Modern traditional wrestling is one of the oldest
sports in Gambia and wrestling festivals are a common occurrence.
Leg locks are permitted but there are no patterned arm or
head locks, or complicated points system. The object of the
game is simply to throw one's opponent to the ground. The
first wrestler down in the bout loses the contest.
The most common style of grappling is shown among the
and Jolas. It involves each opponent grabbing each other's trunks at
the start of the bout. After some strategic manoeuvrings each one
would attempt to throw the other to the ground. Serers on the other
hand prefer to go straight for the lets and render their opponent
A wrestling match is part sport and
part celebration with music. However, in Gambia it is more than just
sport and entertainment. It is an important part of the traditional
culture and is organised to reflect some of the most deeply rooted
ideals of the societies that support it. The wrestling arena is a
place to show courage, labour, strength, fair play; a place to honour
the spirits of society.
Origins of Traditional Wrestling:
Gambian wrestling seems to have evolved as a modified version of real
combat techniques. Traditional warriors defeated their opponents by
throwing them to the ground with great force, preferably on their
head. Over time this kind of warfare developed into the non-violent
form of sport it is today.
The warrior was an honoured figure
in Gambian society and the social position of a wrestler in the
community became analogous to that of a warrior from times past.
Traditionally, all the boys in a village were taught how to wrestle.
The ones that showed skill and promise were held in high regard as a
man regardless of class. Many of the most famous Gambian chiefs such
as Sader Manneh of Kuntaur, Cherno Bande of Fuladu West and Moriba
Krubally of Georgetown had previously been talented wrestlers in their
youth. Even a slave could gain greater prestige, respect and adoration
than most freemen could only wish for.
The Kafo & Village Wrestling:
Within every Mandinka village, and to a lesser extent in the Wollof,
Serer and Jola villages, young men and women were divided into age
groups called Kafo. They carried out community projects and organised
social events. The Kambane Kafo comprised of young men aged between 18
and 25 years. Traditionally, the finest grapplers came from this age
Larger villages were often divided into wards and within
each village wrestling matches were often organised between Kafo of
different wards. However, no matter how many Kafo a village had, they
all joined together to issue collective challenges to the Kafo of
neighbouring villages, and met them in the wrestling arena as a
unified group. The performance of the Kafo reflected on the rest of
Inter-village wrestling matches most often took
place in the dry season after the harvest. This is because people had
more leisure time and the Kafo had enough food from their communal
farm to feed large numbers of crowds. The challenging village was
responsible for providing nourishment for their opponents.
wrestler's host was a very important part for the continued good
relations between villages. The host was the spokesperson and
go-between for the visitors with the rest of the community.
wrestlers are believed to possess a superior gift of spiritual
strength, which the Mandingo call Nyamo. Before matches he will spend
a lot of time putting on his amulets after keeping them warm over
small bonfires lit in the corner of the arena. This is part of the
Gambia's animist beliefs.
Almost the entire range of wrestling holds and throws, even those liable
to result in injury or death, were 'legal'. That is, they were
accepted as part of the game. However, the referees and
spectators set their own limits as to which tactics were
These limits were dictated by simple common sense.
The actions that are forbidden are beating, slapping, boxing,
sand throwing in the eyes of your opponent, and kicking. When a
wrestler indicated that he wanted to throw in the towel, he was
to be released immediately. Once a combatant has thrown his
opponent to the ground he is to get off him immediately.
In theory, there were no regular weight classifications; a
wrestler was free to accept any challenge. In practice,
combatants generally challenged or accepted challenges from
those near to their own size. Champions nearly always came from
the heavyweight class.
To start off with, on the day of action, wrestlers
from each village paraded from their compounds into
the arena, accompanied by drummers and fans who
sang their praises. Occasionally the wrestler would
bolt out from the crowd to dance and strut in front
of the crowd. Once the host team enters the arena,
the challenger team sits together on the opposite
side and waits for the match to start.
To open the match, one of the elders
of the hosts addresses the crowd by laying down the rules of the
game. He states that it is friendly sport and cheering for your
man is acceptable however, jeering for the opponent is
un-acceptable behaviour and would not be tolerated.
referee signals for the drums to begin. The conduct of the match
was usually marked by a sense of progression, with the youngest
and least skilled wrestlers opening the initial bouts. The whole
contest moves towards a climax in which the final bout was
between the champions of each team. However, within this general
set-up the order of events was not rigid and could move in line
with the pace set by the wrestlers themselves. They could issue
there own challenges with little interference from the referees.
Indeed any number of bouts could take place at the same time in
the same arena. In the meantime, other combatants dance round
the edge of he arena to the rhythm of drums, challenging anyone
(non-verbally) who would take them on.
are made with arm gestures, grimaces and body movements. When a
fight was accepted, the pair moved towards the centre of the
arena to begin their tousle. After the bout was over
the loser returned to his team
with cheers and jubilation. Often, if a loser felt that he had
been thrown by chance, he requested another bout immediately.
The winner usually accepted this second challenge, although he
would often return to this team mates and smear himself in Juju
potions before returning.
If the one who lost the first
bout wins the second, they usually agree to a third session. The
referees generally separated them if they wanted a 4th bout or
if someone was weakened or in a bad mood. Thus this is the
nature of Gambian wrestling.
short, wrestlers could use any technique that is not expressly
forbidden. However, bad sportsmanship is harshly reprimanded and
condemned. The referees, spectators and other wrestlers were
ready to step in and break up a bout if the wrestlers became
angry. If a fight broke out due to an outburst of bad temper,
the entire Kafo of the offender was held accountable by the
elders of his village. The Kafo was fined, beaten, or harshly
reprimanded in order to assuage the anger of the injured
wrestler's family and village. Because of this there was great
peer pressure to be a gentlemanly sportsman in the arena.