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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Culture & Traditions