Traditional African Sports and Games: Canoe Racing

By Michael Nakasissa
Updated: February 9, 2006

GEORGIA—Wrestling (called Laamb) and Canoe racing are two of Senegal’s indigenous sports.

Canoe racing is among the most colorful events one could watch on various Senegalese shores. The specially designed dugout canoes are painted in bright colors and named after a patron, usually a saint, a local hero, or a notability. In return, the patron provides spiritual protection or money. The races are organized by the size of the rowing team, from 6 to 36 men. They oppose villages or suburbs, and draw large over excited crowds. Regularly, the rowdy fishermen would fight at the end of the event.

wrestling. It transcends all ethnic groups and enjoys the status of national sport. It is one of the most common games for children, and any sandy area, often the courtyard, would suffice. It is also the main distraction during the dry season. Usually, villages or suburbs invite each other for tournaments. I used to attend wrestling events at an open air arena near our house.

Hours before the actual event, the inviting beat of the drum and the mellow voice of the singers would alert everyone. In the late afternoon, a crowd would gather forming a circle around a sandy arena. Kids sit in the inner circle while grown-ups stand at the outer. The adults dress in their finest apparel. Betting is common among the crowd. Several bouts take place before the last one pitting two champions against each other. They always represent two different teams fighting for prizes, supremacy and prestige. They usually wear around their waist rich wrappers provided by fiancees or female relatives, the rest of the body remaining naked.

The rules are simple: the winner must make his opponent’s knees, shoulder, or back touch the sand. In today’s professional money-making business version, blows and slaps are allowed and the prize is big money, while modern stadiums are used to accommodate huge crowds, while significant matches are telecasted. Female singers continue to excite the masculine pride and set the tone for a brutal but loyal confrontation.

Each team occupies a particular place in the circle. A key element is the charmer or magic maker, a blend of a traditional medicine man and magician. His role is to ensure his favorite’s victory by protecting him against magic curses, weakening the adversary, and thus, giving him a decisive advantage. Finally, after many prayers and protecting ablutions, medicine water or milk dripping all over their bodies, wearing a hoist of charms, and still under the spell of the band, the two wrestlers face each other under the scrutiny of a referee.

The match begins with the balancing of arms, each of them trying to reach a decisive grasp while moving slowly around the other. After the fight, the victorious side will party all night long and the victor’s name will be celebrated by songs.