ZIGUINCHOR, Senegal — It was lunchtime and 67-year-old great-grandmother Marie-Thérèse Sambou was recalling a childhood spent crisscrossing nearby villages to take part in wrestling matches. “If you’re a Jola woman, you wrestle right until the day you have children.”
“Wrestling is how we prove our womanhood,” she said, sitting outside her home in a forest clearing in Djibetene, a tiny village set among the paddy fields of southern Senegal’s Casamance region.
Among the family members gathered around her — including nephews, nieces, and an old man gently extricating a thorn from a baby goat’s front leg — were two women who have each ranked among Africa’s top female wrestlers.
Eveline Diatta, 41, Marie-Thérèse’s daughter, was one of the first women wrestlers to represent Senegal internationally, and is currently head coach of the women’s team. Still remarkably toned, she was carefully braiding the hair of Isabelle Sambou, a nine-time gold medalist at the African Wrestling Championships who has also twice represented Senegal in the Olympics.
Women's wrestling is still relatively new to the Olympics; it debuted in 2004, exactly a century after men first began competing in the modern Games. In Casamance, though, it’s far from a modern phenomenon, going back thousands of years and against the sport’s common rites and heritage across sub-Saharan Africa.
The most popular wrestling style in Senegal, a free-form variant called laamb, dates back centuries, when it was used to celebrate harvests and folklore. Among the Jola people, techniques were passed on during secret initiation rites into manhood, which culminated with displays at festivals. In most of Senegal, women are still forbidden to wrestle — partly because of conservative religious values, and partly because they’re banned from even witnessing some of the lavish mystical rites that surround the sport.
“At some point, the royal court of Oussouye decreed some women could join in showing off their skills at these festivals,” explained Abdou Ndao, a Dakar-based anthropologist. That decision, which could have been taken as far back as the 1400s, was originally “for entertainment” during certain festivals the king himself patronized.
Fast forward hundreds of years and in the short existence of the women’s national team, every single wrestler has come from a small cluster of five or six villages within the Oussouye region.
Marie-Thérèse says her own grandmother told her why women fought. “To defend the honor of our village,” she said simply. “A win for me was a win for the village.”
These days, glory comes in the form of televised matches backed by moneyed sponsors. Male wrestlers at the top of the game receive corporate sponsorship, tens of thousands of dollars per fight, and the adulation of fans breathlessly following Senegal’s most popular sport. For women, who are expected to give up wrestling once they’re married — and swiftly concentrate on having children — a fleeting chance to go professional comes in the form of a handful of local festivals. Centered around wrestling bouts, they draw huge crowds — and national scouts.
In 1997 Lansana Coly, then a junior coach for the men’s national team, was at an international meet in Egypt when he had a sudden realization. Back then, women had been competing internationally for only 10 years, and no one had even considered Senegal might have a team. “I watched other countries who had women’s teams, and I thought, I have neighbors who can fight better than this,” said Coly, now head coach of the men’s national team. Because the rules of laamb are similar to those that govern international freestyle wrestling, Coly felt many women would instinctively be able to make the leap. He returned home and started lobbying officials to make a women’s team a reality.
A year later, Coly attended the women's wrestling matches held at the close of the Festival of the King of Oussouye, a two-week-long annual harvest carnival, and picked out three of the most promising fighters. Eveline, then 22, was among them. After just 10 days of intense training in Dakar, the capital, the team traveled to the African championship in Morocco. Eveline returned home with a silver medal.
Two decades on, Eveline spends her time as the women’s head coach trying to persuade others to take up international wrestling. Paradoxically, just as opportunities to wrestle beyond Casamance have flourished, fewer Jola women want to continue the sport.
A strange mix of traditional values and modernity has caused the sport to wane among women. There are the traditional barriers: Despite being a talented wrestler herself, Eveline’s mother was unusual in allowing her daughter to pursue the sport even after she’d married. Modern life encroached in the traditional family compound — after a shared lunch beside a communal well, a cousin rested beneath a tree’s shady branches and began swiping right on his Samsung phone. “People travel these days, they go outside the village, they have different lives. When they come back home, they see wrestling as traditional thing and they aspire to be more modern,” Coly said.
But for Isabelle, whose articulate and friendly demeanor belies a regret that she never finished primary school, wrestling opened doors. And she’s fighting to show it can do the same for other women.
As she began listing the cities she’d fought in — New York, Rio de Janeiro, Las Vegas, Moscow, Tokyo, Montreal, Bucharest — a cousin thrust a bunch of neem tree leaves in front of her face as if holding a microphone. She laughed and threw a fake punch.
There’s both pride and incredulity among the family that a girl born in a three-room cinder block house made it that far. In her bedroom, whose cement walls were decorated with a lone picture of the Virgin Mary, Isabelle carefully laid out five of the medals she'd picked up over the years. She placed fifth at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last year, but considered it the highlight of a career that began in 2001, and ended with her being nominated Africa’s female wrestler of the decade.
“I’ve been fighting since I was this high,” she said, holding her hand up to her knee. “I’d take on the guys as well.” After a particularly bruising showdown with a group of boys, a cousin suggested going pro. “He said, ‘Come fight at the festival — there’ll be coaches; there’s even the Olympics these days.’ And I was, ‘No, no, I want to keep working and earn money.’ I like my work.”
