For weeks, the villagers talked about only one thing. From the wells to the vegetable gardens, one could hear the excited chatter of the women folk as they put together plans for the great day. The young ladies were busy creating colourful outfits using the beautiful hand-woven serr . For them, it was an opportunity to display their beauty in the hopes of catching a suitor’s eye. Word had spread to all corners of the country and prominent guests were expected. Mothers busied themselves in mixing up herbal concoctions to enhance the beautiful black skin of their daughters. The men spent the cool evenings under the great baobab tree, drinking attaya, after a hard day’s work at the fields. Between servings, they would engage in predictions and debates on the forthcoming event. With each cup, their energy would soar and their zeal heighten. The little boys spent the mornings singing and hitting on their make-shift drums of pots and buckets, accompanied by the inexperienced, yet graceful dance steps of the girls. The sun rose and set for a fortnight and finally on that beautiful Saturday, the people of Ndayaan trooped to the grand arena. MaDemba Cham, pride of Ndayaan, was set to wrestle Passy’s Ngorr Mack!
At the Chamen family home, the women rose as early as the sun and set about erecting tripod stands on which huge pots of benachin were to be cooked. A few neighbours came over to help, bringing vegetables as gifts to the family known for producing the finest wrestlers Ndayaan had ever known. Behind the main hut, a group of men sat in a circle, the elders on raffia benches and the young ones cross-legged on the floor. In the middle of this circle, MaDemba sat, clad only in an old pair of knee-length trousers. His robust chest, covered in amulets of different shapes and sizes rose and fell as he drew in deep breaths. Around his head, two white strings knotted at different lengths can be seen. His wrists, arms and ankles are equally bound with similar chains. His Serign stood over him, showering his head with strange liquids, uttering equally strange words. Often, he’ll break into a dance, prompting the younger men to join him in the frenzy. As the savory smell of the benachin wafted over their circle, their excitement grew. The women walked in with huge trays laden with rice, meat and vegetables, enough to feed the whole village. Most homes had forgone the daily cooking of lunch, as word went round that all were invited to feast at Chamen. Small calabashes of water, baobab drink and wonjo went round and when everyone had their fill, the men retreated to their circle. The hour was near and the entourage practised their final dance steps. They were not only going to snatch victory from Ngorr; they were set to wow the crowd with their amazing dance steps accompanied by the soulful bakka and drumming from the village’s cultural troupe.
Distant drumming could be heard as the opponent and his entourage made their way to the village square. They made sure to let their presence known as the slightest intimidation could lead to undesirable results from their mbeur. The drumming also served as a signal to the Chamen camp that the time was nigh. The wind carried over excited voices from the arena, which was already packed full. MaDemba was led into his father’s hut where the village elders got him dressed in a black ngemba, tucked with more amulets. He slipped his feet into his usual plastic sandals and knelt before his father for his final blessings. The old man recited several verses from the holy book followed by other incantations, to which the rest murmured ‘Amen’. With a final spitting movement over MaDemba’s head, he rose and led the group out of the compound. At the main gate, he poured a cup of cold water and ordered his son to walk over it. The rest followed and he bade them good luck before retreating to his hut, where he would be engaged in prayer for his son’s victory. Alhaji Tamsir, himself a one-time favourite in boreh never watched his son’s fights, emulating his own father.
Meanwhile, MaDemba and his entourage sang and danced as they made their way to the square. The family guewel, Ya Youma, could be heard chanting songs of praise for the young wrestler.
Cham babel Demba Cham, borom neni waas
Ngemba ga sa mam tekki, takkal sa baye Tamsir
Mom leniou la takkal teye Cham
Kon dor moussa nyaaw
The singing went on, filling MaDemba with great pride, while reminding him of the task ahead. This victory was finally going to secure him the revered place of greatest wrestler in the seven villages that made up Jaamagen. Upon arrival at the square, he was welcomed with tumultuous applause from the crowd. Kids ran behind him chanting his name, while the women danced to the heated sounds of the sabarr. His opponent rose and the two teams met in the middle of the arena. Standing on opposite ends, they both displayed their dance moves with great bravado. Muscles gleamed in the setting sun and the young men were covered in sweat as each camp tried to outshine the other. The drummers got more excited and one could hardly see their hands as they hit on the towering combination of the nder, the thiol and the xiin. The sound grew deafening and the air was so tense, one could cut through it with a blunt knife. Suddenly the referee sounded his horn, failing at his attempt to drown out all other sounds. It took another series of blows and hand movements to calm the crowd and get the wrestlers ready for their encounter. Another display of mysticism sprouted, as the Serigns ran around pouring libation, counting their beads, tying more amulets to the wrestlers’ bodies and getting them to chew on different leaves. As the last rays of the sun shone their light on the crowd, MaDemba Cham of Ndayaan and Ngorr Mack Faye of Passy faced each other, ready for the battle, each one alert and ready to emerge victorious.
The referee blew his horn and the crowd fell silent. All eyes were glued on the two mbeurs as they advanced , hands reaching out to the other. Ngorr throws a punch and MaDemba ducks. The hand movements start again and the two move in a steady circle, each one devising a technique to floor the other. Suddenly, MaDemba charges forward and grips Ngorr’s ngemba. The latter does the same and the crowd jumped to their feet. The women screamed and the men urged their champions to fight harder. The young men in their entourage could be heard shouting out tips, which only fell on deaf ears, as the two could only see and hear each other. Suddenly, MaDemba turns Ngorr over and attempts to bring him down on all fours but failed. Ngorr swiftly escaped his grip and the referee called for a timeout. Both mbeurs were now tense and one could almost see their muscles threatening to burst open. When the referee blew his horn again, they both charged at each other. Like bulls locking horns, one could hear their grunts as they both let out all their force. In one swift and fast movement, Ngorr wrapped his right foot around MaDemba’s, pushing him on the chest and with all the strength he could muster, brought him down. MaDemba lay on his back, his vision hazy. The drums had stopped and the crowd was silent. As if suddenly hit by the realisation of what had happened, the people of Passy broke into hysterical screams, rushing into the arena to carry their champion home, shoulder-high. Ngorr Mack Faye had finally beaten MaDemba Cham, son of the famous Tamsir Cham, and unmatched wrestling champion of Jaamagen.
The people of Ndaayan quietly left the square in pairs or in small groups, their heads hanging in disappointment. The girls and women cried, wringing their hands and using their colourful cloth to wipe their noses. The old men walked in silence, each one headed to his hut. This was one day the people of Ndaayan would never forget. MaDemba still lay in the middle of the arena, with a few members of his entourage crowded over him. The rest had left to save themselves the taunting and mockery of the Passy crowd. The grand wrestler rubbed his face in disbelief and his eyes welled up with tears. His best friend Assan wrapped his hands around him and whispered ‘Cry not, our Champion. Remember your mother’s song. Cry not, MaDemba.’ His thoughts blurred and the voices at the arena faded. All he could hear was his late mother’s voice, singing to him. She sang a song that had always given him the courage to rise above his failures. Ya Ndateh’s voice grew louder and MaDemba sang along;
Kouye laal MaDemba
Sabarr ga cha Ndaayan, kouye laal ndaat saaye
Kouye laal sama doom jee, ayoo beeyo beeyo
Sama dom, sama sopeh, dounda meuta nyaano
Moom laye nyaan, dom doundal
Sor doundeh benga maaga, feral saye rongonj
MaDemba rose, and wiping the tears from his eyes, he headed home. He may never have known defeat, but he shall rise again to claim his crown as Jaamagen’s greatest wrestler. He, the son of Tamsir Cham and Ndateh Mbye; he shall wipe his tears and rise again.