Head to the beach at twilight in Dakar, Senegal and you’re sure to witness a ruckus.
Up and down the strip giant men in shorts grapple in pairs; limbs taught, sinews strained. Sand kicks into the air as one is sent flying, crashing to the ground as cheers rise across the sea breeze.
Adoration and adulation awaits the victor, the loser left to tend to his deflated ego. After taking a moment to compose themselves, it’s time to find their next opponents.
These are Senegal’s elite sportsmen, local heroes training for their next grandstand performance.
It’s remarkable to think there was a time when giving birth to a wrestler was a mark of shame, says local sports journalist Malick Thiandoum.
“[The mother’s] neighbors would look down on her,” he explains, “and she would be criticized.”
For sports-mad Senegal, wrestling was nonetheless seen as an errant pastime for hulking amateurs, sneered at as an indicator of poor social standing. An ancient sport steeped in tradition was laid low, stigmatized in the nation’s collective conscience.
Once upon a time it had been at the very core of Senegal’s social fabric. Known as lute or laamb, at the end of the harvest season, after months of hard labor, youths would wrestle to prove their talent and intelligence – and hopefully attract the attention of a suitor. Village leaders would each have their champion wrestler, the subjects of song and tribute.
But after generations, wrestling lost its crown in the 1970s and 1980s, and soccer became king. Wrestling was reduced to a sideshow “for those who had not been to French school,” says Alioune Sarr, president of the Senegalese Wrestling Federation, referring to class structures left over from the country’s colonial era.
Professionalism changed all that, and it the 1990s wrestling underwent a revolution. The combat sport became a vocation, with sons coming home to their mothers with more than just bruises. Wrestling became not just acceptable again, but cool.
“Today wrestling is without a doubt the most popular sport in Senegal,” says Thiandoum.
Events sell out arenas and a purpose-built 20,000 seat stadium is in the works for Dakar. Good wrestlers can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, he adds, above and beyond their soccer counterparts.
But the positives of professionalism extend way beyond these wrestlers’ bank accounts.
“[Wrestling] generates a huge amount of respect from the Senegalese,” says Sports Minister Mata Ba – which means that when a top wrestler speaks, a nation listens.
Champion wrestler Modou Lo shoulders the burden of many hopes and expectations on his broad frame. Lo rejects the celebrity status that could come with his success, saying it is against the principles that first attached him to the sport.
“God gave us all attributes,” he told CNN. “It means some people depend on you. In Senegal we all help each other. Some people have difficulties, problems. Sometimes people don’t have the money to help themselves.
“If I witness this and can solve it, I will… Any Senegalese would do this.”
The champion is regularly mobbed by supporters in Dakar, and the modest giant is happy to share what he has. Lo hasn’t forgotten his roots as one of 60,000 practicing wrestlers in the capital alone.
Part of the reason behind such mass participation is the ease of access to wrestling. “All you need is space, to put a few chairs down and to wrestle,” says Ba. A ring is a not strictly necessary. However, this frills-free approach belies the intricacies and nuances of the sport.
“It’s composed of many different forms of combat,” says Thiandoum. “To be a good wrestler you need to be a good judoka, a good boxer; you have to master Greco-Roman wrestling, Olympic wrestling… you have to be an all-round sportsman.”
The journalist argues Senegalese wrestling is more spectacular than its Japanese counterpart Sumo, and says there’s no reason the West African nation can’t export the sport – and utilize it as a tourist attraction.
There’s more work to be done and investment to be ploughed into wrestling before that can be done, suggests Sarr:
“We need to strengthen our roots before opening ourselves up. And wherever we are, we should be proud of our identity… Today everyone runs towards his or her roots. Why do we not keep ourselves anchored whilst also opening ourselves up to the rest of the world?”
If there’s one lesson to be taken from wrestling, it’s good to stay grounded.