Traditional wrestling has outgrown its local roots to become a major national sport in Senegal and Gambia. What use to be an inter-Village competition between the strongest and best wrestlers in the Village has now become a national sport drawing fans from all over the world and wherever they may be to see their champ in action.
Traditional Wrestling began as tribal preparations for battle developed into village ritual and soon a form of entertainment. Men traditionally fought at village festivals after the harvest season as a way of attracting women, proving their virility and bringing honor to their communities. Village leaders would each have their champion wrestler, the subjects of song and tribute.
It’s roots dated back in the 14th century in what began as tribal preparations for battle developed into village ritual. One of the oldest known and recorded wrestler in Senegambia was Boukar Djilak Faye (a Serer) who lived in the 14th century in the Kingdom of Sine. He was the ancestor of the Faye Paternal Dynasty of Sine and Saloum (both Kingdoms in present-day Senegal). The njom wrestling spectacle was usually accompanied by the kim njom - the chants made by young Serer women in order to reveal their gift of "poetry" (ciid in Serer. Laamb is the Wolof word for wrestling which is borrowed from Serer Fara-Lamb Siin (Fara of Mandinka origin whilst Lamb of Serer origin). The Mandinka word for wrestling is ÑooboringÖ. The Serer word for wrestling is njom which derives from the Serer word jom (heart or honor). The chief griot who used to beat the tam-tam of Sine called Lamb or Laamb in Serer. The lamb was part of the music accompaniment of wrestling in pre-colonial times as well as after Senegal's independence. It was also part of the Njuup tradition (a conservative Serer music repertoire, the progenitor of Mbalax Music.
As the event continues to draw fans and popularity, it is transcending ethnic groups and is enjoying the status of national sport. Traditionally, young men also used to fight as a distraction, to court wives, prove their virility, and bring honor to their villages. Usually each wrestler (called mbër) performed a bàkk before the start of the combat.
In general, bàkk (which could also be spelled as baku, bakku, bakkous) is an oral art performance that is used to boast about oneself in order to instill a sense of fear or reverence in the audience or rivals. Bàkk is not only used in the context of wrestling but can also be used in political speeches or other encounters in which someone feels the need to brag about his accomplishments to receive admiration. Not only is bàkk used to brag about oneself, but it can also be used to offer respect to one’s elders. The performance of bàkk can be in narratives, praise songs, or poems. Bàkk is used to complement the wrestler’s physical presence by adding artistic elegance and verbal cleverness. Wolof wrestlers use the bàakk to present themselves as exceptional and impressive.
The oral art of the bàkk, used by the Senegalese wrestlers, has its history in griots. Historically, Wolof griots and griottes were singers tasked with relaying the eulogies of heroes and heroines who overcame hardships. Griots were used to sing praises to kings, wrestlers, and nobles in general. Griots usually came from lower castes (however, today griots are among the most wealthiest in West Africa especially in Senegal, Gambia ans Mali région to name a few) and their task of singing praise was unique. They would accompany wrestlers, who usually came from upper castes, to the arenas. In more contemporary times, Wolof wrestlers will now sing their own praises, which challenges the societal norm of praises only being sung by griots.
In the 1980’s Senegalese wrestler, Mame Gorgui (called “The Darling Child of Dakar”) performed a notable bàkk, which made him popular among the Senegalese people. This famous bàkk was repeated often by children in Senegal and sang on the national radio on weekends during which combats took place. Today bàkk is very popular in the country as an indication of male athletic strength and ability.
Presently, wrestling is arranged by business-promoters who offer prizes for the winners. The 20,000-capacity Arene Nationale de Lutte in Dakar is the largest wrestling stadium by capacity in Senegal. However, in the past 50 years traditional Senegambia wrestling has grown exponentially to become a major national sport - a championship competing for big prize money in national stadiums and in front of thousands of fans. The event has become a major spectator sport and cultural event. The champions of traditional wrestling events are celebrities in Senegal, with fighters such as Balla Gaye 2, Yékini (Yakhya Diop), Tyson (Mohamed Ndao), and Bombardier (Serigne Ousmane Dia) the best known.
There is a mystical side to this sport that’s infused with rituals, bath, incantations and protective traditional ornaments or amulets. Successful wrestlers are believed to possess a superior gift of spiritual strength, which the Mandingo call Nyamo. Laamb ends when one of the wrestlers puts his opponent’s head, back or both hands and knees to the ground. Unlike other forms, laamb allows punches in certain matches. Those matches are the ones upon which wrestlers, spectators, sponsors, promoters, shamans, musicians and journalists descend every weekend.
This is one of the biggest events of the season and if you happen to be in Senegal, it should be a must see event.