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Modern traditional wrestling is one of the oldest traditional sports in Gambia and wrestling festivals are a common occurrence. Leg locks are permitted but there are no patterned arm or head locks, or complicated points system. The object of the game is simply to throw one's opponent to the ground. The first wrestler down in the bout loses the contest.

The most common style of grappling is shown among the Mandinka, Fulas and Jolas. It involves each opponent grabbing each other's trunks at the start of the bout. After some strategic manoeuvrings each one would attempt to throw the other to the ground. Serers on the other hand prefer to go straight for the lets and render their opponent off-balance.

A wrestling match is part sport and part celebration with music. However, in Gambia it is more than just sport and entertainment. It is an important part of the traditional culture and is organised to reflect some of the most deeply rooted ideals of the societies that support it. The wrestling arena is a place to show courage, labour, strength, fair play; a place to honour the spirits of society.

Origins of Traditional Wrestling:
Gambian wrestling seems to have evolved as a modified version of real combat techniques. Traditional warriors defeated their opponents by throwing them to the ground with great force, preferably on their head. Over time this kind of warfare developed into the non-violent form of sport it is today.

The warrior was an honoured figure in Gambian society and the social position of a wrestler in the community became analogous to that of a warrior from times past. Traditionally, all the boys in a village were taught how to wrestle. The ones that showed skill and promise were held in high regard as a man regardless of class. Many of the most famous Gambian chiefs such as Sader Manneh of Kuntaur, Cherno Bande of Fuladu West and Moriba Krubally of Georgetown had previously been talented wrestlers in their youth. Even a slave could gain greater prestige, respect and adoration than most freemen could only wish for.

The Kafo & Village Wrestling:
Within every Mandinka village, and to a lesser extent in the Wollof, Serer and Jola villages, young men and women were divided into age groups called Kafo. They carried out community projects and organised social events. The Kambane Kafo comprised of young men aged between 18 and 25 years. Traditionally, the finest grapplers came from this age group.

Larger villages were often divided into wards and within each village wrestling matches were often organised between Kafo of different wards. However, no matter how many Kafo a village had, they all joined together to issue collective challenges to the Kafo of neighbouring villages, and met them in the wrestling arena as a unified group. The performance of the Kafo reflected on the rest of the village.

Inter-village wrestling matches most often took place in the dry season after the harvest. This is because people had more leisure time and the Kafo had enough food from their communal farm to feed large numbers of crowds. The challenging village was responsible for providing nourishment for their opponents.

A wrestler's host was a very important part for the continued good relations between villages. The host was the spokesperson and go-between for the visitors with the rest of the community.

Spiritual Power:
Successful wrestlers are believed to possess a superior gift of spiritual strength, which the Mandingo call Nyamo. Before matches he will spend a lot of time putting on his amulets after keeping them warm over small bonfires lit in the corner of the arena. This is part of the Gambia's animist beliefs.

Almost the entire range of wrestling holds and throws, even those liable to result in injury or death, were 'legal'. That is, they were accepted as part of the game. However, the referees and spectators set their own limits as to which tactics were acceptable.

These limits were dictated by simple common sense. The actions that are forbidden are beating, slapping, boxing, sand throwing in the eyes of your opponent, and kicking. When a wrestler indicated that he wanted to throw in the towel, he was to be released immediately. Once a combatant has thrown his opponent to the ground he is to get off him immediately.

In theory, there were no regular weight classifications; a wrestler was free to accept any challenge. In practice, combatants generally challenged or accepted challenges from those near to their own size. Champions nearly always came from the heavyweight class.

Action Day:
To start off with, on the day of action, wrestlers from each village paraded from their compounds into the arena, accompanied by drummers and fans who sang their praises. Occasionally the wrestler would bolt out from the crowd to dance and strut in front of the crowd. Once the host team enters the arena, the challenger team sits together on the opposite side and waits for the match to start.

To open the match, one of the elders of the hosts addresses the crowd by laying down the rules of the game. He states that it is friendly sport and cheering for your man is acceptable however, jeering for the opponent is un-acceptable behaviour and would not be tolerated.

The referee signals for the drums to begin. The conduct of the match was usually marked by a sense of progression, with the youngest and least skilled wrestlers opening the initial bouts. The whole contest moves towards a climax in which the final bout was between the champions of each team. However, within this general set-up the order of events was not rigid and could move in line with the pace set by the wrestlers themselves. They could issue there own challenges with little interference from the referees. Indeed any number of bouts could take place at the same time in the same arena. In the meantime, other combatants dance round the edge of he arena to the rhythm of drums, challenging anyone (non-verbally) who would take them on.

Such challenges are made with arm gestures, grimaces and body movements. When a fight was accepted, the pair moved towards the centre of the arena to begin their tousle. After the bout was over the loser returned to his team with cheers and jubilation. Often, if a loser felt that he had been thrown by chance, he requested another bout immediately. The winner usually accepted this second challenge, although he would often return to this team mates and smear himself in Juju potions before returning.

If the one who lost the first bout wins the second, they usually agree to a third session. The referees generally separated them if they wanted a 4th bout or if someone was weakened or in a bad mood. Thus this is the nature of Gambian wrestling.

Un-sporting Behaviour:
In short, wrestlers could use any technique that is not expressly forbidden. However, bad sportsmanship is harshly reprimanded and condemned. The referees, spectators and other wrestlers were ready to step in and break up a bout if the wrestlers became angry. If a fight broke out due to an outburst of bad temper, the entire Kafo of the offender was held accountable by the elders of his village. The Kafo was fined, beaten, or harshly reprimanded in order to assuage the anger of the injured wrestler's family and village. Because of this there was great peer pressure to be a gentlemanly sportsman in the arena.
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