By Hassan Gibril- Banjul Dem
In the 1960s and 70s traditional wrestling was a must watch sport and entertainment spectacle in The Gambia. For many enthusiastic wrestlers winning a match used to bring about instant success and fame. The fascinating thing about wrestling both to the participant and the spectator is the indescribable joy that sprung from winning a wrestling match.
Fans or supporters used to play a very vital role in the motivation of wrestlers, especially the champions.
Wrestling champions not only enjoyed adulation and fawning but received all kinds of gifts, material and financial support, from their local fans, admirers, promoters and sponsors from well –to do businessmen and known people of affluence.
While many wrestlers had the wherewithals to win any bout or contest, many of them felt somewhat intimidated by “charm keepers” who enticed them to go with some form of ‘juju’ protection in the ring so that they would not be threatened in any way by their opponents.
Some “charm keepers” or “juju men” encouraged the wrestlers to publicly display their charms or ‘jujus’ (amulets called “terrehs” made from skins of various animals) and concoctions called “saafaras” that they used to drink and spray all over their bodies.
Whilst wrestling had always been enjoyed by Gambians as a traditional sporting event, the Senegalese had made it a national sport of great business entertainment and had therefore given it more sponsorship, hype and importance generating much revenue and international acclaim.
In The Gambia, Foday Dusuba (alias Foday Busso Bah) and Double (Dubal) Less (alias Mamadou Sakho) were the pioneer wrestlers of Balanta extract from Casamance (Senegal); then came, afterwards, Bala (Balanta) and Masaneh (Jola) groups.
Eventually, Foday Dusuba moved to Dakar (Senegal) and so also did Double (Dubal Less) where they engaged in a form of wrestling which allowed the use of hand blows different from the Greeco-Roman type of traditional wrestling (without striking or boxing) with bare fists which was practised in The Gambia.
In passing, Masaneh was the Jola champion and leader of the Jola wrestlers comprising Seven Ton (7 ton) and others.
Bolong and later Bala were the Balanta champions respectively and successively leaders of their Balanta/Fula group.
Then, you had Abiti, another astute and prominent wrestler, also part of the Balanta group as well as Sadaka, Opah/ Manirang, Modou Mbaskat and others.
Do you remember the Balanta wrestling song:
“Abiti Layi la solo Balanta
Yeh, la illa solo Balla
Yeh ….. ……………. “
Indeed, those wrestlers were “men’s men”, widely respected and beloved by all.
So amazing were their performers that they had been such great influence to so many other upcoming Gambian wrestlers.
Afterwards, in the late 1970s, the wrestling ground was moved from the original location, Aren Shyben Madi, where Muslim High is located to the Crab Island/Tobacco Road catchment area and at one time to the Box Bar Stadium (where the King Fahad Mosque now is) and also to the Dodou Mbaye Yard which was situated at the now New Primet Street Junction and Mosque Road and then subsequently to the Serekunda/ Bambo night club area.
At any rate, the Balla and Masaneh groups had by then retired from wrestling, giving way to a younger generation of wrestlers.
The Jola group was then led by a skilful wrestler called Jalang.
Finally, wrestling started to be mainly sponsored by competing Lebanese businessmen ie the Michael and George Aziz group, the Brahim Farage group, the Sharbel El Hadj group etc, if I am not mistaken, as there can always be age-related memory shortcomings and so let the reader understand the old man with his endless musings.