A wrestling match is part sport and part celebration with music. However, in The Gambia, it is more than just sport and entertainment. It is an essential 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.
The beat of the drum is used to evoke the contester’s emotion and create excitement in the arena. Modern traditional wrestling has evolved as a modified version of the real combat techniques. 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; it is one of the oldest traditional sports in the Gambia, and wrestling festivals are a common occurrence. Leg locks are permitted, but there is no patterned arm or headlocks 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. On the other hand, Serers prefer to go straight for the legs and render their opponent off-balance.
To start 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 open the match, one of the hosts’ elders addresses the crowd by laying down the rules of the game. He states that it is a friendly sport and cheering for your man is acceptable; however, jeering for the opponent is unacceptable 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 their 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 around the edge of the 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 his teammates 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.