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Sweat, sorcery and family honor in traditional Burkina sport
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 17 - 06 - 2016

FORTIFIED by a diet of goat meat and millet, Idrissa and Eloi train hard all year long to help maintain Burkina Faso's colorful and age-old traditional wrestling.
But the two 25-year-olds, both over 80 kilos and boasting impressive physiques, believe that rigorous physical preparation is not enough to win tournaments: sorcery, mysticism and the power of their ancestors also play a part.
"It is the only sport that has not been imported like football or karate," said Pierre Badiel, 52, president of the country's wrestling federation and a former wrestler himself.
"When I was a child, the wrestlers were venerated, they were our heroes."
"We even used wrestling to decide conflicts between two people. It's part of our heritage."
In northwest Burkina, in the Boucle du Mouhoun region, the wrestlers are the pride of their families and their villages.
"In the bush at the end of the harvest, people celebrate Odizon, the arrival of the new millet," said Badiel.
"They organise fights in each village. The winner gains honor — and it's a lot of honor."
The annual national championship is a huge event. In late April in the northwestern town of Tougan the stands are jam-packed with around 3,000 fans, some coming from far away.
Before each fight, children pour buckets of water on the scorching sand of the arena that has been erected that morning.
A dozen ‘griots' — traveling poets and musicians who maintain a regional tradition of oral history — tell stories of the best wrestlers of the past.
The burly fighters appear bare-foot and bare-chested, wearing shorts.
Around their waists they wear a belt from which hang colorful strips of traditional cloth.
From another belt, made of goatskin, hang bells which they shake to try and put their opponents off as they grapple with each other to cheers from the crowd.
The fight between Eloi and Idrissa lasts only a few seconds: Eloi grabs Idrissa and hoists him into the air before slamming him to the ground.
"I didn't win, I won't return to the ‘marabout'" or holy man, said Idrissa, visibly disappointed.
Before the tournament, Idrissa traveled by motorcycle — won in a previous tournament — to Tissi, a village near the Malian border, about 20 km from his home.
There, he waited his turn in the courtyard of the local marabout, Losseni Konati, "to obtain his blessing."
About 60 years old, dressed in a traditional long robe, a rosary in his hand, the marabout handed Idrissa a woven box containing a secret combination of small cubes of soap that smell of plants.
Idrissa was told to wash with the amulets morning and evening before a match. But this time, the charm, as well as prayers to his ancestors, was not enough.
In Burkina Faso, wrestling has been a family affair "since the dawn of time," said Adama Zon, Idrissa's father and a former wrestler himself.
The family is descended from blacksmiths. Father and son now repair telephones, but the craft of their forebears means the family are believed to hold mystical powers.
"If an opponent tied up someone with invisible string, I could see it, untie it and cast another spell," he said. "We also treat sterile women."
Eloi, a Christian from the ethnic Samo tribe known for their brave wrestlers, said he learned how to fight before he could walk.
An orange crest on his head, a knife in one hand and a live chicken in the other, he crouches in the courtyard of his house in Diere, a village about 35 km from Toma, in the northwest of the country.
He slits the bird's throat — and talks about his ancestors.
"I ask them to help me. It's for them that I wrestle, so that we will remember our family."
Each of the seven finalists at a tournament takes home 60,000 CFA francs (about 90 euros), a good sum in a poor country.
"Today, we win money and motorbikes. In my time, the best wrestler won a lot of women!" said Adama.
"They would come to see us in the evening in our box and leave their pagnes (a traditional African garment) to let us know that they had chosen us."

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