Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Yékini vs. Balla Gaye 2 and then it was over!

Yekini, left (sadly cut off his name on the photo) and Balla Gaye 2 Billboard

Manning mentions to us we have a chance to go to the Yékini  and Balla Gaye 2 lutte match - a form of wrestling Senegalese style.  Lutte is a major spectator, national sport and cultural event all rolled up in one. So what is it exactly?  from Wikipedia - "Two fighters compete in a circular ring, in more formal events bound by sand bags. Each fighter attempts to eject the other from the ring, though they can win by knocking the other off their feet or onto all fours."  There are various forms of this wrestling - and the style we were watching was a mixture of boxing and wrestling. 
How did we find ourselves at this intersection of our journey - Manning and I both workout at a place called Gymnasium and over the course of the last 7 months have gotten to know either the security guards who work outside of the gym, others who are friends with the security guards that wash cars, as well as the handful of trainers who assist in the 'musculation' room. While I've never noticed - Manning has told me many times that Yekeni works out in the weight room.  In particular with a trainer named - Moussa.  Now as I mention there is one particular guy Boubacar that Manning has befriended. Sadly he's a very smart guy, who had to drop out of the university because he ran out money,  but is at the moment selling phone cards and washing cars. But because he's educated in French and English  Manning negotiated a schedule to take 'French conversation' lessons from him. So putting 2+2 together - because of  these connections we've made an invitation was extended to us to join Boubacar and Moussa and others to the match. And as it turns out Moussa was part of the 'entourage' to help Yekini i prepare.

Now of course  days prior to this match we we received an e-mail from the US Embassy - with the following message.


April 20, 2012

This message is to inform U.S. citizens in Senegal that the Embassy’s Regional Security Office has strongly advised U.S. official personnel not to attend the Yekeni and Balla Gaye wrestling match on April 22, at Demba Diop Stadium in Dakar because of the strong likelihood for violence to occur between rival fans and groups supporting the wrestlers.

Wrestling matches in the past have been marred by rowdy fans throwing items and being disruptive, resulting in injury to other spectators.  Violence between rival fans often spills over and adversely affects those not involved.  Additionally, depending on the outcome of the match, supporters may take to the streets in support of their favorite wrestler, with the potential for vandalism and demonstrations.  It is recommended that the area around Stadium Demba Diop be avoided starting at 1600, as pedestrian foot traffic will be heavy ahead of the match.  If streets around the stadium are blocked by demonstrations, it further impacts the ability for by-passers to leave an area where violence is occurring.  As with past demonstrations, disruptions may spread to other areas of the city as well.

The focus is on official US personnel but it's message is sent out to all US citizens who are registered with the Embassy.  My first thoughts are about back home - "Raider Nation" fans at Oakland football games. Or the the two drunk guys we saw with bloodied up faces and already handcuffed outside the bar on the 2nd level of the Oakland Athletic baseball stadium at the last game we went to as a family (not trying to knock Oakland) - just pointing out facts. Could it be worse?

So we meet up with Boubacar,  Moussa and others and head in our own taxi with Boubacar.  One member of the group looked like he was about 17 kept repeating to us it's "dangereux, dangereux."  And Addison looked at me and said "if it's so dangerous, why is he going."  Good point!

Observations  on arrival - my god there were throngs of people  (an exponential multitude of assembled persons and more!!). This stadium is smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood.  On one level it seemed orderly and the police were doing their job. It was clear how they had separated people with tickets from everyone else.  But the distance separating the people was not more than a one and a half lane street from where we stood.

There were people behind barricades, police, police on horses and people with tickets in line, and vendors - walking by selling water, peanuts, candy, t-shirts and all kinds of picture souvenirs.  We opted to pass on it all. Did not want to wave any money around no matter how small the bills or coins were.  We had 3 tickets in hand purchased previously but still needed to buy 2 more.  Manning tells us stand in line and don't move.  He and Boubacar go off somewhere to get the other 2 tickets.  Per Manning - "it was a bit unclear to both Boubacar and me as to where exactly we were supposed to be able to buy additional tickets.  After a few inquires to the police, they indicated a place near a barricade.  It was literally a small hole in wall - about this size of your head.  Boubacar showed them the tickets we had and asked for three more like that.  I produced the money and a hand produced the tickets and we were done.  There's no way I would ever have figured that out! "

Standing in line was actually quite civilized yet it was a bit hot since there was not a lick of shade.

