The Wrestlers of Senegal

Travelers’ Tales Solas Gold Medal

I am not sure what is wrong with me lately. There seems to be this inner need to do something extreme and to push myself. A mid-life crisis? Being in your fifties is a curious period in a life; you start to wonder if you did things right, whether you are a success or a failure, will your health hold out for another fifty years. There are old injuries that come back to haunt you and new one’s that verge on being truly mysterious. Everyone seems to be getting younger. There is the fat, gray hair, decadent habits, and sagging muscles. What was going through my mind several weeks ago when I attempted to swim the Niger River? So much for another fifty years, I could have easily drowned, wrapped like a sushi roll in hippo grass. Or last night, high on red wine, when I fantasized participating in Senegalese wrestling, while flying into Dakar. I’d go to the matches, watch a few, and muscle my way into a bout. Yeah, I wonder what is wrong with me. The planes violent approach into Dakar woke me from my reverie; the plane bucked and shook, the Africans laughing hilariously, the whites biting their knuckles. This seemed important from an anthropological point of view.

It is warm and muggy in Dakar. There is the normal swarm of hawkers waiting outside the airport to sell me phone cards, drive me to my hotel, or provide me with a bag of cooked peanuts or a wood carving of an elephant. I can smell skewers of goat being grilled over coals and the perfume of the women returning home from Paris. Lights flicker and the taxis are foreign and dented. Chinese business men look tired, as if they want the nightmare to end. Women dress in fruit bowl colors. When I finally make it to my hotel room I collapse into the king size bed and switch on the TV. I begin surfing channels. Too frazzled to deal with CNN draconian news, I search local stations. Senegalese wrestlers flash across the screen. Bingo!

I pour myself a gin and tonic to keep malaria at bay and focus in on the wrestlers. For a few minutes, my mind journeys back to my wrestling career; years of grappling starting at age eight and leading to a state championship, Greco-Roman bouts against Bulgarians in college, and sumo wrestling with the Yamabushi monks in Japan. I had rarely lost. There was the time when the kid from California told me before the match that his father was going to buy him a mini bike if he beat me. He pinned me in three seconds. Or the Russian who threw me twenty feet in the air like I was a football. In Japan, a black belt dissected me like a butcher before a banquet. Yes, I want to wrestle these locals I tell myself and then look at my drink and think of Hemingway’s wise words: “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk.”

I focused in on the wrestlers. Yikes, they are huge, I mean grizzly bear huge. Granted, I have seen some pretty large men while traveling around Africa, and I am no small man myself. But, these men are inordinately large, superhuman looking in-fact. Their arms seem so long and rippled with muscles. The wrestlers circle around one another, reaching and punching, eventually getting a grip on a leg or neck. A violent slam to the ground. They are fast and powerful. My heart beats just watching them do battle. There is no way Mayweather or Mcgregor would stand a chance against these agile giants. I do a quick google during a break in the wrestling.

Senegalese folk wrestling was traditionally performed by the Serer people and is now a national sport. It was a preparatory exercise for the warrior classes. The women chant and there is a ‘false lion’ (simb) dancer who performs before the matches. Young men also used to fight as a distraction, to court wives, prove their manliness, and bring honor to their villages.

I stay up late watching the wrestling with much interest. The crowds go ballistic over the matches and these wrestling giants are definitely much admired and loved. I wonder if I would stand a chance in the ring. Nope, not a chance. Hemingway, this is for you:

“Never decide to do something drunk that you might have to do sober.”