before the start of the competition.
true African energy and magic. Oh, and for all the women reading, an eyeful of some of the fittest and most powerful and toned men in hot pants and thongs I’ve ever seen (Mum - you would have loved it!). And these were the juniors?
I’d asked what time the evening started (too hot to wrestle in the day) and had been told to just listen out for the drums - “when the drums start, the wrestling will follow”. So, at 7pm, when I heard the sound of TamTams being carried on the wind, I grabbed Ousseynu Mar and headed for the small temporary arena that had been set up for this first evening of wrestling after the end of Ramadan.
The arena is a roped off rectangle of sandy, dusty ground surrounded by a screen of rice sacks sewn together to stop non-payers watching the “combats”. The screens don’t work and are soon full of holes made by curious kids, despite the organisers periodically walking around and whacking the bags with what looks like a small tree. Inside the ropes are neat lines of supporters and at the front of each line, closest to the arena itself,
Locked in shoulder holds, two wrestlers head for the crowd.
an array of plastic bottles and containers full of strange coloured liquids. I asked Ousseynu what was in the bottles. He grinned, winked, tapped the side of his nose and said (not kidding) “potions to give power and scare off evil spirits”. Errr, OK I thought, and then noticed that, in the arena itself, what I thought was a group of organisers pacing out the size of the arena was actually a group of cloaked wrestlers working themselves up into an almost trance-like state. Pacing and swaggering backwards and forwards in time with the drums, kneeling in the dust, planting a rams horn firmly in the ground, drawing symbols and then prostrating themselves in the sand until one of their supporters came and picked them up, whilst pouring magic liquid over their heads.
The arena filled with more wrestlers - about 30 in all - now stripped down to their hot pants, covered in what are known as “gri gri” - belts, amulets, charms, headdresses, bracelets to ward off evil spirits - and carrying sticks, ropes and spears. As the rhythms intensified and the pacing and facing-off grew more intense, wrestlers make a break for the drums and perform
The drums (foreground) provide the rhythm for the night as two wrestlers fight it out in the dimly lit arrena
a dance something along the lines of a Cossack dance culminating in frantic waving of arms - that kind of cartoon angry arm waving that’s usually accompanied by random shouting of the “Hublaghrughblughhablughra” kind. Scared the shit out of me the first time I saw it.
Then the “tirage” - the draw to decide who fights who - and finally, after ceremonial removal of the gri gri, dousing in water magic liquids (I asked if vegetable oil was allowed - it’s considered as cheating and is banned. Sheep and goat urine both seem to be OK though) and powdering in dust, three pairs of wrestlers head to the centre of the arena. I wait for everyone else to clear out of the way but they don’t move - the pacing and dancing continues all around the arena as the wailing woman grabs the microphone and the Lutte begins.
The whistle blows and head slapping, general intimidation and distraction and teasing touching of hands are the prelude to some amazingly fast moves and long protracted struggles often ending up in the crowd before the referee can break the fight. Throwing sand in your opponent’s eyes is considered rude but
Getting ready for the final "combat", a wrestler removes his charms and amulets used to ward off evil spirits.
seems to happen fairly frequently as the wrestlers use dust on their hands to improve their grip and to coat their backs and legs. In a split second and after a fast change of position, one of the wrestlers is on his back and the other running towards the drums demanding a victory dance rhythm. The loser looks distraught, rolls over and lies face down in the dirt until his supporters pick him up and carry him back to his corner - there seems to be a huge amount of shame in losing. After each bout, the gri gri goes back on and more rituals are performed.
The arena feels chaotic and each time a favourite wrestler breaks off to do a dance, the woman scream liberally, throw their heads around, beat their ears and temples and waves their skirts in excitement - I’m a little scared as groups of women from different villages supporting their local wrestler start to hit each other (disagreement over who is the best dancer I am told) and things descend into chaos for ten minutes as they are pulled apart. It doesn’t bode well for the final.
The build up to the
A wrestler hangs his head in shame as he walks away from the arena after losing a "combat"
final bout is charged. It’s nearly midnight, I haven’t eaten, the singers have been wailing hypnotically for 5 hours and the two wrestlers have been pacing the arena and performing their rituals for about 20 minutes. Finally they are called to the centre where they face each other, slowly remove their gri gri and finally position themselves for the bout. The whistle blows and after about 30 seconds of head slapping and hand pulling, an explosion of movement and the two are locked together and heading for the singers. The wailing stops and singers flee as the two tumble into their chairs. Screams from the hysterical supporters as the crowd strain to see what has happened turn to screams of anger as the referee awards the bout to the “wrong man”. All hell breaks loose as the arena fills with people pushing each other and the referee. Someone knocks down the string of temporary lights, there is a pop and the whole town is plunged into darkness as the unfused lights land in some water.
Ousseynu grabs my arm and tells me to run but in the new darkness, my eyes have not yet adjusted and I let him drag me away to a safe distance as the screaming continues.
“You should see the senior heavyweights” Osseynu laughs.
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