Adventures in the Gambia

Nora G. Hertel

On April 13 I watched the full moon rise over a wrestling match in Missira, a small fishing village just north of The Gambia. Senegalese wrestling is called “lutte,” and these particular “combats de lutte” — aka matches — were held in honor of the Lawrence group. We arrived in the village to find that many people were assembled around the perimeter of a large sand pit. As guests, we were given chairs with a great view of the “arena.”Two large speakers were broadcasting a recording of drumming and shouting. The volume was so loud it could be heard miles away from the actual match. The music smothered much of the applause and cheering from the crowd. I believe that the recorded drumming repeated about eight times because a screaming woman always marked the end of the track. I’m sure my dreams were haunted by that music because the rhythm was so repetitive, and the hysterical shouts came reliably every 20 minutes.

The odors were also very memorable at the match. The entire village had an air of smoked fish and seafood, because that is generally how they subsist. The village is right on the Sine-Saloum River and most of the men are fishermen, while the women smoke the fish. The air also smelled of smoke because piles of shells smolder until they burn down to a powder which is used as whitwash and cement. For the match, our chairs were situated downwind so when the wrestlers moved to our side of the field, their body odor wafted right to us.

The matches were fascinating to watch, though they required some patience. There were several different “combats” that became more competitive as the night wore on. There is a great deal of tradition and mysticism that accompanies the sport. Before every match a representative enters and draws a line in the sand for the combatants. Then the wrestlers enter the ring, make a circle of it, do a few dance steps and wait for the referee to signal. The mystcism is evident in libations that some wrestlers pour on the field, and the charms that most of them wear on various parts of their bodies.

Once the match began the wrestlers often circled for several minutes, sometimes swatting provocatively at each other. Almost instantaneously they would lock in a struggle — lutte means struggle in French — and stay there for what seemed like several minutes. There were many moments where it seemed like they were immobile, but their tensed muscles proved otherwise. A flurry of activity followed the tension and resulted in either one played on his back or both circling again. During one such flurry both wrestlers managed to flip upside down and land on their heads before scrambling back up, seemingly unfazed.

The last match of the evening seemed to continue forever, and didn’t end until 1:30 in the morning. The wrestlers were well suited for each other — one was tall and slender, the other was shorter and stockier. Professional lutteurs are very large and muscular, but these wrestlers had sleek athletic builds that came from playing soccer, rowing, and fishing. Both wrestlers in the last match were incredibly fit, but the taller one seemed to have the advantage. When the tall wrestler won, it seemed to happen in the blink of an eye. They spent so much time circling and locked in still combat that it was a bit anticlimactic to see one player on his back.

The lutte match was an invaluable cultural experience, and very entertaining as far as dance and sports go. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the repetitive drumming and shouts, the close smell of the wrestlers, and the full moon highlighting the entire scene.