Participant Observation is the Process of Learning by
Observing and Participating in Cultural Life
Cultural Lens: Laamb, Senegalese Wrestling

There is nothing more Senegalese than sport, and it is not uncommon to see people of all ages working out on the boardwalk in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. What is so unique about this boardwalk is the fact that many outdoor gyms have been constructed along its edge. Cars pass by on the highway, and there are spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean, lively conversations, and lots of stands selling coconut juice.

Aside from regularly exercising, Senegalese people are passionate about watching soccer and basketball. But while the national team's performance during the 2002 FIFA World Cup is a cherished memory, the most popular sport in the country is definitely Senegalese wrestling.

Senegalese wrestling or Laamb in Wolof, the national language of Senegal, is an indigenous sport played on sand that has existed for centuries. Laamb competitions are won when a wrestler lifts their opponent and throws them to the ground outside the ring. Although physical strength is important, competitors believe that luck also plays a vital role in winning.

Many Senegalese people believe in supernatural powers and that bad luck befalls those who do not seek protection against it. As a result, competitors usually perform rituals before their matches, not only to increase their luck, but also to protect against the spells their opponents cast against them. Competitors often wear Gris-Gris, or spiritual protections, around their waists, arms, and legs, and rub themselves with magic lotions prepared by spiritual leaders known as Marabouts.

This sport was traditionally performed by Serer tribe warriors as military training, but it was also considered a rite of passage for young Serer men and a way to acquire Jom, or honor — an important value in the Serer community. Laamb then traveled across the country, and competitors from different ethnic groups would wrestle before the local kings.

Senegalese Drum
Photo by: Radia Mbengue

Laamb became a significant part of the Senegalese music scene during the pre-colonial era. Matches were accompanied by women's chants, poetry recitals, traditional dances, such as the Mbalax, and the sound of the Tam Tam, a kind of drum and a very popular instrument in Senegal.

What has changed over time? While Laamb was historically used by young men to prove their masculinity, find a wife, and bring honor to their villages, today it is largely a display of athletic skill. Laamb also helps young men wrestle their way out of poverty. The more successful and popular the wrestler is, the more money they can earn — much like in American wrestling. Young people head to the beaches at twilight to practice in the hopes of one day becoming the next champion.

Like many sports, fans identify with the players and are proud of the competitors from their own neighborhoods. Laamb has become a national sport played in stadiums and shown on TV, and star wrestlers are the heroes of entire districts; you can see them on posters on every wall and vehicle throughout Senegal.

Even though the practice has become highly commercialized, it remains fundamentally cultural and traditional in nature. Matches take place at cultural celebrations, with singers, dancers, and Griots (traditional storytellers) celebrating the victors.

If you want to learn more about this culture-infused sport, check out the 2005 Senegalese movie "L'appel des arčnes" (Wrestling Grounds).
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