It’s been 8 months that I’ve been living in The Gambia, and I’ve been having a hard time coming up with things to write about because everything is becoming normal to me. That is, until I received a text from Abby inquiring of those who had interest in attending a wrestling match in her village. Ummm… half naked men wrestling each other to the ground? I’m THERE!
Reaching the main road, we saw mobs of people surrounding wrestlers. They slowly danced their way to the event hoisting banners above their heads and making as much noise as possible. My favorite banner, or rather piece of fabric connected with two sticks, was pink and filled with gold and silver hearts. There’s nothing like coming in with hearts over your head to intimidate your opponent.
Joe decided to make the 45 minute trek to Abby’s village with me. Abby lives in Nyakoi, a small village on the north bank, so we had to cross the river on a ferry to get there. As I pedaled my heart out to keep up with Joe, I had that dog out a window look on my face, excited to be doing something new.
We got directions to slow down at the first sign of civilization and stop at the half painted mosque. (Road signs are virtually non-existent in this place.) There, we found Abby waiting for us in the shade of a mango tree.
She walked us to her compound and I was instantly jealous of the serenity of her home. She lives with two grandmas and that’s it! Two compared to the seventy I live with. You do the math. It was like pure bliss.
|Abby and neighbor girl in front of her hut|
We were told the wrestling would start at 4, but we’ve all been around here long enough to know better. NOTHING starts when it is suppose to. We killed time playing Banana Grams (you’re reading from a two-time winner, woot woot) and talking about school, then called Modou closer to 5. Modou is a village tailor that Abby tutors in English, and was our guide to Gambian wrestling as the night wore on.
Modou gave us the go-ahead to start walking toward the event grounds. Stepping outside, drumming and the sounds of whistles filled the air. The beat did its job. I was instantly pumped and ready to see some action.
|A wrestler and his entourage|
|Waiting to enter the arena|
|Multiple matches going on at once|
We purchased tickets feeling good that the proceeds would benefit a recently built clinic in Nyakoi, and entered the arena, a rectangle shaped plot of land enclosed by a grass fence. It was hard to know where to look. Bedazzled leggings sparkled in the setting sun. Neon spandex blinded us. Men were wrestling while others were dancing around the outside of the ring that had been formed by the viewers. There didn’t seem to be much order to any of it. We couldn’t tell who was recording wins and according to Modou, there was no ref. With so many things going on at once, oh and I mustn’t forget the crowd control that we had to be cautious of (men with sticks and bats), it was a bit of a stimulation overload, but in the best way possible.
As the sun made its way over the horizon my gittiness started to wear off, and a bit of fear came over me. Fires were being lit to the right and left of us, and I started surveying the grounds. Grass fence = dangerous. No exits = I could die here.
With fires surrounding us and the crowd making their way in front of us so that we could no longer view the men slamming each other to the ground, we decided we had enough fun for one night and it was time to leave. We went to where we had been let in but it was now closed off. The only way to describe it is with Abby Adam’s words… we fought so hard to get out of that place it was like “being birthed.” Gambians who hadn’t paid were fighting to get in as we were fighting to get out of an opening maybe 2 feet wide. Modou was doing his best to help us, but there was nothing he could do. We simply had to push with all of our might against others to make it to the other side. Getting through the opening you couldn’t help but feel victorious.
Although I felt like a winner, I have no idea which wrestlers came out on top. I received text messages from Abby on the following day saying that the improvements they made for the second night of wrestling were monumental. There were ropes to mark off an arena, people were seated and nicely waiting, and there were two exit slash entrances instead of the one. Her text ended with, “What a difference a day can make,” but then was followed by, “Guess what? The thing we all feared happened, and the fence caught fire. We left as the flames were climbing… Epic.”
Going into the experience I had no idea what to expect. I ended up seeing a lot of disorganization and a bit of chaos, but many people having fun and loving life. Guess it was pretty normal for The Gambia after all.