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Day 35: Dakar

Michael Palin - SaharaBy now, the contestants, uniformly lean, wiry and young, are stripped down to single elaborately tied loincloths, like underfed sumo wrestlers, raising the level of excitement amongst the women in the crowd. (There is none of the public segregation we saw in the Arab countries). Their cries and shouts of encouragement merge with the throbbing of the drums and the relentless yelling of the comperes as the bouts, at last, begin.

Starting with a curiously fey stance, like cats on their back legs, the wrestlers flap at each other's hands, before grasping each other in a shoulder lock. A flick of the legs from this position can send an opponent off balance and onto the floor, and once a shoulder hits the sand the bout is over. Some contests last a few seconds and others can go on for minutes, as bodies freeze in perfect equilibrium, each one waiting for a moment of weakness to send his opponent tumbling. It lacks the theatrical flamboyance of Western wrestling but makes up for it in a fascinating contest of balance, co-ordination and sheer physical strength.

By one o'clock the crowd has grown to several thousand and I'm told this will last long into the night. Mindful of the fact that we start a thirty-six-hour train journey tomorrow, I'm going to have to go. A discreet exit is not possible. As I get up to leave one of the comperes spars up to me and draws me into the ring, dancing before me and grasping me in mock combat until he releases me with an enormous beam on his face. The crowd laughs and applauds. As we drive out of the dusty run-down suburbs and head for the sea, I'll not easily forget my night in Pikine.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 35
  • Country/sea: Senegal
  • Place: Dakar
  • Book page no: 114

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