I’ve never really done sports journalism, so I jumped at the opportunity to go to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Games in Accra from the 16 to the 22 of June, 2012. All ECOWAS members were invited to attend, but only eleven countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo) fielded teams.
The games brought together athletes under the age of 23 to compete in five disciplines: boxing, handball, volleyball, track and field, and traditional wrestling. Traditional wrestling, often called “lutte traditionnelle” because it is most common in French-speaking West-African countries, is often described as West Africa’s oldest sport and has been around for thousands of years. This year the host Ghanaians fielded a wrestling team for the first time, but were swiftly defeated. Although they dominated many of the Games’ other events, the Ghanaians lost to Cote d’Ivoire three matches to two, and then lost to both Benin and Burkino Faso by a score of 5-0.
Each county’s traditional technique differs slightly, but since the 1950s they have been assimilated into one form, making international competition possible. The two fighters compete in a circular ring enclosed by sand bags. As with Olympic free-style and Greco-Roman wrestling, the goal of traditional wrestling is to take your opponent down to the mat. If an opponent is knocked off their feet, the match is over.
Lutte traditionnelle is Senegal’s national sport and, for Senegalese competitors, it is both a physical and spiritual exercise.
“They do the spiritual aspects of it to aid them and help them win their fight. Without [the spiritual elements], they don’t believe it is a traditional fight,” said Daouda Diagna, a member of team Senegal, speaking through a translator.
The Senegalese competitors can be seen looking through a hollowed out bone to “see their future,” as well as dousing themselves with “magic water” before a match.
“They put sand and colours and some other thing in the bottles [of magic water]. The mixture has been sanctified through prayers and they pour it on themselves,” explained Daouda Diagna.
“The wrestling is something very important for everyone in our country. We all love it, even more than football,” he added.