Friday, May 27, 2011

A Brush With Celebrity

A few days ago, two friends and I shook hands with Yekini, the one who “knows not falling, only felling,” according to notebooks sold here featuring him on the cover, reaching out with a menacing hand towards the reader. Yekini is the most famous wrestler in Senegal, with 17 victories and one draw to his name since he began his career in 1997.

We happened to meet Yekini through a connection made back in December, on Christmas day. A bunch of PCVs had come to visit to celebrate Christmas, and we were walking from my village to have a three-course lunch at a hotel run by a French family in the road town, Ker Socce. (The hotel usually serves a clientele of Senegalese escorts and middle-age French men, who come to shoot pigeons at an artificial watering hole the hotel staff made nearby. I don’t often go because the atmosphere is a bit odd with the French guys, but on Christmas we fortunately had the place to ourselves.)

Anyway, on the way to the hotel we passed by the water tower in Ker Socce, and a man called out to us from a garden next to the tower. We greeted the man, who turned out to be the water tower operator, a very friendly guy named Tamsir Diop. We made small talk a bit and went on.

One day a few weeks later I went back. My friend Joey was visiting, and we asked Tam if we could climb the water tower. He said no problem, so we did. The ladder was unlocked, and I bet Ker Socce kids often climb the tower when Tam isn’t looking. There was a great view from the top. I saw my village and Tam said that at night, one could see the lights of Kaolack. The landscape was very brown, etched by thousands of crisscrossing cattle trails stretching on and on into the distance - the traces of Pulaar herders.

When we got down we sat with Tam in his office for a while – he has a cozy room next to the garden, with a stove and bed. He also has a house in town, but it looked like the office was livable. My friend later pointed out that being the water tower operator is kind of like being a lighthouse keeper – it’s a pretty easy job yet it carries prestige. Tam showed us some of his photos. Many had a young white man and woman. He explained these were his friends, Peace Corps volunteers from about ten years ago. They were a married couple, and it seems like they had been close with Tam because they continued to keep in touch. They sent him photos from their home in Seattle, of their dog, the woman holding a bowl of home-made ceebu jen, photos of their young kids. They looked like nice people, but it felt odd looking at their pictures, like watching a stranger’s life in fast-forward.

We also noticed a poster on Tam’s wall, of him sitting in the lap of a massive black man, photo-shopped onto a background of a fancy car. (In Senegal, people often take special photos to photoshops to have them rearranged like this and printed on a poster. My father’s hut has a poster of himself as a young man next to his own father, against a background of clouds; I think both men’s images were taken from their government IDs. Photos from village weddings are also often pasted into fancy hotel room settings, or marabouts (religious leaders) are placed in odd nature scenes. I saw one poster of a marabout sitting next to an African lion in a serene conifer forest.) Anyway I asked Tam about his poster and he explained that it was himself and Yekini, the wrestler. Yekini used to wrestle in Ker Socce before he was famous, and Tam said they were friends. Sometime he’d come back, he said, and we could meet him.

Since that first visit, Tam has become a friend and I’ve stopped by the water tower a number of times. We talk about gardening and once I gave him lettuce seeds, although at the moment his garden is in a state of disrepair since some cattle broke in. One time we talked about wrestling, and it seemed like Tam knew everything there was to know about Yekini – his winning record, dates he’d wrestled, his weight and other specs. Tam is a pretty small guy, but I think he wishes he were a wrestler.

Sometime in late February I saw Tam at the weekly luma in Ker Socce, and he handed me an envelope with an invitation to a wrestling tournament he was organizing. He said the wrestlers were up-and-comers, but Yekini was the patron of the tournament and would attend. I got a few extra invitations, and invited a couple friends to visit for the tournament.

The tournament was held just recently in May. I saw Tam a few days before, and he looked tired. He said he’d been preparing the dirt field where the matches would be held (I imagine there was a lot of trash to clear) and buying the prizes – one cow for the first night’s champion, two for the second night’s. Yekini was still coming, but only for the second night, to see the better wrestlers. I told Tam a couple of my friends were coming, and he kindly offered that we stay at his friend’s house, so we wouldn’t have to walk back to my village late at night.

My friends Toby and Joey arrived on the day of the tournament, and after dinner of cere ak buum with my family in my village, we walked to Ker Socce with a flashlight. I like walking at night, moving without seeing the places you’ve left behind or what is yet to come. Once I spent a week walking through fog in Ilam in eastern Nepal. It was the off-season for tourists there because you couldn’t see the mountains (which are beautiful), but I liked walking through the fog too, like walking at night, never seeing very far in front or behind.

When my friends and I arrived in Ker Socce we called Tam, who met us and took us to his friend Demba’s house, our host for the night. Tam was dressed up for the occasion and must have had a lot of other things to do, but he made sure we were comfortable and were re-fed dinner before he went off for a while to prepare for the wrestling. We sat outside with Demba’s family watching TV and looking at the stars until heading over to watch the wrestling at about midnight. The wrestlers were still in the midst of their elaborate warm up routines when we arrived, strutting around, jogging, hopping, dancing, and burying their gris-gris in the center of the ring. A group of drummers played, and four Sereer women sang an ostinato into microphones (although wrestling is now a national pastime, it was a traditionally a sport of the Sereer ethnic group, so there is always Sereer singing at wrestling tournaments).

