What is culture?: Mike Tyson and the Commercialization of Senegalese Traditional Wrestling

“In the end, custom bowed first to creeping modernization, and finally to Islam. The songs, rhymes, riddles, fables, stories, music, and instruments of custom were effaced in one bound, as Islam closed in to strip the ancient baobab tree of its mystery as the magnet of tradition and custom” – Lamin Sanneh (Summoned from the Margin 55)

For the first full day back in West Africa in over two years, I spent a good few hours just waiting for an event to start. In some ways, that was a much needed re-introduction to “African Time.” Of course, this very term can mean so many things, and nearly every country or culture in what is now politely called the Developing World has its equivalent saying. Instead of dissecting time, though, I’d like to ask, “What is the essence of culture? Can it even be defined?” Such questions have been on my mind for some time, as I’m sure they have in yours, and they will resurface throughout my blog posts this summer.

A Cultural Event

In my first evening in West Africa, in Dakar, Senegal, I witnessed what just about anyone might call the premier Senegalese cultural event. It is known in Senegal (Wolof) as beri, in Mali and Guinea as kinyeta, and Niger as kokua. In French and English it is often referred to simply as traditional wrestling, or la lutte traditionnelle. The problem with the English and French terms is that they make an abstraction out of a variety of distinct styles of wrestling in West Africa alone. What is more, as I found out, tradition itself is hard to pin down.

As my Nigerien friend and I entered the stadium, loud chants and horns came from dozens of people gathered at its gates. The sounds continued for hours. As people began to enter the stadium, the volume crescendoed to a fever pitch. My friend and I ended up sitting at the very front of our section, sitting on giant cement steps. Every row behind us and to the left filled with young men; across a fence to my right were “box seats” where one could pay 3 times as much for a chair and a clean sightline. Beyond them was a section mirroring our own.

For nearly an hour the crowd was whipped into a frenzy by an animateur, who does just that, animating the crowd and calling on each wrestlers fan club to chant and spray “water” into the air. A selection of each club comes up and does a dance resembling the New Zealand National Rubgy Team. Stereo music is the background for singing and chanting, accompanied by a few masked dancers dressed in colorful full-body costumes.

Sangue Fan Clubber

All this for a grappling match that lasts anywhere from 20 seconds to 20 minutes, with two men resembling two sumo wrestlers playing patty cake as they wait for the other to make the first move. The actual take down can happen in the blink of an eye, or continue for a couple minutes before one wrestler brings the other to the ground. No rounds, no holding the person for x number of seconds, no points. You drop him or you get dropped.

Sumo patty-cakers, Lotto sign in background

Behind the Scenes

If you think this sounds like a bunch of nonsensical horseplay going nowhere, think again. I did a little bit of research on the event for a presentation to middle-school students in Ohio, focusing mainly on Niger. I found that though there are pan-West Africa Championships, Senegal and Niger have the most-developed national championshoips. With Senegal’s growing economy, the sport’s stars now make it onto billboards promoting cell phone companies (photo) and other corporations.

I found out the next day, from my Senegalese friend Moussa, that the commercialization and mediatization of beri stems from one man: Mike Tyson. No, not that Mike Tyson, but one of the two Senegalese wrestlers who have taken his name for a stage name. The American Mike Tyson may be known for singlehandedly giving American Boxing a bad rap, but it is still one of the most-recognized names in American sports.

Mike Tyson, the Senegalese version, was the first Senegalese to really explore the immense lucre to be found in sport, according to Moussa. With the enormous Senegalese diaspora in France, arguably the most prominent Sub-Saharan diaspora in France, he was even able to export Beri to the famous Bercy Arena. Moussa went so far as to call this development the most important factor in Senegal’s recent economic development. “International Development” is both an academic discipline at many schools (IU’s SPEA included) and an international industry. Industry, I realize, is a loaded term implying graft, money-grubbers, and investment gurus. But what is economic growth and development if isn’t a product of investment?

I began my discussion with Moussa with this simple question, “Is Beri a product of animism?” From my limited prior research, I already knew the answer – yes – but I wanted to get the local opinion from the horse’s mouth.

His response took me aback: “Wrestling in and of itself isn’t animist.”

From that question sprang forth a variety of sub-questions: “For one,” I asked, “Was it really just water that was sprayed from the stands and onto the competitors? Because I saw a police officer spraying water on a guy who was trying jump a fence.”Another fence jumper was beaten with a rubber whip and a tree branch, so I’m pretty sure sprayed water by itself doesn’t connote the best of tidings. He explained that the water was really water and/or milk mixed with various tree derivatives, which my Nigerien friend rightly identified simply as magani in Hausa (Magani can mean medicine, both traditional and modern). I asked about the dancers, he explained that the pre-game ritual was a modern invention that came about only in the last couple decades, and the dressed dancers were a troupe from St. Louis, Senegal’s second city, known as the False Lions.

A False Lion dancer

When I asked about the timing of the event, he explained that my friend and I had attended a smaller match, and that the larger ones took place at midday. Not only was I surprised that the match I’d seen was considered small, but I was even more dumbfounded that matches no longer take place at night. Moussa explained that this is to prevent mobs and violence from forming, something that may have happened if I’d stayed longer than the first big match. As my friend and I were leaving the stadium, a large crowd of people nearly knocked us over chasing their fighter out of the stadium and down the street, where a car awaited him. None of the Nigeriens I met had ventured into a Senegalese kokua match, now I knew why – danger. It is something that the more overtly animistic Senegalese version of the sport has plenty of. But, I wondered about gambling, as I had seen a sign for a the goverment lottery in the stadium. Assuming that this was the sign of a government ministry was to regulate gambling, he actually told me that gambling was not allowed, it was just the lottery. “What kind of free-for-all regulated sport is this?” I thought to myself.

Wrestlers in the Quartier Poste Medina

Moussa, as if on cue, explained the animistic nature of beri in some revelatory language. He told me that the more the sport’s technical prowess has increased, the more mystical powers have been called upon to help wrestlers. Many wrestlers, he explained, will pay serious money to pay visits to what he simply called marabouts, a term simply denoting Muslim religious leaders. Wrestlers will consume massive amounts of protein and take modern medicines as well. The biggest and the best, he explained, even take trips to the United States (not France, mind you) for the sole purpose of weightlifting at America’s mighty gyms. What is more, Moussa explained, you will now see big prize matches advertized months in advance, where managers bid for TV contracts and their stars appear in commercials on those channels. These matches’ purses include hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and sometimes even 4×4 Sport-Utility Vehicles.

Globalized Modernity

“What is more American,” you might ask, “than the SUV?” Well, let me describe it for you: it involves singers, dancers, chants, massive amounts of protein and medicine, weight rooms, and oversized men running at one another. If you haven’t got it by now, let me give it to you in another three letter acronym: NFL. “Now what does the NFL have to do with animism?” you might retort, “America hasn’t been an animist country since before the white man came.” Sure, America’s sportsmen may only have tangential superstitions aside their 9-5 religious practices, but they do also absorb vast quantities of one thing that didn’t make the above list: money. “What does money have to do with religious practices?” I don’t know about religious practice per se, but I do know a saying that goes like this, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). The physical danger associated with Senegalese traditional wrestling may not be the same with America’s medical industry, but there are other religious aspects that a couple of you dear readers have written about here and here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s