Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, Vyse

It is often difficult to draw the line between superstition and useful preparation.

There are invisible forces at play behind start lines and in the quiet of locker rooms around the world. Moments before the crowds rupture, sacred promises and pacts are made on the battleground between sportspeople and the gods they answer to. Heard in the violent Māori war-cry of the All Blacks, and seen in the Boston Red Sox baseball player, Wade Boggs, who draw out Hebrew letters in the dirt, these rituals can be found in competitive sports around the world. Meant to harness focus, power and drive nowhere else is the marriage of magic, power, and ritual more palpable than in the wrestling arenas of Dakar, Senegal.

In his series “The Gris-gris Wrestlers of Senegal”, photojournalist Christian Bobst explores the enigmatic world of Senegalese wrestling and the “gris-gris” rituals behind the multi-billion pound sport. Guided by both hopeful wrestlers and retired legends, Bobst navigates his way through its veiled, and often controversial terrain, sharing rare insight into the behind-the-scenes dealings of the wrestling world.

Wrestlers compete in the wrestling school of ex-Wrestler Balla Gaye.

Wrestlers compete in the wrestling school of Ex-Wrestler Balla Gaye on August 10, 2015.

The photographer Freekis Ndoye from Dakar shows historical pictures of wrestlers from the 50’s.

The photographer Freekis Ndoye from Dakar shows historical pictures of wrestlers from the 50’s.

Three young men prepare themselves for a wrestling fight on a beach in Bambilor, a small village close to Dakar.

Young men prepare themselves for a wrestling fight in Bambilor, a small village close to Dakar.

Balla Gaye Deux

I was born, I was baptised and educated with the money of the fight

Rising before the sun, the wrestlers train on Dakar’s dusty orange beaches with a ferocious intensity. Backdropped by the stillness of the waking town, hundreds of grappling silhouettes break the horizon. As sand shoots up around them in triumphant arcs, and stone-hard bodies lock together, the scene flashes back hundreds of years. Marrying elements of traditional Greco-Roman wrestling, with the brutality of bare-knuckle boxing, the roots of Senegalese wrestling or “Laamb” are ancient and ancestral. Traditionally performed as an initiation rite among the Serer people, and a preparatory exercise among warriors the last three decades have seen West African wrestlers raised up to global superstardom.

Spending their days chasing the wrestlers in droves through the narrow streets, hundreds of Senegalese teenagers dream of becoming the next high-earning billboard star. In a country with high illiteracy, low wages, and mass unemployment, not only does arena wrestling promise a life of fame and glory but, it is a route out of poverty. Unfortunately, Bobst observes, “for most young people it is just a dream that very few are able to achieve.” For many, the wrestlers stories sing of hope. Worshipped like gods, their mugshots swing next to religious iconography on car dashboards, straddling the boundary between reality and faith. Literally and metaphysically raised above the ground, these pugilistic titans have captured the imagination of a nation that dreams of life outside the slums. Backed by a fleet of holy men and enshrined in myth, these cosmic gladiators walk amongst men as beacons of hope.

Kherou Ngor, a young wrestling champion, washes himself with milk at the shore of Ngor, Dakar, August 11, 2015.

 The young wrestling champion, Kherou Ngor, washes with milk at the shore of Ngor, Dakar. He performs this ritual in order to obtain the reinforcement of a ghost who lives in the stones.

Lifting his head towards the sky, rivulets of pale white milk run down Kherou Ngor’s body as he makes an offering to the ghosts who inhabit the stones on the shore. Bobst explains, “I never really got a straightforward answer from him, but milk is a symbol of strength, it makes you invincible.” He goes on saying, “in the Ferlo Desert, in Northern Senegal you’ll find the Fulani tribe. They are a nomadic people, they believe that God created the universe out of a drop of milk.” Despite most of the country’s population following Islam, in which voodoo is strictly forbidden, magic is a ubiquitous part of daily life for the Senegalese people.

