The Democratic Republic of Congo is a wrestling-crazed country. It has been said that apart from soccer, wrestling has to be the most favorite sport of the Congolese.
This is a phenomenon whose seeds were sown in the capital Kinshasa in 1971 by American and European wrestling promoters.
The best wrestlers in Europe and the US were flown to the Central African country for what was part sporting event but a greater part geopolitical soft-power hustle.
Such attractions and their motivations were not uncommon in those days. Indeed, in the very city of Kinshasa in 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman sold out one of the most iconic fights in boxing history.
It is unfair to say the Congolese had no idea what a wrestling match is before the event in 1971. Sport-fighting is provably native to almost all African societies.
What 1971 did, however, was to mark the beginning of an organized sporting culture in an increasingly urbanized African country.
In that competition, a young but fierce Congolese wrestler was involved as an underdog. He was not expected to go far but home participation was deemed necessary.
His name was Kele Kele Lituka.
Lituka literally punched above his weight, upsetting predictions by beating the European champion Claude Leron and in the final, overcoming El Greco, the famous American wrestler.
After Lituka’s triumph, wrestling became a national sport. But the curiosity with the strange feat he had achieved was not lost on the Westerners.
For the locals, the answer was simple. Lituka’s secret was fétiche, French for fetish but also the local metonym for the varieties of African mysticism and spiritualism.
In the West, one may be more comfortable with calling it voodoo.
Wrestling thus became synonymous with fétiche in the Congo. From the 80s, the man known as Edingwe Moto na Ngenge became the poster child for voodoo wrestling.
Moto na Ngenge is Edingwe’s moniker in the Lingala language whose English approximation reads something like “Man of Great Power”.
True to his name, Edingwe became the epitome of this rendition of wrestling where fists and feet were not enough. One was allowed to be spiritually offensive, bringing with them into the ring, their magic charms.
Elaborate costumes that had amulets and talismans or a magic powder was common. There were also those who could bring their reptiles, dead or alive, and other animals to perform magic in the ring.
In these contests, the spectators, enthusiasts and fighters say no amount of gym and martial arts sessions can save a voodoo wrestler. A good voodoo wrestler is one who can neutralize the powers of an opponent and subdue them.
Sometimes, in a voodoo wrestling match, defeat could reportedly mean the death of the defeated.
In documentary films about voodoo wrestling, subjects report of the most bizarre things apart from death – setting fire to an opponent, eating the intestines of an opponent among other dastardly drama.
When it started, voodoo wrestling had support from Congolese dictator and known aficionado of African mysticism, Mobutu Sese Seko. There was a league competition sponsored by the government.
As part of what President Mobutu said was an Africanization project, ways that were thought overly Western and/or Christian were shot down by the government.
Mobutu himself, born Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga.
Voodoo wrestlers were celebrities apart from musicians and soccer stars. But all began to change when the government had to deal with the material repercussions of years of corruption and suppressing individual freedoms.
By the time Sese Seko was overthrown in 1997, voodoo wrestlers were not the men they used to be.
Apart from the cessation of national support, growing Pentecostal Christianity was also a potent mind-changer for millions who once before saw nothing wrong with voodoo wrestling.
These days, voodoo wrestling is thought to be the pastime of the poor and morally and spiritually inept Congolese. In spite of support from a few wealthy individuals who argue in the name of “restoring Congolese culture”, voodoo wrestling is struggling.
There is also a more recent dimension of women getting involved. This is viewed as a vehicle for empowering young women who may otherwise be victims of assault in one of the countries with the worst gender gaps.