In like a Laamb - Sand and Sufism in Senegalese Wrestling

Shawn Taylor | 10.8.18

Though lacking the pyrotechnics and colorful storylines that have made American pro wrestling a cable TV entertainment staple since the 1980s, wrestling in Senegal is big business. Almost everyone in Senegal practices the sport, at least in their youths, which at times eclipses even soccer in national popularity. Laamb, as the sport is named there, involves a combination of athleticism, wealth, and magic spells (yes, magic spells play an important role) that makes for a fascinating spectacle.

Senegalese wrestling follows traditions that date back centuries to the earliest fishing villages. Wrestling on the beach was a way to pass spare time, and neighboring villages would stage competitions where champions might take home prizes of livestock while competing for the honor of their home town. These origins explain why modern Laamb matches still take place inside a ring of sand-covered ground. Similar to Japanese Sumo style wrestling, Laamb is a contest where the first person thrown down (back or all four limbs touching the ground) or thrown out of the ring loses. Traditional Laamb allows grappling only, with no striking, but the modern professional version, practiced since the 1960s, includes striking as well as grappling.

Because there is only one fall per match, Laamb battles (or Mbapal) are often brief, and always intense. While American wrestling matches are drawn out at great length using numerous theatrical two-counts, the hi-jinx of meddling managers and partners, and occasional folding chairs in the ring, the biggest championship matches in Laamb may last as little as a minute or two – in fact, many fans believe that the shorter the bout, the more skillfully it was fought. As for the theatrics, that is left to the many marabout, or spiritual guides, who assist the wrestlers in the quest for glory.

As a majority Muslim country, Senegal is host to folk traditions rooted in Sufism, which are like an Islamic equivalent of Voodoo or Santeria. Talismans, charms (often including pieces of writing from the Quran), magic potions, and ritual dances are seen to help control the flow of good and evil spirits. Regardless of a wrestler’s physical power, the help of skilled holy men is considered essential to victory.

Every match opens with processional dances and chanting to ward off evil spirits as the competitors enter the arena. The wrestlers themselves perform dances to bring favor, and enter the arena covered in charms and amulets freshly blessed by their holy men. Just before the match begins, the holy men pour brightly colored magic potions over their respective wrestlers’ heads, all in hopes of bringing the favor of the spirit world to their side.

These holy men also play the roles of hype-men and promoters, working full time to raise the popularity of their wrestlers and insure large crowds at local matches to provide the greatest spectacle possible. The bigger the spectacle, the faster a wrestler can attract sponsors, in hopes of making the climb to national competitions.

photo credit :   Christine Vaufrey

photo credit : Christine Vaufrey

While Senegal is a fairly poor country, international companies with Telecomm and banking connections there are frequent sponsors of the larger wrestling competitions, giving young wrestlers visions of both fame and wealth as they climb up off the beach, dust off the sand, and get ready for another match.

Cover photo credit : Robin

Kim Drobes