Into African Sands

FIGHT! Magazine’s nomadic journalist T.R. Foley follows his passion for wrestling to the center of Africa and into the sand pits of Chad.

Photography By T.R. Foley

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On February 12, 2013, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee voted to eliminate wrestling from the 2020 Olympic program. However, the executive board allowed for FILA, the international governing body of the sport, to submit a proposal for inclusion back into the 2020 Games. The stipulation was that the institution needed to make serious and substantial changes to its internal governance, gender equality, and match rules.

FILA met the following weekend in Thailand and removed president Raphael Martinetti through a procedural vote of “no confidence.” Next came the appointment of the back-slapping, 300-pound Serbian businessman Nenad Lalovic to the role of interim president. Once in power, Lalovic recruited and hired a coalition of consultants and experts to help modernize the turgid and stodgy organization through improvements to the sport’s presentation and fan accessibility. For a modern barometer of the opaqueness of FILA, the organization didn’t have an updated Facebook or Twitter account, and their website looked as though it was built by a sixth-grader who’d just learned Microsoft Front Page.

In an effort to help the cause to #SaveOlympicWrestling, I headed to some of FILA’s most inaccessible, off-the-grid wrestling tournaments to take photos, write articles, and generate discussion about the sport.

One of my stops was Chad, the landlocked country in the bull’s-eye center of Africa that was serving as host to FILA’s 2013 African Wrestling Championships.

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*****

To enter Africa from the east, 99 percent of travelers are processed through the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Looking to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or go buccaneering with the Somali pirates? Addis Ababa is your access point to the continent. As an American planning to sojourn through Chad, I couldn’t just transfer planes via an electronic ticket purchase. I had to find the Chadian consulate in Addis, wrangle a visa, and then purchase a flight—something that could only be done in person with proof of aforementioned visa.

Although facing a notoriously bureaucratic battle wrought with legitimate hurdles, I was optimistic because Mark Lovejoy, the co-director of my non-profit Wrestling Roots Foundation, lived in Addis and had connections at the U.S. Embassy.

Mark picked me up from the airport at 6:30 a.m., and we spent much of the day in the car between the Chadian Embassy, the ticket counter for Ethiopian Airlines, and the U.S. Embassy. The Chadian Embassy had refused to grant me a visa until I had a letter from the American embassy verifying my business in Chad. The American Embassy balked, stating it was outside their diplomatic relationship to validate the travel purpose of American civilians. The diplomatic kerfuffle left me with no option but to create an elaborate diversion.

I put pen to paper.

To Whom it May Concern:
My name is Tim Foley, and I’m headed to Chad to take photos of a wrestling tournament and discuss the excellence of Chadian culture.
Sincerely,
Tim Foley

image descI presented the letter to a notary at the U.S. Embassy.

“So I’m being asked to notarize a letter about you, that was also written and signed by you?” asked the embassy notary.

“Correct”

“I can do that.”

The imprint of the official U.S. Embassy notary—the large blue stamp and the looping black ink signature—created enough of a peacock effect to earn me the Chadian visa. Although I was forced to pay $100 for “processing fees,” we’d wrangled the visa and could now buy a ticket to Chad.

But how exactly would I be viewed in Chad?

“The White in Shining Armor, “says Mark. “Most white people in Africa love to tell Africans how to manage this and teach that. White people show them how this is wrong and this is unhealthy. Seriously. White people come to Africa to preach and teach. Nobody comes to learn.”

I woke up three days later in N’Djamena to the rattle of consecutive emails pinging my phone. Brian, a State Department officer in Chad, who was friends with Mark, had sent the following email:

I would strongly recommend that you NOT come to Chad right now. There was an attempted coup d’etat last night, including a gunfight on the road between the Kempinski Hotel and the road in front of the Embassy. An undetermined number of people were killed.

Too late. I was under the sheets on the second floor of the Kempinski. Like most travelers, I generally disapprove of gun violence while on assignment and turned to BBC World News for more details. Although the U.S. Embassy in an embattled foreign country is every American’s most dependable source of protection, the years spent living in State Department “hardship posts” increase their employees’ tendency toward screeching maternalism.

Thankfully, the BBC covers Africa with regularity and seriousness. Chad had, in fact, been the site of what the government was now calling a coup attempt. They would know what one looked like—current President Idriss Deby was installed by coup in 1990.

