Published on September 25th, 2020 | by Ryan Hess0
La Lutte: Senegal’s Mystical National Sport
As a Foreign Area Officer for the US Air Force, I am given incredible opportunities to learn about the diverse and fascinating cultures that color the landscape of the African continent. While each experience is special in its own right, it is rare that I am not just an observer but instead become a participant. One such immersive moment happened to me in Senegal where I learned first-hand about the traditional Senegalese form of combat La lutte sénégalaise.
La Lutte is a sport that is steeped in culture and tradition. Thousands of Senegalese boys and men compete as lutteurs from the recreational to the professional levels. Any beach in Dakar after 3 PM has dozens of athletes grappling on the hot sand or working on their conditioning. Simply to witness a practice session, and to see the sheer athleticism and skill of these warriors is itself a cultural experience.
I was in Senegal to develop my French language skills and cultural understanding of the region. When I arrived, I made it clear that one of my objectives was to see a professional Lutte. For me, the man who could make this happen was Pape who was one of the guards at the school, but he was also friend with a lutteur named Ndongo. Ndongo was a relatively famous fighter and, as luck would have it, had a fight in that week.
On the day of the fight, all of us foreign students were invited but I was clearly the most excited. With my entire childhood being heavily influenced by sports, and the promise of a seriously immersive cultural experience, I was excited to see the fight. I was even more excited still when Pape actually brought Ndongo by the school to meet us.
Ndongo stood at just under two meters tall and despite wearing a track suit, was obviously well built. I am just over 2 meters, so I was incredibly gratified that the first words out of Ndongo’s mouth were to me: “vous êtes lutteur aussi, n’est-ce pas ?” “You are fighter too?” I immediately demurred to say that, while I am a fan and do practice martial arts, I am far from what someone at his level would call “a fighter.” Despite my intermediate French, he seemed to appreciate my reply. After more introductions, we took a cab to Le Stade iba mar Diop. Ndongo come up behind us and dropped at his side a heavy, beat-up old backpack and a white bag full of plastic bottles.
Wanting to help where I could, I picked up the back-pack and acted as if it was my responsibility. Ndongo explained that he could bring an “assistant” inside and he chose me. I had no idea what being an assistant meant, but I assumed it was really just a ploy to get me in free. This was a professional fighter so he must have his own “corner” coach or team. Nonetheless, I felt pretty cool walking behind a fighter carrying his stuff for him as we entered. I tried my best to look cool, act calm, and not seem as thrilled as I was.
I must explain some things, or else this story will drag on. I assumed that soon Ndongo would dismiss me in lieu of his REAL team. I would assume this same thing no less than 6 times throughout the night. I am going to tell you now, dear reader, there was no “team.” I was his team. I don’t know from what point that became the reality, but from some moment in time until the end of this night, I was his corner man.
Also, I must describe his preparation process. As I said before, La lutte is heavily influenced both by Senegal’s Pre-Islamic Animist religions as well as Islamic traditions and belief systems. I am not going to pretend to understand any of Ndongo’s process, nor can I assess what belief system it was derived from. However, I do know that everything he did that night, was dictated, influenced, or controlled by a rigorous application of tradition.
He would repeat the preparation process, called giri-giri, 6-10 times throughout the evening. Each time he asked me to help with a different part of it, and each time he did so while praying with the old traditions dictating his actions. Also, each time he went through the entire process, I would think it was the last.
His giri-giri began by him stripping down to compression shorts. He then began to wrap around his waist various strings, ropes, and strips of leather and fabric, each of which was accompanied with a prayer or chant. Then, he started pouring the liquid from the various bottles over his head and body. Some of the liquids were without odor, some smelled like vinegar, some were absolutely foul smelling. He dumped them on himself without hesitation and with gusto.
Once he was done with the bottles (for now) he donned and brown shirt covered with various symbols and Arabic writing. Lastly, he took three filthy strips of material and, without comment or explanation placed them around my neck. I should be clear: none of this was sanitary.
Finally, we were ready to enter the arena. I assumed we’d go to a holding pen or something with maybe 6 or 7 other fighters. Again, I was mistaken. Inside the stadium on the sand and all around the sides of the ring, were upwards of 50 fighters, dancing, whooping, stretching, and creating a chaos for which I was unprepared. Also contributing to the cacophony was music emanating from some old megaphones at the corners of the stadium. The music was deafening and, as I learned UNCEASING. This is not hyperbole the music did not stop until late that night. It was a moment of both shock and exhilaration. I was riveted and simultaneously intimidated.