While the 3 of us were alone in line this nice guy behind us kept helping us when the line was on occasion getting diverted onto the street and police on horses were trying to keep the line as much upon the 'sidewalk'.  Mainly to keep the road clear I guess.  And yes sadly the litter you see in front is a common sight.  Anyway he was nice about making sure we didn't loose our spots.

Manning and Boubacar return with the extra tickets purchased. Phew!

As all 5 of us are now in line with our tickets we reach a point where the security is now separating out this one very long line into two - all of a sudden as we were moving to the 2nd line the security/police were singling us out - woman/children up to the front. I honestly was a bit confused and didn't know what was happening.  As my son Addison pointed out "Mom, we don't look Senegalese". So is that why we are being herded away?  No question I was a bit nervous as they were directing us away from Manning and our friend. And at that moment too I realized we had no identification with us - we just forgot.  I then said that I couldn't leave without my husband. And I think they then realized he was with us. They asked to see our tickets and we then were all escorted to the front minus our friend.  Honestly it was a bit awkward and confusing since for a moment I didn't know if this was for real or some scam - despite their professional appearance.  There were two 'frisking' areas - one before the gate - frisking and checking bags.  As other Senegalese saw us being brought to the front it did feel quite awkward.  We asked for no special privilege and only wanted to fairly stand in line like the rest of the people.  Perhaps there were some policies to get 'etrangers' into the stadium rather than being on the outside? We'll never know.  After the first checkpoint there was another post entry - gendarmes with rifles.  I took out my camera thinking they would frisk me but Manning pointed out this is a Muslim country - in fact maybe no woman were frisked.  In the end I was not. 

 We were in by 3:30.  And settled into our concrete seats.

Admittedly still a bit bedazzled by the entry experience and all that I saw - I did look around to survey an exit strategy - and the best strategy was not to go anywhere if anything happened.

To our right was the entry/exit door  we came through but it was not bigger  than a normal doorway - so if any pandemonium should have occurred we were best to not approach the doorway.  After that I started to relax and realized our area was quite tame and the "Yékini  Nation" and "Balla Gaye 2 Nation" were on the other side stadium - filled to capacity!.  And as you can see a very serious separation of seating space with police carefully placed between them.

According to Manning there were 3 price seating's - VIP, but don't know where that was, covered and sun exposed. Thank goodness we were in the covered section.
We were on the last to the highest row and there were 3 gendarmes behind us - and I did ask them if they were going to sit behind us the whole time - oui!  During the match we offered some orange slices we had and some cashews we were eating. They politely declined but later on when they bought peanuts they gave them to us and the kids gladly said - oui.  And before we knew it, diplomatic relations had begun.

Turns out the Head of  Sainte Jeanne d'Arc - Parker and Addison's school was sitting a few rows ahead. Manning and I had both met him previously so we just politely nodded and smiled.

So what goes on a a lutte match for 3 1/2 hours? - that was the time we were there and the stadium was already pretty full so I have no idea what else was going on earlier in the day.   

Here's an attempt to describe what we took in ------ There was a lot drumming.  And I mean a lot!  These were just two of the three drumming circles going.

And me realizing - this will not be good for my tinnitus (ringing in the ear condition) - and having left my ear-plugs back at the apartment it was time to improvise. And fortunately Manning had some tissue in his pocket. Tissue never makes up for real earplugs but it comes in a close second in situations like this.

Along with the drumming, there was someone announcing (in Wolof, I believe) and someone "singing" (let's just say it wasn't Ismael Lo who we saw a few weeks ago at the French Institut) and dancing  all at the same time.

Add to that tooting whistles, horn blowing by fans  (and in unison it reminded me of the sound (but exponential) of San Francisco cable car cables running) on the opposite side of the stadium and a guy with a lot of gri-gri/ju.  [Don't know gri-gri - read my last blog post here.]

Gri Gri Guy
As far as the 'star' wrestlers were concerned each was surrounded by his 'entourage' and cameramen and they would just goad the crowd as they walked from area to area in the stadium. At various points before the match, each luttier went to the other side's section, with the police in a line with riot shields - we could see things being thrown at them and at first we were not sure what it was. Then Addison said it was the water that is sold in small pouches to drink. Glad it wasn't anything more than a "water balloon"!