The marriage of Islam and indigenous belief is still an ambiguous one, and fears of witchcraft and demons cast a long shadow over the imaginations of many African Muslims. The shared ideology pervades that for spiritual guidance, one can look to the Qur’an, but voodoo offers far more practical solutions.  Bobst explains, “there are some marabout who only preach the Qur’an and would have nothing to do with rituals, then there are others; the witchdoctors, the shamans who use omens to see into the future.”

Kherou's cousin blows water over the wrestlers head at the Cham.

At the Cham, the family shrine, Kherou Ngor’s cousin blows water over the wrestler’s head, to bless him with the strength and support of his ancestors.

Christian Bobst

Rituals are a mix between making them stronger and trying to protect them against their opponent’s counter curses.

For the wrestlers, their physical training is all in vain without the spiritual protection of a local holy man, or “marabout”. Part Sufi Islamic leader, part voodoo priest, the marabout is the wrestler’s weapon. As the champion, Balla Gaye admitted, “It’s the marabout that makes the wrestler a champion”. Cloaked in mystery and fear, they act as spiritual aides, weaving incantations to assure victory in the arena. Bobst adds, “their rituals are a mix between making them stronger and trying to protect them against their opponent’s counter curses”. Drawing from a melting pot of animist and Sufi Islamic belief, these shadowy figures cast a spiritual shield around the wrestlers, part theatrical performance, part belief.

Head bent in prayer, the marabout sway, reciting verses of the Qur’an thousands of times over the holy waters. Known as ‘sarafas’ in the native Wolof, the bottles of fluid that are poured over the wrestlers are mixed with sacred ground tree roots, pig’s milk, honey, lion hair. Each imbued with a different protective power or counter curse, they are administered at intervals by the fighter’s paid confidants, or ‘thimoukays’. Raised up like kings among men, everyone has a role to play in keeping the wrestlers head in the game. Depending on the strand of Islam they follow, and the folklore of their ancestral tribes, the pre-fight rituals differ greatly between wrestlers and marabout. Some guides will instruct the fighter to hand out rice to the poor to calm the ghosts, whilst others will divine their decisions based on the reactions of a rooster submerged in sacred liquid.

Young wrestler pours milk over his head and body in a market, August 11, 2015.

Outside his family home, Kherou Ngor pours out several bottles of cow’s milk over his head before he goes to a tournament at the stadium.

In Djilass, a small village in the district of Thiès, a Marabout performs a Gris-gris ritual by washing a chicken in the water in order to produce a magic potion.

Dakar, July 22, 2016. Kherou Ngor stares at his opponent, the wrestler Gori, before they start their fight at the stadium Iba Mar Diop.

Kherou Ngor stares at his opponent, the wrestler Gori, before they start their fight at the stadium Iba Mar Diop.

Part of the power of the rituals that the marabout incites rests on a culture of superstition and fear. As the day of the fight dawns, the wrestlers’ chests and biceps are wound tight with talismans (gris-gris) and their bodies bathed in charmed liquids. The small leather pouches that lend the sport its nickname, are a closely guarded secret. Packed tight with verse from the Qur’an and mystic ciphers that invoke divine protection, the gris-gris carries a power that has captured the imagination of centuries of West Africans. Rumour circulates that some amulets hold the power to make a wrestler momentarily invisible, and grow his body to twice its size or shape-shift into a lion.

After getting to know the young fighter Kherou, the photographer also came to learn that his uncle was a respected marabout, Senegalese Korang teacher, and healer. Under the guidance of his uncle, Djibril the man would transform into Kherou Ngor, the fighter. Bobst observes, “For Kherou, this ancestral power is more important than black magic. I didn’t see him perform any black magic rituals. They are more offensive but, he claimed his uncle could give him something that he could rub on his fists and that would make his punches 5 times harder.”

Using cow’s milk as a sacrifice, a Kherou Ngor’s marabout prepares before a fight. Each week, Kherou drinks from a clay gourd dedicated to his deceased grandmother at his family shrine in the hope that her power will transfer and flow through him as he fights. 

Christian Bobst

These rituals are a balance between superstition and mental training. They just change their focus, like a bow and arrow.

