Senegal's fitness fanatics and the 'ancient' sports that still play centre stage. There are pretty girls too

Before there was football, cricket or all, young Senegalese women expect their men to be marvellously ripped.

EVERY day at about 5pm, when the city gets cooler, hundreds of runners emerge on the streets of Dakar. Transcending gender, ages and classes the runners either make tracks up and down the city’s large, palm fringed sidewalks or on one of the city’s beaches. I’ve never seen such mass dedication to keeping fit in any major city. 

Permanent work out stations, with high bars and benches, have been set up at various points along the ocean shore. A perfect place for pull-ups, sit ups and hanging out. Georges Menheim is a 24-year-old Senegalese student and aspiring footballer. He explains that there are several reasons for the vast numbers of fitness fanatics. 

Aside from pleasure and health reasons, residents of Dakar get fit because of the high stature sport has in the country. Footballers and basketball players are looked up to by the youth. 

With an eye on the girls

But what really started the movement off a few years ago was the revitalisation of traditional wrestling which pulls in more spectators than any other sport, and there are big bucks to be earned - some of the most renown fighters rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single fight. Wrestlers like the infamous Balla Gaye Deux are local superstars, their images broadcast across the nation during matches and by their big sponsors. 

Menheim explains that one of the main objectives of the sport is for one player to throw the opponent to the ground, outside a given area, by lifting him up. The fighters therefore work hard to develop a strong build, something many young men aspire to, and one that young Senegalese women expect of their men - another very big push factor for the high numbers of young men working out everyday. 

Across Africa traditional sports continue to take precedence, whether they always have, or because they are making a comeback. Here are a few more insights into Africa’s favourite local sports…

Donkey racing in Kenya

Kenya’s island of Lamu has an annual donkey race which takes place during the Islamic Festival of Maulidi (the celebration of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday), attracting thousands of visitors from around the country. Jockeys and donkeys train intensely for the race, which takes place along the waterfront, and their loyal supporters turn out in droves. 

Despite the small stature of the animals, Lamu’s donkey race is no easy sport - there are no saddles, the animals chosen are well trained beasts that can run at impressive speeds. The animals have been known to fight each other during the race. It has been around for centuries, requires unusual skill and is incredibly unique. 

Gunpowder games in Morocco

Tbourida, or fantasia, is a traditional Moroccan sport that combines horse racing with shooting and usually occurs at cultural festivals or celebrations. The task is challenging and dangerous - a team of 15 to 20 riders charge their horses down towards a finish line and fire their guns in unison at the end.

Boys are taught the sport from a very young age and though men continue to dominate, girls are increasingly becoming involved. Even though some show-based restaurants are using fantasia as a form of entertainment, it is considered a martial art and symbolises an incredible display of horsemanship. Each region in Morocco has several fantasia groups, totalling thousands of horse riders nationwide, each trying to outdo each other with their ability to fire their guns so only one shot is heard.

Bull wrestling in Madagascar

Unlike bull fighting in Spain where the animal - or matador - is likely to end up dead, in Madagascar bull wrestling is the preferred sport. Considered to have been around for centuries, bull wrestling, or savika, is almost like a rodeo and can be seen done by either professionals in a stadium, or the traditional version which is done in muddy pits in small villages. 

It begins when a zebu (humped or Brahman cow) bull in a pen is teased into frustration, before the players start sneaking up behind it trying to grab its hump onto which they hang for as long as possible, doing their best not to get injured. Injuries do however occur, but this does not stop the Betsileo community from practicing it at celebrations. Those that participate do not receive any prizes or trophies but rather partake to earn the respect of the community…and the ladies too. 

Nigeria’s Dambe boxers

Dambe boxing is an ancient form of boxing traditionally practised among the Hausa, originally by butchers. The fights take place between two teams, each comprising between 10 and 20 boxers, composed of  mostly professional fighters. They group together at either side of a large area which forms the “ring” before each fighter steps forward to square off against an opponent from the other team. 

There are three rounds, each round lasting 30 seconds or until there is a knock-down or a knock-out. Unlike other forms of boxing, the Dambe boxer punches with only one fist which is tightly bound up to the wrist with a rough twine and he can use his feet and legs. Traditionally, the fights were a form of social bonding between farmers and butchers, staged at harvest time when money was plentiful. The sport was in decline, but took off again, gaining a new place in the national sports calendar. 

Nguni stick fighting, South Africa

Nguni stick-fighting is a South African martial art traditionally practiced by teenage Nguni herders. Each combatant is armed with two long sticks, one of which is used for defence and the other for offence. Hitting the head scores you six points, the neck scores four, the hip scores you five points and the leg gains you six points. 

A tournament can last up to five hours. Little armour is used - competitors usually wear a rugby scrum cap to protect their heads and bandages around their hands - which has resulted in extreme injuries and the sport has also led to incidents of death as competitors or supporters get violent - in 2013 five boys were murdered

Despite being banned in certain parts of the country, the sport is an integral part of Nguni culture - for example, when a Xhosa boy goes to initiation school, one of the skills he works on is that of stick-fighting - they usually learn first by using dried corn stalks as weapons. A young Xhosa man who carries himself well with “the sticks” is said to win a lot of respect wherever he goes in life.  With urbanisation, the sport infiltrated townships in South Africa and, in what is commonly called “Township Fight Club”, bouts are organised in urban settlements. 

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