In Senegal in a Serer village called Sandicoly I found the great tradition, sport and game called Njom. Njom is much more than just wrestling. It includes many rituals that are at the heart of Serer culture. In fact Njom actually comes from the Serer word heart.
Many preparations are made for an Njom ceremony. The entire village works towards the event making sure everything goes to plan. Typically boys and men go out to plough in the fields. In the village girls and women sweep floors clean, beat millet, pull water from the well, sew garments, pick mangoes from the trees, and cook tonight's feast for the hungry wrestlers.
One important preparation for Njom wrestlers is their visit with the village marabou, who invokes their all-important Gri Gri to help them achieve their ambitions in combat.
"Wrestlers come to visit us marabou, because their confidence in us is as strong as our faith in god. They hope that when we pray for them god will help us bring their ambitions. Yes in my time I really loved Njom ceremonies, I was myself a wrestler. At that time I was a young man with strength, It was a kind of sport that really educated you in your heart, so it gave you good heart, it helped you to be vigorous, it helps you to know how to deal with a peer, and how you may defeat him, it's a real game of knowing the other. A wrestler can be defeated sometimes, but doesn't get angry, or he may win and be joyful. Really ecstatic. But if as a wrestler you don't accept defeat, your life will be difficult. So in other words it's a way of preparing your future life in the community. You often wrestle with young men of your age group, your opponents, growing up sharing everything together, perhaps becoming friends. Later, living apart, you may happen to meet, start chatting, asking about family. This is very good for our education. Njom can improve many things in a person's life. For example wrestlers in this area would go to the other villages and sometimes stay there for a whole month before coming back and bring back all the cattle they had won there. Njom can also give you great dignity and honour and make you famous in all the land."
It was to my great surprise and honour to be introduced to Maame Ebou Thior, AKA "The Doctor", a wrestler who reined 3 years as unbeaten champion of all Sin Saloum, living right here in Sandicoly.
"My name is Ebu Thior, but my name in the Njom ceremonies was "The Doctor". What I most like about Njom is that you become a representative of your village. Every village hopes its wrestler will be the winner and you must honour your village, because if they are happy, you are yourself delighted. When we were chosen to wrestle for the village it was a real honour for us, and when the village has made all efforts to afford you the best possible conditions, it is now up to you to summon all your courage. With you and the wrestler you are challenging, it is your own part. Now you should put your heart in it. That is the reason why Njom is based on the word Jom (heart). I grew very famous in this area, even though I did not benefit financially I became acquainted with many people,and many people trusted me. It is something that I will never lose."
With the palisade and final preparations in place, children sit eagerly and wait patiently for the ceremony to begin. Njom ceremonies usually run for 4 to 5 nights and can last 5 hours or more each night, throughout which many activities take place to help invigorate and inspire the wrestlers. Drummers beat intricate booming rhythms. Singers call out messages of good luck. Women dance fervently in their magnificent robes of unbridled colour. The wrestlers themselves perform many magic rituals as instructed earlier by their marabou. Last but not least the wrestlers perform their own special dance to show their heart, courage and strength. They are so strong they make the ground shake and tremble. Whilst the ceremony continues, wrestlers are called, take up positions, and commence combat.
The aim is to throw their opponent down to the ground without kicking or punching. However, in recent times the "wrestling" in Dakar now allows bare fisted punching which is a spectacle designed to create commercial interest for television sponsors. This new rule has completely undermined the original meaning and honour of Senegalese wrestling.
Some wrestlers take time to appreciate their opponent's stature, whilst others make haste in hope of an early victory. For these men who train everyday of the year from as early as 6 years old the contest is hard won. The tremendous effort they expend makes the victory and the experience of taking part all the more rewarding.
I have never seen men with more physical force than the wrestlers of Njom, yet simultaneously they carry an earthly wisdom and knowledge of their fellow men, in the strength of their hearts.