The Olympic-style portion of the FILA-sponsored wrestling tournament was set to start at 5:00 p.m., so I took a peek out the window of the Kempinski, expecting headless bodies to be prone in the street, but life outside the hotel was rolling along as it had the previous few days. Men wearing traditional long-flowing boubous (long-sleeved robes) sauntered by on their way to work, and rudderless street kids played soccer in dusty fields.

I went to breakfast and asked the lady at the omelet station what she’d done to safeguard her home from these terrorist attacks.

She had no idea what I was talking about.

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Every FILA continental championship has three classifications: Freestyle, Greco-Roman, and Women’s Freestyle. The rule is that each weight category must be competed in a single day, so most small tournaments can be wrapped up in only three days of competition. For areas of larger participation, like Europe or Asia, the tournament can become five full days of competition, with weight classes inside a division split up over more days.

Because of Africa’s size, the rising cost of fuel, and the general difficulty in raising funds for travel, only a dozen countries were able to afford the trip, and many of those were from north Africa, where economic circumstances are markedly better.

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The Egypt and Tunisian teams have dominated the tournament in recent years, and in N’Djamena, the outcome was much the same. Time and again, the lighter-skinned Arabic wrestlers outclassed the sub-Saharan teams on the mat. Leg-laces, gut wrenches, and other forms of back exposure were paralyzing the advancement of wrestlers from countries like Cameroon, Niger, and Chad.

Didier Favori, a 50-something French national and former Olympic-caliber wrestler who worked for FILA, noticed this disparity in 2008. A year later he coordinated the assets of the French government and FILA to help establish a coaching and training facility in Thies, a city in northern Senegal. The center recruits talented—but raw—wrestlers from sub-Saharan Africa and coaches them how to compete in Freestyle and Greco at the international level. The wrestlers receive an education, spending money, and world-class coaching, and Favori gets to dream about seeing them win Olympic gold.

“This is Africa!” says Favori during the Women’s Freestyle finals, where two of his wrestlers were battling for gold at 51kg. “Here, there are some wrestlers with a feel that is beautiful. They feel wrestling in their fingertips. You visit a small village, maybe in Guinea-Bissau or Cameroon, and you find these wrestlers with more natural talent than maybe anywhere in the world. It’s in their blood.”

FILA’s Olympic readiness program has already produced results. Under Favori’s direction, and the coaching of a former Bulgarian national team coach, Senegal sent Isabelle Sambou to the 2012 Olympics in London. She’d been recruited from the Casamance, an area of Senegal south of Gambia, where women are encouraged to participate in traditional forms of wrestling.

“Today is wonderful,” says the bald and energetic Frenchman. “But you have not seen the real prize yet. The most beautiful and magnificent is wrestling tomorrow…Yes, YES! This is going to be the best event. You will see!”

*****

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The Chadian wrestlers enter the chalk-lined sand pit under the steady rhythm of flutes and synthesized drum beats. They wear tight blue and yellow shorts, while bending their knees and shoveling their arms side-to-side—low and to the right, then back to the left—as the music is pumped through two-dozen freezer-sized speakers.

The sounds pitch higher and the wrestlers grin through a progression of hip shakes and limp-legged shudders. The gyrations encourage 10,000 supportive countrymen to join the pre-match hype, inflating their spirits from cautious optimism into a full-scale tizzy. The wrestlers sway back-and-forth with confidence, arms in the air, smiles beaming. The unnamed dance is as familiar to the Chadian fans as the electric slide is to the Rotary Club of Dallas.

image desc“Very exciting! Now we are hearing the national song of Chad,” says the bluntly descriptive emcee. “As you see, the people are dancing and they are having fun! Many people are laughing! This is a joyous time. A fun event for people of Chad!”

This isn’t Chad’s national anthem, but more like a homespun version of “Lets Get It Started.” The song is a catchy combo of high-pitch notes that stream regularly from passing cars and storefronts in the capital city of N’Djamena. The rhythm connects the Chadian fans to their wrestlers.

The Chadians wrestlers continue their hip shake through the center of the sand-filled wrestling surface and line up shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the concrete bleachers filled with their flag-waving countrymen.

As the team from the Central African Republic approaches the wrestling pit, the fans fall silent and the beat drops.