After doing his giri-giri again, Ndongo began one of his many rituals of the day, by walking me to the center of the ring, pouring water there, and rubbing the wet sand on himself. Then, we found a little spot in the far corner to set out stuff down (he told me to keep the things around my neck where they would remain all night) and then he proceeded to take me to one corner of the ring. There, he picked up some sand and wordlessly made me hold it. Then he did the same thing in the next corner, then the third and fourth. By the end I was holding two handfuls of ring sand. He asked me for it, rubbed it on himself, and that was it.
He again did his giri-giri with the bottles and demanded I follow him as he walked around the ring. The warmups were as much cultural as they were practical. After a walking lap, Ndongo started dancing. While all the dances varied a bit, they all had the same general character and sequence. It started with something like a wide-stance running man. It went into a wide-stance double fist pump, a high pitched “WHOOOOO,” more running man, then some swaying with the arms out, some sand throwing, and repeat. He did it once. Then looked at me expectedly. I have always loved attention. But in that moment, with dozens of fighters whooping and dancing around me and hundreds of spectators looking on, I balked. If I am being honest, I was still waiting for his real team to show up.
The next two hours were a blur of fights, music, giri-giri, and shouting. I never took the things off my neck, Ndongo danced a lot and everyone got filthy. At last, Ndongo said it was time. He motioned me to come to the side of the ring, took the strips of material off my neck, laid them down on the edge of the ring, prayed, and walked onto the sand. Sadly, I lost track of Ndongo during that first fight and in minutes he returned to me having won. I saw nothing. I admit I was upset. I had waited all this time to miss the big event. Thankfully one of the spectators explained to me that: “Il y a trois combats !” Ndongo had two more fights.
With fight two, the process was the same. I resolved to not only watch the next fight, but to get as close as possible. I found a good spot at the edge of the sand and crouched down near Ndongo and his opponent. It was a 10 second fight. Ndongo won without effort.
Ndongo again did his celebratory/ritualistic lap. He motioned for me to come, and once again, he insisted I dance along with him. Having been there for hours, drunk on the atmosphere…this time I was in. He did the running man, I did it too. His first pumps were matched by mine. He screamed “WHoooooo” I did it louder, which made him do it louder still. I was doing the warrior dance of a traditional fighting culture on the sweat and blood-soaked sand of a gladiatorial arena in a foreign land. Ndongo and I were invincible. We were gods of war and the sand was our Valhalla.
As we got more excited, the crowd matched us. I thought they were applauding their man Ndongo, but he insisted “C’est pour toi !” and motioned for me to give a “Whoo” to the crowd. I did, they loved it. Then he said: “encore !” He motioned for me to stand on the railing that separated us from the crowd and do it. Hours ago, this would have been too much… but now… I got up on that rail, spread my arms wide and screamed until my lungs burned. I beat my chest, pumped my first and tried to make what gods may be proud. The crowd loved it. Or they were laughing at me. I didn’t care.
As much fun as I was having, this is not my story. Ndongo had one fight left, and while I was a star for that brief moment, the night was about him. His third fight, he told me, was not only for the prize money but also against his rival and the best fighter there.
Fight three lasted 15 minutes. Both fighters strained and shoved, grunted and sweat. Ground was given and retaken, advantage ceded and gained. It was a clash of titans. Three times the referee stopped the fight for reasons I didn’t understand, and three times the warriors again clashed. Each time I thought Ndongo was undone, he fought back. Each time I saw victory in his grasp, the enemy held on.
I wish I had a storybook ending, but reality is not always so. The ref stopped the match after 15 minutes and, though I didn’t know it until later, decided for the other guy. Ndongo lost by decision.
On the way out of the stadium, you would have thought Ndongo was leaving a party thrown in his honor. The man was a celebrity. People shouted at him and he shouted back. Most of it was in Wolof, but knowing people, sports and fame, I imagine it was a lot of “You got him next time, Ndongo!” Once outside, we were mobbed by teenagers, wanting to talk to, see, or touch their favorite fighter. Yet again, I stood at his right hand, wondering how the hell I got here. Ndongo caught a cab home that took us home. He said goodbye, hugged me, and walked off into the night.