Modern traditional wrestling is one of the oldest traditional
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
The most common style of grappling is shown among the
Mandinka, Fulas 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
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
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 group.
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 the village.
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.
A 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.
Successful 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
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 acceptable.
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.
The 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.
Such challenges 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
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.
In 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.