It’s a long-held tradition among one of Africa’s most populous neighborhoods, Saint-Louis in Senegal. The regatta is a sporting event involving a series of boats dating over 100 years.
It’s held every year with hundreds of men paddling their long wooden boats in a fiercely contested race over a span of two-and-a-half kilometers to a crossroad where the Senegal River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The regatta comes to many in Saint-Louis as a spiritual journey and an opportunity to connect with one’s ancestry. While for others, it’s a platform to forge unity among tribesmen, a value that seems under siege from modernity. It is also loosely a platform for some to showcase their sports idols.
Spiritual leaders also burn incense and smash packets of ice where boats are launched to set the stage for the boat racing to commence.
The President of the Local Organising Committee in Saint-Louisien, El Hadj Moctar Gueye, said the sporting event was originally held among fishermen for recreational purposes. It was officially recognized in the 1950s, he recalled in a conversation with africanews.com.
The regatta’s glamour is ascribed to one-time attendance of the event by former French President Charles de Gaulle in 1959, months before Senegal’s independence. That’s why for folks like Koutaye Niang, one of the local fishermen who has been participating in the Saint-Louis regatta for two decades now, the sporting season is the best part of the year.
He reflected with a touch of satisfaction the winning streaks he has chalked as captains of the pirogues. One notable achievement is ending a five-year unbeaten record of a tough rival in the traditional boat race this year.
He described the feeling as one akin to being treated as a king. He smiles broadly as he recounts with pride.
One of the side attractions is the huge crowd the regatta draws from the length and breadth of Senegal. Men are often clad in traditional boubou tunics with women in elegant head wraps.
Saint-Louis’s fishermen are divided into three teams, each representing a geographical section of the old quarter. Groups of between 50 and 70 people from each team compete in one of three race categories. Separate races are also held for fishermen from elsewhere around the country.
A rower with the Pondou Khole team, Younouss Dieye, intimated that the cheering crowd makes winning during a regatta phenomenal. His team has been competing in the sporting event for 10 years now. One requires 10 days to train before the race, he said.
One of the distinct features that sets Dieye’s team apart from others is the number 23 jersey of American basketball player LeBron James they wear in all their competitions. The colors are yellow and blue. The Pondou Khole community have been the reigning champions in the regatta.
Former competitors told Africanews.com that the regatta is the only true local sport the people of Senegal can point to.
They explained that their grandfathers competed in the same boats they used for fishing, however, modernization has introduced some level of variation to the boats used in the racing event.
In all of the passion that is exhibited during the regatta, it’s the love shown one another that will be etched in the minds of participants as they succumb to the setting moon after the games.