In like a lion, out like a laamb

Yesterday on a hot lazy Sunday afternoon I went down to the beach of Parcelles Assainies Unite 15 with my friend Eman to play soccer with a bunch of Nigerians and Ivoirians he knew.  “No foul” one guy warned me sternly, wagging a sausage finger in my face, which I assumed meant that you had to play fairly.  It didn’t.  It meant that when you were fouled you weren’t allowed to call it.  We spent a few hours down there playing and swimming and then as dusk fell we trekked up into Parcelles to catch a bus home to Yoff.

We didn’t make it up to the main road because a wrestling match was on.  Myself and about 20 other guys clustered outside the plate-glass window of a beauty shop to watch the much hyped tussle between two Senegalese legends, Modou Lo and Gris Bordeaux.  The tv screen was smaller than the display of some American smartphones.  Senegalese traditional wrestling, laamb, has more in common with Sumo then with American grappling: two enormous guys with a physique akin to that of the Michelin Man enter the arena with their coaches, supporters, and spiritual guides, roar challenges to each other and perform frenetic war dances to the accompaniment of a battery of drum beats, and finally step into the pit for the fight itself, which last anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes.  Opponents are allowed to punch or hold, and the match is over as soon as somebody lands on their back or with all four limbs on the ground—single bout, no rematch.  I watched with bemusement as the two fighters heaved and thumped in the narrow cadre of the grainy screen, until the pixellated blur that was Modou Lo surged forward and landed sprawled on top of Gris Bordeaux.

There were 3 seconds of silence and then the neighborhood erupted.  Dancing boys and girls streamed out of houses in the sandy alleyways around us, taxi drivers started whaling on their horns, the moan of vuvuzelas picked up frequency, and like skittish meerkats the shop owners around us scuttled back into their boutiques, dropped down their iron grills, and starting fixing on padlocks.  That should have been my first indication of what was coming.  Unbeknownst to me ignorant self, Parcelles was Modou Lo’s hometown—he still owned an apartment in Parcelles 19, less than 500 yards from where I was standing.  The neighborhood had been hyping for this fight for days,  and as I watched banners unfurled from the top balconies of mosaiced buildings and shirtless teenagers coated in sand like shipwreck victims and sporting warpaint that would make Braveheart jealous started sprinting through the street letting out barbaric yawps and banging pot lids together.  And then, it started to get hectic.

I thought that this was just the euphoria after the victory and that after the kids had calmed down the neighborhood would get back to normal.  I wished I had a camera with me, and then almost instantly became glad that that I didn’t.  Battered cars with people hanging out the windows hooting and banging on the doors with sticks went squirting through the billowing dust on the road, teenagers on mopeds schussed between them bleating their horns and turning squealing fishtails, and PEOPLE, young old, male female, everyone, turned out in the street spinning and dancing and chanting Modou Lo’s name.  Three quarters of the neighborhood was wearing shirts or tank tops with Lo’s scowling face on them, and the rest carried posters or just banged pots together to show their allegiance.  In the space of 5 minutes the streets went from being empty to holding a wild and anarchic parade, and I was the only white man in Parcelles.  From a rooftop nearby, someone started launching fireworks. 

I thought this was awesome.  I just wanted to stand and watch all the chaos unfold and see the teenagers joyfully crashing their vespas into each other, but it quickly became clear that Parcelles was uncontainable.  A river of people started coursing through the streets towards the victorious fighter at Demba Diop stadium, occasionally parting like the Red Sea as aficionados with sparking road flares held in the air ran through illuminating the dim streets with brilliant light.  I was witness to parade entropy, Senegal gone wild: two little kids not more than 14 years old rode a terrified cantering carthorse bareback through the streets holding a sputtering roman candle as the horse’s hooves kicked up sparks on the pavement.  Eman and I hustled.

It took me 45 minutes to move about 1000 yards through Parcelles as the crowd picked up frenzy; rumor had it that Modou Lo would be coming back to thank his acolytes.  I eventually got out of the neighborhood on a car rapide (which are neither cars nor rapide) that was so full that when it was eventually time to get out Eman and I had to swing through the window.  Lesson learned: root for the home team, and expect the unexpected.


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