Former pickpocket Hadim Diane* spends much of his time these days in the sand wearing a loin cloth, fighting to pin down opponents in traditional wrestling matches. He recently opened a shop with his earnings from the sport.
“Attending [wrestling school] has allowed me to adopt a new way of life, outside of crime,” Diane told IRIN.
This is one of the stated objectives of Balla Gaye School, one of the training centres for traditional wrestling in the Senegalese capital Dakar.
“The high rate of crime in many neighbourhoods of Dakar is due to the fact that most of the young people have no jobs and they are from poor families, so they are easily manipulated and influenced by their peers into crime,” Balla Gaye, the school’s founder and a former professional wrestler, told IRIN. “And that is why we make it a priority to encourage these young people to take up wrestling.’’
On its website the school, created in 2002, states among its objectives: Combatting youth unemployment through sport and fighting juvenile delinquency. In recent years, after an alarming rise in crime in Dakar, the school began to focus more on engaging with unemployed youth in the capital’s poor, crime-ridden suburbs.
Youths are pulled in by the chance of national glory and big money; for a match that can last just a few minutes, these days winnings can be up to US$200,000.
Diane told IRIN in his first contest in February, which lasted about three minutes, he won 250,000 CFA francs (US$520), and about 12 times that in a later bout.
Some observers are concerned that while wrestling can be a way out of delinquency and poverty for some, it should not be seen as a sustainable means of fighting youth unemployment and crime.
“Wrestling cannot be a definite solution to completely eradicate crime in poor suburbs of Dakar,” said Pape Idrissa Diop, who lectures in sociology at Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop university. “The professional life span of wrestlers is short and more importantly not all wrestlers can be assured of having regular contests.”
He said: “What is needed is for the government to put in place viable and sustainable projects to address poverty and youth crime.”
But promoters of the sport as a way to beat crime say there is more to the training than a “get-rich-quick” mentality, and that the youth benefit not only in monetary terms.
“The beauty of this scheme is that it inspires young people to be self-reliant and also serve as role models in their communities,” Gaye said.
Photo: Ebrima Sillah/IRIN
|Young men watch a training session at Balla Gaye School. Many say traditional wrestling can be a path out of crime and poverty for Senegal's youth|
Thug-turned-traditional wrestler Diane told IRIN: “At first I was sceptical about joining the wrestling academy but I realised that this is something I can do. When I contacted the management of Balla Gaye School I was accepted with open arms.”
He added: “Looking back I regret going into crime in the first place, because there are jobs out there that one can do and earn a decent living instead of mugging people.”
A police official responsible for recording criminal activity said he could not provide any crime statistics for Dakar’s poor suburbs to gauge the impact of the wrestling centres.
But residents of the Pikine neighbourhood of Dakar, where Balla Gaye School is located, said the institution makes a difference.
“Things are changing for the better,” Maget Thiam, a parent in Pikine, told IRIN. “Many of those young unemployed youth who used to be part of criminal gangs are now enrolled in wrestling schools where they are training hard to become national champions.”
She added: “At least they have something to hold on to.”
Three years ago Thiam’s daughter received multiple stab wounds in a mugging in Pikine.
Some worry that too great a focus on wrestling feeds what they call children’s “obsession” with traditional wrestling, which they say can hamper their studies. Malick Thioune, a primary school teacher in Pikine, said: “If you ask students who their hero is in life the majority will give you the name of a wrestling champion. This worries me because in the end the children might not take their education seriously.”
Thiam also said that while helping youth develop their muscles and wrestling prowess the wrestling schools should advocate formal education.
Still, the Pikine parent added, “Anything that will keep our young people from the streets is more than welcome.”
*not his real name