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A profile feature on Senegalese combat sports stars in the Jeune Afrique weekly demonstrates how the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has grown from a predominantly European and American affair into a world-class phenomenon. African athletes in sports such as boxing and wrestling have entered the fray and are gaining a large following.

As the name suggests, MMA is a combat sport that pits two fighters against each other who may use techniques from boxing, judo, jujitsu, karate, kickboxing, and other disciplines to defeat their opponent.


Promoters are increasingly turning to African countries to discover new talent


Grappling is a common element within MMA, which makes it a natural fit for competitors coming from a tradition of Senegalese wrestling, which involves grappling and sparring. It has become one of the country’s most popular sports, and its stars enjoy a celebrity status similar to that of professional football players.

Senegalese wrestling champion Yakhya “Yekini” Diop (left), photographed during his last fight, on July 24, 2016, in Demba Diop Stadium in Dakar. (Seyllou Seyllou/AFP)
Senegalese wrestling champion Yakhya “Yékini” Diop (left), photographed during his last fight, on July 24, 2016, in Demba Diop Stadium in Dakar. (Seyllou Seyllou/AFP)

As traditional wrestling, known as “laamb” in Wolof, gains more mainstream exposure through its growing connection with MMA, the opportunities become more lucrative and more high-profile. Promoters are increasingly turning to African countries to open up new markets and discover new talent. Two African athletes who have already made a name for themselves on the MMA circuit are Israel Adesanya from Nigeria and Francis Ngannou from Cameroon.



Senegalese Fishermen
Senegalese small-scale fishers say giving permits to foreign trawlers to fish in Senegal’s waters will destroy their livelihood.


A Senegalese fishing association has been fighting a campaign to block the licensing of fifty-three foreign trawlers, most of which are Chinese-owned, that would allow them to fish within Senegal’s exclusive economic zone. The campaign is led by GAIPES, the Senegalese Association of Fishing Companies and Ship Owners, whose head, Alassane Dieng, argues that these foreign trawlers pose a threat to the local fishing economy.


Foreign trawlers are responsible for large-scale illegal fishing operations.


Unfortunately, this is hardly a new issue. Massive trawlers that can catch much more fish in a day than artisanal fishermen can haul in a year have depleted fish stocks off the Senegalese coast. In a country where one in five people depend on the fishing industry to support themselves, the presence of these mega-trawlers poses a grave economic threat to some of Senegal’s poorest citizens. Foreign trawlers are also responsible for large-scale illegal fishing operations, costing Senegal more than US$270 million in lost revenue every year.

Though these vessels hail from Europe and Russia as well, as of late China has become an increasing presence in African fishing waters, threatening to undermine China’s diplomatic and infrastructure investments in the region. Recently, however, the government of China has begun to punish vessels engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, revoking distant-water fishing licenses, cancelling subsidies, and blacklisting certain captains and company owners caught violating fishing regulations.


Sadio Mane
Liverpool winger Sadio Mané’s bicycle kick goes over the bar during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second-leg football match between Liverpool and Atlético Madrid at Anfield in Liverpool, Merseyside, England, on March 11, 2020.


A new documentary from Rakuten TV, titled Made in Senegal, tracks the journey of Sadio Mané from his remote home village of Bambali to becoming a world-class footballer for Liverpool FC. (African football fans will have to wait a while before they can watch Made in Senegal, since Rakuten TV currently only broadcasts in Europe.)

Part of what makes Mané’s rise to fame so remarkable is that Bambali has no football infrastructure at all: the winger used to practice with grapefruits and stones because soccer balls were so rare. At age seven, his father passed away. All he wanted to do was play football, but his family, who are the imams of Bambali, didn’t want him to pursue it as a career. In 2009, a local talent scout saw him play and he was accepted at Generation Foot, an academy in the capital Dakar that has ties with FC Metz in France, which soon signed him.


At Liverpool, he helped the team win the UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Club Championships.


After a stint at RB Salzburg in Austria, winning the league and cup double, he relocated to Southampton in England’s Premier League. Here, he played for just one season before transferring to Liverpool, where he helped the team win the UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Club Championships, and his rise is only expected to continue.

The Senegalese striker’s success and open display of his Muslim faith alongside Egyptian teammate Mohamed Salah has resulted in changing attitudes among white British football supporters, many of whom have come to show respect and admiration for players who are all too often the victims of racial abuse and Islamophobia.


Football Trafficking

Inspiring as it is, Mané’s story reflects the harsh reality for many talented football players in Africa who come from areas where poverty or conflict prevail. The desire to make their way to Europe and seek their fortune in the world of football leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by human traffickers, eager to profit from European clubs’ hopes of discovering the next football sensation from the continent.


Senegal has become a leading example in the effective management of the COVID-19 pandemic. The West African country, which has a population of about 16 million, has managed to dramatically limit the spread of infection, and has to date recorded only 823 cases and nine deaths, partly by putting into practice lessons it learned from the 2014 Ebola outbreak.


A Health worker is seen before tending to patients inside a COVID-19 coronavirus ward that houses suspected cases in Pikine Hospital in Dakar on April 23, 2020. As COVID-19 coronavirus cases slowly increase in Senegal, hospitals are preparing to receive and test suspect cases whilst safely treating their normal patients. JOHN WESSELS / AFP
A health worker is seen before tending to patients suspected of having COVID-19 at Pikine Hospital in Dakar on April 23, 2020. (John Wessels/AFP)


The government was quick to institute sweeping lockdowns early on, including closing schools and banning large public events. Then the country partnered with the United Kingdom to develop a rapid diagnostic test that costs only US$1 to produce.


The test was designed to be used at home, similar to a home pregnancy test.


The test, which is currently undergoing validation trials, was designed to be used at home, similar to a home pregnancy test, to limit the number of people who need to gather at a medical center for diagnosis, as explained on Al Jazeera’s “The Take” podcast.

The plan is to manufacture the kits in Senegal and the UK, and to roll them out by June.

Musicians in Senegal have taken the initiative to use their celebrity and songwriting abilities to inform people about the symptoms of COVID-19 and what they can do to prevent infection, and to combat false information. Rappers of the Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”) citizen movement have also distributed hand sanitizer and masks at bus stops and railway stations, and encourages bus drivers to avoid overloading. Rapper Didier Awadi used his Instagram page to urge the public to take the virus seriously, and wrote about the death of a friend, journalist Jean-Michel Denis, from the disease. Awadi and pop star Wally B. Seck urged people to stay at home and follow social-distancing guidelines, measures that Senegalese who can afford to do so have not taken seriously enough.


Why It Matters

“Urban music is widely listened to, especially by young people,” says rapper Simon Kouka of the Y’en a Marre movement. “It circulates on social networks and is an important communication tool. It is essential to get the message across from scientists and authorities, at a time when a lot of false information and beliefs are circulating about the disease.” Young people in sub-Saharan Africa tend to listen to and trust musicians more than they do politicians. Incorporating urban culture into pandemic countermeasures also helps to drive home the all-encompassing impact of the virus: it affects everyone and everything.

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Nov 26, 2022