On my mother’s side I’m Diola. That’s why I’m a good wrestler. Well, actually my family is Socé from Sédhiou, in Casamance. Before my next fight, I want to go to Casamance to solicit prayers from the marabouts there.
It came as something of a surprise to me when Omar, an aspiring Senegalese wrestler whom I had come to know during my fieldwork, revealed to me his Casamançais ancestry. Of course, there was nothing really surprising about the fact itself.
Dakar’s ever-expanding suburban areas are populated by people who have moved to the capital from all over Senegal as part of an ongoing rural exodus since the mid-20th century. There are Diola and Mandinka from Casamance, Peulh from the Senegal river valley, Sereer from the Saloum delta, and Wolof from the country’s interior, to name just some of the groups that make up Dakar’s complex ethnic landscape. What was surprising to me was that Omar himself brought up the topic.
Among young Dakarois, ethnicity often appears to be a somewhat vague category that they rarely mention. It is less central to urban identity than, say, religious affiliation or place of residence. In other words, the district in which one lives today is more significant than the village where one’s parents or grandparents were born.
Observers have suggested that urbanisation in this west African country has been accompanied by processes of de-ethnicisation and Wolofisation. Urbanites adopt “Dakar Wolof” – a French influenced Wolof dialect – as their lingua franca and develop urban ways of life that blur boundaries of ethnic differentiation.
For young men like Omar and his friends, these urban ways of life are a source of pride and a key part of their identity. Being from the “ghetto” – as they often refer to their neighbourhood on the fringes of Dakar’s sprawling commuter zone – gives them a sense of toughness, urban knowledge and a style that eludes their rural cousins.
In such representations, the city is portrayed as a site of modernity and progress, a gateway to the world – albeit one where morality is at risk. Conversely, village life is considered backward and underdeveloped, while simultaneously venerated as the site of “pure” language, “pure” culture – and also “pure” wrestling.
A truly national sport?
Wrestling is popularly presented as Senegal’s national sport and is considered to be a shared heritage of Senegambian peoples. Yet, today it comes in a variety of forms. These include Olympic wrestling, numerous styles of “traditional” wrestling, and the commercially popular “lutte avec frappe”, loosely translated as “wrestling with punches”. It is a hybrid sport that combines elements of traditional wrestling with bare knuckle boxing.
It is this discipline that has succeeded in capturing the attention of the Senegalese public. This style provides young men like Omar and his teammates with dreams of lucrative careers. It is this dream of wealth and success that drives the wrestling boom in Dakar.
When the first wrestling associations, known as écuries, were established in Dakar, ethnicity and geographical provenance were the main organisational principle: écurie Sereer, écurie Diola, écurie Halpulaar, écurie Baol and écurie Walo each brought together wrestlers of a specific ethnic group or historical region. Only the écuries of Pikine and Fass defied this logic in grouping together athletes from a specific area of Dakar.
Today, however, this form of organisation dominates and the associations are generally multi-ethnic. At the same time, other ethnically specific elements of wrestling – notably the bakk or self-praise singing – have been gradually erased from the sport. Contemporary wrestling in Senegal is now a professionalised commercial sport dependent on individual stars who are widely seen as aspirational celebrities.
The famous wrestler Mohammed “Tyson” Ndao did much to popularise the image of the wrestler as an entrepreneurial self-made man. Fashioning his image on that of his boxing namesake, he engaged heavily in marketing and commercial activities. He promoted himself as an icon of youthful rebellion.
Wrestling’s commercial explosion
Wrestling’s development from a village pastime to an urban and entrepreneurial pursuit has led to a commercial explosion of the sport since the 1990s. Still, ethnicity has not completely disappeared. In fact, it persists in a number of particular ways. It surfaces in discourses of physical qualities associated with wrestlers of specific groups. Political and economic alliances are forged along ethnic lines between wrestlers and their patrons.
Ethnicity features in narratives of pre-destination, in which wrestlers of specific ethnic backgrounds – especially Diola and Sereer – claim that wrestling is “in their blood”. Ethnically specific clothing, objects or cultural performances are displayed at fights. Magico-religious powers are also associated with wrestlers of certain ethnicities – again, especially Diola and Sereer.
Established star wrestlers regularly evoke their ethnic provenance in the buildup to big fights. As in any other sport, young hopefuls are quick to copy their idols. Omar’s (technically incorrect) insistence on his Diola heritage was just one of several examples I came across during my fieldwork of young wrestlers referring to ethnicity to strengthen their claims of athletic prowess.
Another young wrestler, Modou, would regularly tell me that his Sereer heritage meant wrestling was an ancestral calling. He said he was unable to follow another path in life. Ama, an aspiring wrestler from the city of Pikine, visited his mother’s Sereer village for the first time after starting to train for a career in the arena. He told me that he has sought out the services of Sereer marabouts and diviners ever since, reconnecting with his grandparents’ belief system.
There is a shared motif in these stories. Young men who do not seem to have grown up with a clearly defined ethnic identity return to paradigms of ethnic difference to strengthen their identities as wrestlers. In the context of urbanisation and Wolofisation in Dakar, this seems almost paradoxical. In the context of a professionalising sport and an increasingly globalised society, even more so.
This return to ethnicity disrupts commonly held assumptions about rural and urban relations. It also calls into question the nature of Senegal’s modernities. In addition, it poses a challenge to Senegalese nationalism: Does the presence of an ethnic discourse within the sporting arena threaten the notion of the multi-ethnic nation state?
It is impossible to adequately address these questions without further enquiry into the state of ethnic relations and discourses in society at large. This, particularly in politics where accusations of ethnic favouritism are never far away.
At the very least, one might conclude from these observations that sport can intervene in social dynamics in surprising ways. The re-ethnicisation of wrestling leads us to reconsider what we mean when we speak of a national sport and a traditional sport – and by extension, the very categories of tradition and nationhood.
Mark Hann is part of Global Sport research team. Global Sport (@GlobalSport) is a multi-sited comparative ethnographic project.