The Jola (Diola, in French transliteration), or Jola Fonyi, are an ethnic group which reside in southwestern Senegal in isolated, forested regions in the banks of Casamance river with smaller concentrations in southern Gambia and northern Guinea-Bissau. The Jola are a friendly people who are very relaxed and known for their charm towards strangers. Family is central to the Jola culture and all are treated equal while performing their roles in the village. Rice, millet, corn, and peanuts are grown as the primary means of support. The Jola were the last ethnic group in the Senegambian region to accept Islam. Even though some accepted Islam after the Soninke-Marabout wars, they honor the traditional use of palm wine in their rituals. The Jola people believe that the spirits called Bakin or Eneerti (Mandinka Jalang) can protect their families, their villages, and their rice fields; and can even protect them from conversion to Islam and Christianity. Jola masks often feature wide, smile-like open mouths and can be adorned with many embellishments such as rings in the ears. Historically Jola communities and lineages are highly fragmented, decentralized and autonomous and were spread out in hamlets covering several square kilometers. Unlike neighboring ethnic groups, the Jola had neither a caste system in their social hierarchy nor even a paramount chief as rule was carried out only at the village level. Neither had they the system of slaves or nobility. Population by different sources varies from 267 thousand to about 500 thousand.
This relatively small but distinctive ethnic group is famous as masters of singing, dancing and wrestling. Jola wrestling Yeg (meaning “fighting”, or “wrestling”) is more exciting in respect of technique and craft in compare to other wrestling traditional styles popular in Western Africa (called Laamb). (Since the old traditional Jola wrestling style becomes a rarity nowadays, the most of information in this article is related to it in the past tense.)
As almost any other African traditional wrestling styles, Jola wrestling seems to have evolved as a modified version of real martial art. Traditional warriors defeated their enemies in hand-to-hand combat by throwing them to the ground with great force, preferably on their head. In old times, almost the entire range of wrestling holds and throws, even those liable to result in injury or death, were 'legal'. That is, they were accepted as part of the game. However, the referees and spectators set their own limits as to which tactics were acceptable. Over time this kind of warfare developed into the non-violent form of sport which has been practiced until now. Unlike other West-African tribes, the Jola practiced Yeg without delivering punches or kicks (very common techniques still remaining in the Senegalese wrestling which rules are similar to Yeg otherwise.) These limits were dictated by simple common sense: avoiding pointless risk. Beating, slapping, punching, kicking, sand throwing in the eyes were forbidden in Yeg. As soon as a wrestler indicated that he wanted to give in, he had to be released immediately.
Actually, the ancient Jola’s Yeg was a freestyle wrestling without a preliminary hold position. During a match, holds were allowed both – above and below the waist. This wrestling style involved both wresting positions – standing and on the knees. Techniques involving legs (like trips) were usually also allowed. In order to win, a wrestler had to force the opponent to touch the ground by his back.
The ancient Yeg was one of the oldest systems of advance techniques, which is quite different from modern wrestling. If a wrestler threw an opponent down but not on his back, the bout continued until one of the contestants was pinned or capitulated. In the modern form of Senegambian wrestling which prevails now, once a combatant has thrown his opponent to the ground, he has to get off him immediately.
In theory, there were no regular weight classifications; a wrestler was free to challenge anyone and accept any challenger. In practice, combatants generally challenged or accepted challenges from those near to their own size. However, champions almost always came from the heavyweight class.
Wrestling competitions were held between villages and clans. Wrestling events were always accompanied by dancing and music. Participants danced around the arena to the rhythm of drums, challenging anyone (non-verbally) who would take them on. Such challenges were made with arm gestures, grimaces and body movements. When a challenge was accepted, the pair moved towards the center of the arena to begin their contest. After the bout was over, the loser returned to his team with cheers and jubilation. Often, if a loser felt that he had been defeated by chance, he requested another bout immediately. The winner usually accepted this second challenge, although he would often return to this team mates and smear himself in Juju potions before returning.
Wrestling was a mandatory element for kids in rituals of transitions into a next age group. And this was true not just for boys but also for girls.
In fact, in the past, several African tribes allowed girls to wrestle; usually girls wrestled against each other as part of the ritual of initiation into womanhood. Among Jola, teenage boys and girls wrestled among their own gender, and the champions married. Wrestling matches and social dances provided the major opportunities for teenage boys and girls to meet and to court. Wrestling teams competed by township quarter against other quarters and other townships. Both boys and girls wrestled and observed the others’ skills in wrestling, while providing support through songs and dances of encouragement. Teenage boys and girls wrestled wearing just loincloth, so everyone had a good opportunity to evaluate habit of body and physical attractiveness of every participant.
Nowadays, wrestling in Senegal and Gambia is a standardized show having made of old traditional wrestling styles by modernizing and simplifying them in order to make them more entertaining. Contemporary Senegalese folk wrestling ("Lutte Sénégalaise" in French, "Laamb" in Wolof) based mostly on the traditional wrestling of the Serer people, became the most popular form of the West African wrestling ("Lutte Traditionnelle" in French). Participating women in the official competitions in this sport is out of the question but they often engage in impromptu wrestling matches with each other as a peculiar side show during wrestling tournaments at celebrations and festivals.
Women wrestling at a festival in Gambia
Photographs from Wrestling in Gambia
Yeg wrestling techniques
Jola wrestling in Carlax village in Senegal
Photo from the site ?
Impromptu girl wrestling in West Africa