Over the course of the day, Bobst watches Kherou shape-shift, from an easy-going young man to a warrior with a killer focus. He compares the fight-day rituals to the mental training that professional athletes in the West perform. With each ritual and every incantation, the coils of athletic focus tighten around the young fighter, ready to be unleashed upon his opponents and become a king of the arena. “Kherou spent a lot of time during the day between rituals just standing on the terrace, meditating,” explains Bobst, “he seemed to be collecting his energy, gathering his mental strength”.

FIghter performs senegalese washing ritual, water containing torn pieces of paper with secret ciphers

In order to foresee and change the shape of fate, his uncle also uses Arabic ciphers. Tearing up tiny pieces of paper, he writes out the holy words, soaking them in liquid for the wrestler to consume.

Christian Bobst

Scaring your opponent is a big part of these rituals

For amateur fighters, reputations are born and made in clandestine street fights or ‘mbapatts’. Away from the bright-lights of the stadium, hundreds gather in wastelands in the darkness of night to watch young fighters draw their line in the sand. Controversially, the type of wrestling that draws in big crowds in the arenas allows punching or ‘lutte avec des poinçons’. The money, the violence, and the magic are a potent brew for commercial success. As the air fills with the thrumming sound of the djembe, and the wrestlers begin to dance, the night is heavy with the urgency of hope and new beginnings.

“The wrestler’s dance is almost hypnotic,’ animated he adds, “It’s very physical, it gets into your gut. You see the wrestlers getting close to the drums to get a charge from the vibrations.” Slamming their feet against the sand, and jerking their bodies in a display of raw, untethered energy the dance is a game of psychological warfare. “Scaring your opponent is a big part of these rituals. When I shot Luc de Gairs dancing you can see the aggression in his eyes.” Playing on the paranoia that surrounds voodoo, the fighters dance themselves into a frenzy, casting fear into their opponents hearts, and leading them to believe he is backed by a powerful, malevolent force. And, as their status grows, so does their spiritual entourage. Bobst adds, “the big stars, make a lot of money so they can afford to pay an allegiance of marbouts to fight in the background”.

Kherou Ngor strikes the wrestler Gori with a hard punch of his fist at the Iba mar Diop stadium. Dakar, July 22, 2016.

Christian Bobst

While the winners take the triumph, the losers are really destroyed.

After weeks and months of physical and ritual preparation, the fights can be over in minutes. Dragging their opponent to his knees in the sand, the winner is raised up triumphant and blessed with riches. For the loser, the loss is devastating. Reverberating in shockwaves throughout the stadium, it’s almost as if the ancestral, ritual and physical energy that the wrestler has poured into himself is unleashed at once. The female supporters drop to their knees and fall into a hysterical trances. Bodies shaking and tears running down their faces, the crowd mourns the falling of a god. For weeks after, it has been known for family members and supporters to turn their backs on shamed wrestlers, wounded by their failure and faced with their mortality.

The day after a successful fight, Kherou Ngor reflects in his room.

Bobst admits that when he first started exploring wrestling mythology and ritual he was a little skeptical but, after digging deeper he started to appreciate the power of ritual. “Watching the matches was the proof I needed that if not spiritually, then mentally witchcraft works.” He goes on, “It can mobilize a lot of energy. It is more than superstition, you can see that something is happening.” Positioning the sport somewhere between myth and reality, the ritual practices of the fighters set the stage for a cosmic battle between gladiators and gods. And, through the power of belief, these men are transformed into warriors and crowned with victory.

Christian Bobst

Watching the matches was the proof I needed that either way, mentally and spiritually, witchcraft works.


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Christian Bobst is a documentary photographer and photojournalist who has captured stories in over twenty countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, North- and South America. His pictures have been published in magazines and newspapers including The Guardian, Stern, die Zeit, NZZ, The New York Review of Books, Huffington Post, and Geo. He has won numerous awards including the World Press Photo Award for his series ‘The Gris-gris wrestlers from Senegal’.

Follow his story here @ch_b_photography