In a country where the unemployment rate is approximately at 8.9 percent, wrestling has become a way out of poverty for hundreds of young Gambian men.
For decades, wrestling has been practiced in the Gambia. The sport has long been popular in the rural parts of the country, notably in Balangharr, North Bank Region, an area known for producing one of the greatest local wrestlers, Alieu Gaye. Alieu is the step-father to the now King of the Gambian Arena Hoyantaan.
However, in Gambia today, wrestling has become a national obsession and for many poor young men, the sport offers the only chance to earn a good living.
For Balla Star (real name Saidou Colley), a budding traditional wrestler in the Gambian arena, there’s no better way out of poverty than wrestling.
Every day, Balla joins his peers to swarm across sand dunes to train in pursuit of his dream to become a rich wrestler.
“Wrestling is a serious job nowadays,” he tells The Chronicle. “I became a wrestler to support my family. I train so hard. Every day I wake up at 6.30 in the morning to go the beach and at 5pm to the gym.”
Balla’s passion for wrestling started when he was just 10 years old. “As a kid, there was no other sport I played or practiced with so much passion than wrestling,” he recalls. “I’ve given my whole life to wrestling. I don’t know anything else. My dream is to be a champion one day.”
Outside the wrestling arena, Balla works as a commercial driver. Occasionally, he works for opposition leader Mama Kandeh as a bodyguard. But he sees only one way to prosperity; wrestling.
“I have a dream that I’ll make it big in wrestling one day. Every day that I wake up, I work towards attaining that dream. It requires hard work, dedication and sacrifice.”
Mam Gibbie Sawaneh, a Gambian wrestling journalist said wrestling is growing fast in Gambia. “The sport is developing because many wrestlers now realize that they can get a fortune out of it, “he tells The Chronicle. “It has not reached the stage where wrestlers can earn millions, but many of them can now pocket thousands of dalasis for a bout and even endorsement deals, so its paying up for wrestlers nowadays.”
The popularity of wrestling is soaring in The Gambia thanks to large pots of prize money from sponsorship deals and endorsements from private businesses and companies.
In his last fight, Hoyantaan, the current king of the arena earned a whooping D120, 000 as prize money. Wrestlers like him are also revered and they enjoy celebrity status in the society.
Inspired by his father and stepfather to pursue wrestling, Hoyantaan would dress in cotton shorts in the dying sun of every afternoon for training. For him, wrestling is a serious job. “I’ve always taken wrestling serious because it’s my main source of income. It’s my hope for a good living.”
His former manager Ousman Jobe described him as a dedicated and talented wrestler. “Since I started managing him some years ago, he has proven to be a warrior. He is respectful and he’s always hungry for success.”
Today, Hoyantaan is not only winning inside the arena, but he’s also winning the financial battle outside the arena. He has become one of the highest paid wrestlers in the history of Gambian wrestling. He’s also enjoying sponsorship and endorsement deals from private companies.
“Wrestling has really changed my life now, Hoyantaan tells The Chronicle. Though am yet to receive millions, but it at least I can able to solve many of our needs and also support others around me.”