Now playing: Celine Dion.

A wrestler from Central Africa circles to his left and extends his hands out to judge the distance between himself and his Chadian opponent. It’s dark out, but the sandy ring is saturated with yellow-tinted floodlights. Overly Descriptive Emcee isn’t missing any chances to validate the success of the event and calls the action with a tenor of bias and emotion.

“The wrestlers are circling each other! As you can see these are STRONG men! The music plays for us because we like the dancing and singing,” he says. “This is part of African wrestling!”

Chad is sitting on an opportunity to earn continental strutting rights. Should they win three of the five matches, they will end their Pool B classification undefeated and face the winner of Pool A in the finals. Those wrestlers, the Senegalese, are undoubtedly the strongest wrestlers on the continent. Their events back in Dakar can garner as many as 100,000 fans for a single man vs. man match—not team competition, just two wrestlers.

image descThe rules of Traditional African Wrestling are simple, but before the tournament begins, a referee dressed in all white, and with the assistance of the ever-vocal emcee, gives a 30-second demonstration. The style is takedown-only, but the referee works to explain that you can touch your hands and feet to the sand but any combinations of two other contact points (knee, head, and elbow) will result in a takedown. Landing on your side or your butt is also considered a takedown.

Unlike the ongoing confusion and action-less rules of Greco-Roman wrestling, the rules for this competition were so easy to understand that they helped build the enjoyment of the crowd. It’s instinctive to anticipate a falling tree, and like the tantric and cathartic yin-yang of soccer fans who hold their breath, fans released thunderous applause when wrestlers fell their opponents into the sand.

Two matches into the final dual, the wrestlers from the Central African Republic are losing 2-0 to the Chadian team. Next up is the home team’s star 80kg wrestler, who earlier in the day reversed an impossible situation to earn a takedown against a rival Cameroonian. Wealthy Chadian men ran to the edge of the ring and slapped currency against the sweaty forehead of the winning wrestler.

The crowd dances to its national song, as the masses lurch forward from the concrete stands encroached on the circle below. At ground level, more Chadian fans gather behind the rope line to surround the action. I sit still, face behind the camera lens, alternating photo opportunities while imaging possible escape paths. Like Duke basketball players after a loss to an ACC opponent, I feel the crushing energy of the Chadians and their expectant rush on the competition area as a threat to my safety.

The wrestler from Central Africa lunges at the whistle, digging for a deep underhook. The Chadian pinches his elbow down and circles his legs away from the pressure. His opponent, favoring to strike early and catch the Chadian off-balance, crouches down for a snatch-single, but the Chadian anticipates and sprawls forward, driving his opponent into the sand.

I’m 10 feet from the speakers blaring West African hip-hop, but all I can hear is the echoing chorus of Chadian applause—the whooping, the whistling, the unencumbered celebration of a proud country.

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The Chadian fans begin to rush the sand. A dozen children, with a school bus-sized flag, run the perimeter of the competition area holding their nation’s colors over their heads, screaming for no other reason but to redistribute their absorbed jubilance.

I seek out Favori for a ride back to the Kempinksi, and a modicum of protection from the brewing insanity that’s leaked onto the pit. As I run across the open area, a teenager on a motorcycle appears and does an extended 360-degree burnout, kicking up sand for 20 feet in every direction. Mayhem has been uncorked.

“Imagine,” Favori says. “IMAGINE! We maybe have team competition like this in the Olympics. We have FILA do this for all the countries. Look how many fans today. Look! See! Now tomorrow for finals, maybe 20,000 fans!”

Favori was right. Takedown wrestling was attractive to the crowd because it sold the simplicity of brawn, while revealing the value of technique and courage. Like a bullfight, that simplicity could be hashed out in a myriad ways. The poets could see the harmony and fluidity of the action, while the sadists could appreciate the domination. African wrestling not only revealed the power of simplicity to promote nationalism, but the inherent equality of a minimal, unadorned sport.

For a sport like Olympic wrestling and an organization like FILA, both teetering on the edge of saleable irrelevance, the visceral charge of the Chadians might have been the lesson they needed to understand the power and marketability of simplicity.

“We need to learn from this,” says Favori, as we hopped into the SUV. “Wrestling needs to learn from Africa.”

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