Tam gave us chairs in a spot with a good view. At one point a wild looking wrestler wearing an American flag cloak and leopardskin strode up to where we were sitting. I thought maybe he had come to see his compatriots but then he ignored us and began burying some gris-gris in the sand until someone told him he couldn’t do it there, because it was the audience section. He looked kind of offended but he had gris-gris in his mouth so he couldn’t speak and walked away. Tam came over and pointed out one of the smaller wrestlers who was wearing orange. This man, he knew how to wrestle, he said.

By the time the wrestling actually started it was very late. At one point a fight broke out in the audience behind us, we were not sure why, maybe about a call, but Tam came and broke it up. My friend and I were tired so we left before the wrestling ended, figuring the next night would be more exciting anyhow.

The next morning Demba’s wife brought us bread and butter and sweet Nescafe for breakfast. It felt a bit like we were imposing on Demba’s family, although they were very hospitable and nice to us. To say thanks we bought them some mangoes in the market and some cookies from a store run by a couple friendly Mauritanians. (Many Mauritanians live in Senegal and run small shops like the one in Ker Socce. In my experience, they have the best-stocked shops. Although the guys who run the shop in Ker Socce speak Wolof, they seem a bit out of place here, kind of like me. I like going to their shop. They greet me by my adopted Senegalese name, and I call them by their last name, Gaye, which I think is adopted also. Senegalese people call Mauritanians naars, but once when I was in their shop, someone called us both toubabs, which is the term for French people but often used for white people in general.)

We spent most of the day in Ker Socce, and were just heading back to my village for the afternoon when we came upon a gathering in a compound on the edge of Ker Socce. Some women told us that Yekini had arrived, we should go greet him, so we wandered into the courtyard, where maybe 50 people were sitting on mats under shade trees, chatting. Yekini was sitting on one of the mats, talking with some people. The gate to the compound was open, and anyone could wander in, but there were surprisingly few people, and there was a very low-key atmosphere. We sat down and after a while someone came and asked us if we wanted a photo with Yekini. We said no, we’d just like to greet because we didn’t have a camera, so he took us over to where Yekini was sitting and we shook his massive hand. “Diop, Diop,” my friends said, which is Yekini’s last name, and he asked their names and was happy to hear it was also Diop. When he heard my last name was Njay though, he shook his head and said “Njays like to eat a lot,” because Njays and Diops have a joking relationship. (There are some standard jokes in the joking relationship, and “you like to eat a lot” is one of them, but I thought the joke became funnier coming from Yekini, who weighs 135 kgs.)

Yekini seemed very down to earth, and my friends and I were surprised how little fanfare there was. People definitely were excited to see Yekini, but they weren’t obsessed like some of us Americans are with celebrities, as if an autograph or a photo with a famous person somehow increases the importance of our own lives to ourselves.

We headed back to my village, and returned to Ker Socce only late at night. When we arrived at the wrestling venue there were hundreds of people outside, many more than the night before, some trying to get a glimpse of the action through holes in the straw fence. We couldn’t find Tam and we’d lost our invitations so we decided to wait in line and buy tickets for 500 FCFA apiece (about a dollar). It was a long line and there were gendarmes for crowd control. One of the gendarmes had a rifle with an attachment on the end that looked like either a grenade launcher or a flame thrower, my friends and I couldn’t decide. Thankfully the crowd controlled itself and whatever the weapon was, it was not put to use.

Once inside, one of Tam’s friends found us and ushered us into a VIP section behind Yekini. The place was packed, with brighter lights than the night before and a TV crew. The wrestlers were bigger than the night before and had travelled from further away, but the small wrestler Tam had pointed out before was there again. Apparently he had come the night before just to dance and warm up, but would compete tonight.

There was a new drum group, who were amazingly tight, and people from the audience were going up and giving them money and dancing a bit before sitting down again. In Senegal, usually one person dances at a time while others watch. I’m not a great dancer to put it kindly, and I find it daunting to dance in front of a crowd. But my friends Toby and Joey can really get their groove on, and Toby went up to the drum leader and gave him a handful of coins (it’s important to do it ostentatiously) and showed the crowd some wild moves perhaps never before seen in Senegal, or maybe anywhere else.

Tam got on the mic in front of the TV cameras and gave a passionate speech. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but he thanked Yekini, the patron of the tournament, and really had the crowd captivated.

The warmup period was long and the wrestling did not start until very late. As with the night before, several matches took place simultaneously in the center. You’d be watching one match, and hear the crowd “ohh”ing and realize it was about the other match. At one point the power went out, and the whole crowd sighed in disappointment. Some people shined their flashlights into the ring, but the wrestlers waited for the power to come back on. Eventually it did, but then it went out again.

We were feeling tired so we decided to call it a night. Tam was working on the electricity situation, and we said goodbye as we exited. The power was out in the rest of town and we walked to Demba’s through the dark. Few days later I saw Tam. He told me that the wrestler he pointed out the first night, the small guy, won.

My friend Tamsir and I.

The women's garden I'm working with. A few months back, this whole area was brown.

Fatou Awa and some other women transplanting lettuce.

Baay Tam, the husband of the women's group president, weeding some turnips.

Some veggies at the luma in Ker Socce.