A lack of education already made it risky, but the peer pressure was equally daunting. When she was 21 — “marriageable age” — friends and strangers alike warned her, “Your body will become like a man’s; you’ll look like a man. You won’t be able to find a man; you won’t be able to have children.”
Still, in between working as a housekeeper and nanny, Isabelle would train as much as possible, no matter what others said. “I didn’t listen to the negativity. I liked fighting.”
“Whenever you do something different in life, even if it’s not wrestling, there are always people who’ll discourage you.”
Her persistence eventually paid off when Coly singled her out during the festival. It’s a message she’s been telling young girls ahead of this year’s festivities, which she’ll be attending with both Eveline and Coly as they scout for new team members. It’s often an uphill struggle, she admitted. This afternoon, less than 24 hours before they get a chance in the ring, all the young women she knows are out tending to the rice fields. “We girls don’t get time to practice,” she said. “You just have to be ready when you step into the ring.”
On the last morning of the festival, three young women — all of them on the national team’s roster — were lying on Isabelle’s bed, talking and sharing a packet of sweet, powdered milk as a warm-up snack. There was no air-conditioning, so one had stripped down to her bra in the muggy heat. Another was flicking through her phone.
Binette Diatta, a deceptively skinny 23-year-old, spoke quietly until she landed on a common theme: how all of her friends, one by one, had stopped practicing the sport they had all loved as girls.
“It hurts me, because we all used to play together; we’d fight at the festival every year,” she said, her voice rising.
In a country with soaring gender disparity, funding for women’s sports is almost an afterthought. Binette only kept at it because she had an aunt who encouraged her — coach Eveline.
She gave a tight shrug. “Knowing I had the courage to keep wrestling has helped me move forward in other areas. You learn so many lessons — it’s not just about the sport,” she said.
Not everyone on the roster has her confidence. Fourteen-year-old Helen Sambou, dimpled and cornrowed, is so shy she seems almost apologetic for even taking up space. As the team members piled onto a pickup truck taking them to the festival, Helen was so nervous she couldn’t speak.
“We’ve put her on the roster — it’s now up to her to prove herself,” coach Coly said.
Helen’s dream is to follow in the footsteps of her cousin, Isabelle, and one day make the Olympics. But earlier that morning, she’d been struck by a fit of anxiety, wavering about whether she could participate in the festival’s career-launching opportunity.
Her older cousin had taken her aside and spoken gently to her. “I told her wrestling has to come from the heart; nobody can force her,” she said. “But she has nothing to lose by trying.”
The crowd of several hundred people gathered for the festivities did little to calm Helen’s frayed nerves. Her face tightened further as men and boys sprang into the dusty arena, opening the ceremony. She watched silently, hands bunched in sweaty fists and eyes darting nervously between the simultaneous matches taking place. The air was charged with testosterone. Jubilant cheers erupted from the onlookers after every win. At one point, a woman jumped up and down frantically, suckling baby attached to her nipple.
Finally it was the girls’ shot at glory.
There were girls with frohawks and frilly shirts; teenagers who stamped the ground as their opponents went down, and others who giggled and helped fallen losers after a win. Older women pulled apart fights that got too rough.
The matches are free-for-all affairs, where opponents typically pair up spontaneously when any two fighters step into the ring; other times, one fighter struts in front of the onlookers, arms raised menacingly, and another fighter takes up the challenge.
Today, no one wanted to wrestle Helen. Ten minutes passed. Time was running out — the women’s wrestling matches are tacked onto the very end of the festival, with the whole thing over in half an hour. After a few more minutes, Isabelle herself joined her cousin inside the ring, urging someone — anyone — to step forward. At one point, she stood in front of a group of young wrestlers, all men. They averted their eyes.
At last another teenager stepped forward.
A column of strength, the challenger wore all black and red, her hair swept back in a net. Helen’s face crumpled into a tapestry of nervousness. But she stepped forward, locked eyes, then began sparring. The crowd fell silent. Shifting her weight suddenly, her opponent slammed a stunned Helen to the dusty ground. Grimacing, Helen angled her body in such a way that her shoulders didn’t touch the dust — she was down, but not out.
There are three ways a laamb match ends: when a fighter’s shoulders, two hands or knees touch the ground, if the crowd overwhelmingly supports one fighter, or if the referee steps in to break up the fighters in a tie-break. With both girls dripping sweat, a referee eventually called a tie-break. The crowd protested; “It’s not over!” someone screamed.
“She still has to do more to prove herself,” Coly said, shaking his head, as a dejected Helen walked off.
Nevertheless, he was happy, having found two other potential stars — in theory, also rivals to Helen. One, Alouisia Sambou, 14, is the daughter of a male former wrestling champ. Her proud father hovered nearby, talking over her as Coly asked her if she wanted to take up a training offer.
“Let her talk for herself!” Eveline snapped exasperatedly. The father stared in surprise, then nodded. “Yes, yes, you’re right, you’re right,” he said sheepishly.
Alouisia smiled and fidgeted with her fingers for a moment. “I was scared before I stepped in the ring,” she said quietly. “I didn’t think I was going to win. But I went in, and I did it.”