I spent this past weekend in the village of Toubacouta, part of a four-day trip with my program to get out of the city and supplement classroom learning with real-life experience. The village was small, located about a four hours’ drive South of Dakar. We may as well have traveled for days though because, as any Senegalese will tell you, village life in Senegal is entirely different from life in the city. So too are sporting events different in the village, and for the first time I got to watch Senegal’s national sport in person: la lutte (“the fight”: wrestling.)
One night I got on a bus with other Americans and Senegalese and rode through the countryside, shrouded in the type darkness that does not exist in a big city. The stars shone brightly in the sky, exposed by a lack of light pollution. Often we passed groups of people walking from neighboring villages to see boys from their village compete in the fight, the bus’ headlights illuminating them for brief moments before they were once again covered by darkness. We came to a stop next to a field of scraggly bushes and I hopped off the bus only to be greeted by the sound of tam-tams (drums) and cheering on the other side of the road, dust rising from the ground and concealing my line of sight.
We crossed the road and filed through the gathering crowd one by one, meeting people’s curious glances with a “ça va? » or a « nanga def? » (how are you in French and Wolof.) I ducked under a tree branch, squeezed past some children hanging around on the outside of the crowd and was greeted suddenly by a scene that was as overwhelming as it was exciting. I had stumbled onto the corner of a dusty arena (if it could indeed be called an arena) roughly the size of two tennis courts, greeted by the stares of at least 500 villagers who had come to watch the wrestlers. In the center of the arena stood a twisted wooden pole, supporting two long electrical wires that stretched from nearby trees. Low-hanging light bulbs cast a soft glow on the arena and music blasted out of two rusty speakers. People sat in chairs and on the ground, sacrificing leg room for a closer view. At least fifty young fit Senegalese men ran and danced back and forth through the dust in front of me, readying themselves for the competition and showing off for the crowd. The winner would receive enough rice to feed his entire village.
A row of plastic chairs had been saved for to my right and I followed the person in front of me absentmindedly, almost tripping over my own feet as my eyes stayed glued on the spectacle to my left. Children crowded behind the chairs and eyed me with curiosity as I reached my chair: little girls in brightly colored skirts and boys wearing soccer jerseys with Samsung written across the front, giggling and whispering to each other in Wolof. As soon as I reached my hand out to say hi to the first little one, a friendship had been formed: soon I was shaking hands and saying hello to at least twenty smiling faces.
The next three hours went by quickly as I sat in my chair enraptured by the surrounding atmosphere. To my left three men sporting long dread locks and Nike running pants pounded on tam-tams, creating their own pulsing rhythm until a wrestler approached them in dance. The wrestler would throw his body from side to side, responding to the rhythm of the tam-tam as it became more and more frantic, ending by pounding his foot or throwing his head toward the ground in time with the final beat. These interactions were meant to show strength, and to protect/grant a wrestler good luck in his fight. I have said it before and I will say it again: never before have I seen so many good dancers in my life as I have seen in this country. The Senegalese believe that dancing is a way to express emotion: you should do it when you’re happy and whenever you feel like it. This is why members of the crowd would often rise along with the music, women surely older than 60 and little boys no older than seven moving their feet as the beat grew faster and faster. Their dancing came naturally, a kind of movement that simply seemed to master the art of being human.
The most exciting part of the night, though, was when two young men would be chosen to compete. The two would line up in the dust facing each other, each wearing traditional fabric wrapped around the groin. Hands on the ground, eyes locked on each other, a whistle would blow and the two would circle each other slowly. One would deliberately put his hand on the top of the other’s head or toss dust toward his opponent’s face, daring him to make a move that could cost him the fight. They looked almost like scorpions ready to strike. At the slightest flinch the two would be locked arm in arm, twisting and turning in an attempt to push the other’s head toward the ground. Bodies glistening with sweat, every muscle tense with effort, the two would tumble toward the crowd as they tried to get a hold of the other. Sometimes they would crash into the crowd, a mass of tangled limbs flailing to gain balance amidst middle-aged men trying desperately to push them back into the arena. The stench of sweat and exhaustion reached my nose in waves as the wrestlers pushed toward me, and a few times I found myself braced with my foot in the air ready to push back against the 300-something pound mass tumbling toward my line of chairs. Thankfully a collision never occurred, though I was grateful for the man sitting to my left who remained ready to dive in front of me should the wrestlers have gotten close enough.
Suffice to say, by the time we were set to leave I was ready to stay for another three hours. I left with the distinct feeling that I had just seen something I would never see again. Senegal is so full of color and spirit, though, that there’s no telling what my next adventure will be.