Balla Gaye 2

While this 'goading' was going on other wrestlers were preparing for their matches. We watched this wrestler pour liquid on himself.

unknown wrestler
And on occasion Parker and Addison found entertainment elsewhere.

At the same time there were three other "smaller" matches taking place. 

Oh and before I forget - Soda, Peanuts and Popcorn!

Funny how having just explained all of what I saw without knowing what the heck was going on - I found this on the web by Beatrix Jourdan!!

Lutte is as much a spiritual activity as it is physical and wrestlers engage in various rites and rituals before fighting. No wrestler, regardless of strength, physical or technical abilities, will ever dare to enter the ring, much less fight, without his "marabout" or JuJu Man, or without participating in his own pre-match ceremony. During the ceremony, the wrestler, accompanied by drummers and singers, dances around the arena.  Around his arms, legs, and waist are various kinds of juju or amulets , supposed to protect him against evil spirits and the witchcraft of other fighters. It is this aspect of the sport which elevates a wrestling match beyond the level of ordinary spectator sport. Many people attend as much for the enjoyment of the ceremony as for the sport. 

Every piece is supposed to have special magical powers to help the wrestler win. The Marabu puts them on the wrestler whilst whispering "prayers" to help get the wrestler into the "proper condition". They wear them in the prefight ceremony then take most off, keeping just a few when the fight starts.

Besides amulets, the wrestlers use the "magic liquid" - a mixture of water and "magic" powder prepared by the Marabu, using his own special recipe. The wrestlers pour it on themselves before the fight.

So finally after three hours it's just about time for "le grand combat."  The opponents are getting ready and everyone stands up for the Senegalese national anthem.

Yekini and Balla Gaye 2 getting ready


Before you say it - I KNOW I KNOW - I was taping the match and at one point everyone stood up thinking that Yékini  might have won but then it wasn't the case - everyone sat down then in what seemed like a split second  'it was over' (the part that did not get taped) - I don't think anyone could have believed it and  thought the match would continue. A turn, a twist and Yékini  was now down and  Balla Gaye 2 was declared the winner, ending a reign of  that spanned almost two decades. It was that fast!

The crowd (whoever wanted Balla to win) erupted with delight. And people started leaving to begin the celebration.  We waited about 10 minutes to leave waiting for the crowd to thin out inside the stadium also knowing it was going to swell outside.

Surprisingly, it was relatively calm as we exited onto the streets -  celebratory car honking and people waving out the windows.  Apparently the winner would be escorted by his fans to his town - a suburb of Dakar - Guediawaye.  We moved out and away from the crowd and caught a cab home.  Wow, what a day!

 Following day's headlines


  1. What a fun event! I mean, you had the privilege of gorging on Senegalese peanuts and popcorn. As for the wrestlers....they appear to be rather large men. Right?
    I applaud your adventurous spirit.

    1. They are quite muscular and very bulked up but likely with a personality of a lamb ;+}. And keep the applause going - we still have 3 more months to keep it spirited and adventurous. And thanks for commenting. It's always fun.

  2. absolutely fascinating! definitely a "must read" -- it's been such fun to follow your adventures (i don't always have time to comment, alas!) i too bow to your willingness to embrace the adventure!

    1. Thank Jen. It's been nice to get comments like yours for prosperity as you know I will be getting this published for our family to read over and over and you will be in it! Thanks for your support and enjoying the reading. I'll be retiring after this adventure is over (in the blogging business that is)

  3. Wow. What fun. And adventure. Seems like a great day with a little mystery, ceremony, sport, sounds, sights, etc. The wrestlers actually look like other 'serious' wrestling matches that I have seen (such as NCAA or Olympics). Bravo. I likewise wildly applaud your adventurous spirit.

    1. These guys take it very very seriously - like any other sport. Thanks for the applause - it's taken many years to build up the thick skin to put adventure + spirit together.

  4. Speaking as the aforementioned Rob, I can attest that not only are the peanuts in Senegal the best in the world, but The Sutton Goldmans are fantastic hosts and guides!

    1. We're happy to have made it a memorable experience real time!

  5. I don't know how I'll get over the loss by Yékini...

    Seriously doesn't that look a lot like Sumo wrestling?

    1. Mike-
      If you want and I can bargain hard - perhaps I can get you a t-shirt ;+0. I think it may start with some wrestling but seems like it's more the ceremony than anything. Then again I'm not a sumo wrestling fan. Gymnastics was more my thing to watch ;+} - you know petite little woman flying through the air.