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West African Traditional Wrestlers Seek Riches, Find Discipline

Traditional wrestling is one of the major sports in the Sahelian part of West Africa, the arid areas between the forest and the Sahara desert. Hundreds of young men dream of superstardom and count on mystical powers as they train nearly every day for their next big match. VOA's Nico Colombant caught up with one fighter in Dakar.

Grunts emanate from a sandy pitch behind a school as night falls, and a dozen young men grapple with each other, wearing only compression shorts and loincloths, trying to wrestle each other to the ground.

The practice leader is Allou Sarr, 27. He has a thick neck and huge legs. He is 90 kilograms of solid muscle.

He says fighting helps young men living in an underdeveloped environment to in his words drown some of their anguish.

But he says fighters must love and respect the sport, not expect to make money easily and also be ready to sacrifice.

He says wrestlers often get injured. He says they need to practice almost every day. He explains to succeed, you need to go to bed early, and you cannot chase after women too often, he says.

He knows several young men who used to be wrestlers, and then when they could not make much money from it, tried to become criminals, but came back to wrestling. He says at least it gives you pride and keeps you on the right side of the law.

He says if a wrestler practices hard, he can become a champion and make lots of money.

Sarr makes about $1,000 per fight in tournaments sponsored by major cell phone companies and water bottling plants. The problem is not many opponents want to fight him. He has won nine of his eleven contests, including one in less than four seconds. His next fight is scheduled in April.

Practice ends with a series of abdominal exercises.

At the entrance of his home, in a nearby neighborhood, Sarr shows the pictures of his own father, who was one of Senegal's legendary fighters.

Sarr also shows a room surrounded with trophies, both his own and his father's. His own competition loincloth hangs from the wall.

He says before matches, he sits here to get mystical powers. He rubs body lotion which he says is magic. He says he does not wear amulets like some other fighters, because he says opponents like to grab amulets, but with the right lotion he says, he is unstoppable.

In the outside courtyard, his sister weaves hair. She says she is proud of her brother.

"As far as I am concerned, it is good because it is a job. Many African people can do it to win their life and help their families and help themselves."

Money is on everyone's mind.

Sarr's mother says it would be better if fighters could make more money, and if they could have more fights. She says even though her son is a good fighter, if he had some money, she says, he would probably go to Europe and try his luck there as an ordinary worker, rather than continue as a fighter in Africa.