Rumble in the Jungle II: Congolese Wrestling

4 minute read

Colin Delfosse was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) documenting conditions in copper mines when, returning to Kinshasa one evening, he saw a masked man perched atop a car, leading a procession of drummers and several dozen men and children.

Intrigued, the Belgian photographer began asking around and learned that what he had witnessed was the afternoon build-up to one of the city’s most popular sports: wrestling. In a country that, from 1998 to 2003, was the center of one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II—8.4 million people killed from eight countries—one wouldn’t expect to find crowds clamoring to watch men pretend to beat each other up, Hulk Hogan-style. But influenced by broadcasts of American wrestling in the 1970s, the Congolese adapted the sport, bringing their own spin—parades, voo-doo and body paint. The sport is so firmly entrenched that even the president’s body guard is a popular wrestler, known as “Etats-Unis,” and one of Kinshasa’s district mayors even sponsored a match to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence from Belgium.

In the DRC, there are two branches of the sport. The first is the more recognizable WWE SmackDown-brand, villain vs. villain match, where wrestlers craft costumes out of spandex, wear masks and choreograph a physical tussle. The second, called fetish wrestling, involves opponents, wearing antelope horns or fake machetes through their skull, dancing, casting spells and using witchcraft to combat each other.

“The classic wrestlers consider themselves more important,” says Delfosse, of the group who have day jobs as taxi drivers or bouncers. “They train hard, lifting weights every day. The fetish wrestlers have more of a rock’n’ roll lifestyle—they sit around, drinking beer and smoking weed.”

Gaining his subjects’ cooperation took a while; it was months before Delfosse was able to ride with wrestlers to and from the matches (protection he was relieved to get, as in the early days he was roughed up coming home from a match in a dangerous neighborhood and his cameras smashed). But even with that access, photography is viewed with suspicion, and getting portraits of the wrestlers often took a few hours of negotiation. “They always think you’re going to earn millions from the photo. They’re reluctant and they want to be paid. So you drink a beer with them, and tell them no, you’re not going to get rich,” said Delfosse. “Sometimes four hours later, I can take their picture. You have to be patient.”

Working inside the wrestling scene changed Delfosse’s feelings about Kinshasa. He admitted he hated the noisy, chaotic capital—considered one of the most dangerous in Africa, with a homicide rate almost six times greater than the continent as a whole—when he arrived. While the violence that still pervades the society is just below the surface of the matches—Human Rights Watch documented a mass rape, abduction and torture in a couple of eastern villages just last year—the sport showed Delfosse a different side of the Congolese. “They’re surviving day-to-day. There are no jobs, no infrastructure. When they wake up they don’t know what they’re going to eat for dinner that night,” he said. “It’s hard and tough, but this is a way to show they kept their sense of humor.”

Colin Delfosse is a documentary photographer and a founding member of Out of Focus photography collective. See more of his work here.

Since there is no published schedule, wrestlers parade through the streets of Kinshasa to lead the audience to the match before each tournament. Here, classic wrestler Six Bolites spars with fans in front of a passing train in Kinshasa's Masina district.Colin Delfosse
Wrestlers often have a team member who helps entertain the audience during the match. The wrestler Six Couleurs (Six Colors) stages a fight with his wife. She steps out of their home, wearing the mask, and begins to taunt him as he fights, off camera, in a ring set up in front of their house.Colin Delfosse
During a fetish match in Matete, the wrestler Tyson falls into a trance and starts to read the bible after being bewitched by his opponent, Alleluia, who stands, in white, with his back to the camera.Colin Delfosse
Muimba Texas, a wrestler who often does charity matches to raise funds for fellow albinos, makes his way to the ring in Matete, a poor district of Kinshasa.Colin Delfosse
A fake machete is attached to a fetish wrestler's head to impress fans.Colin Delfosse
Ebedende, which means "iron" in the Lingala language, puts on his fighting costume. He covers his body with black powder, and, to frighten the audience, arrives in the ring screaming and growling with an accomplice holding his chain, trying to restrain him.Colin Delfosse
Zombie de Kibambi invokes spirits before the fight. The region he comes from, Bas Congo, has a long fetish tradition.Colin Delfosse
The classic wrestlers, inspired by American WWE wrestlers, train every day. Most of them have part-time jobs and consider the Congolese voodoo wrestlers to be merely "street acrobats."Colin Delfosse
Young wrestlers in Matete town during a training session. There are hundreds of young men in Kinshasa who study the rudiments of Greco-Roman wrestling, hoping to become wrestlers themselves.Colin Delfosse
Mabokotomo, a popular young wrestler who competes in fetish and classic matches, is shaved at home in Matete district before a fight. The Congolese place great importance on their looks, and it's especially important for wrestlers to look their best before a fight.Colin Delfosse
Six Bolites (Six Punches) takes off his mask after the opening procession to a fetish match. Inspired by American wrestling, each athlete has a "gimmick," a feature that defines him. Six Bolites head butts his opponents, who then run out of the ring and take shelter in a tree until someone breaks the "spell."Colin Delfosse
The fights are usually held outdoors, in open spaces, and draw crowds of anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred fans.Colin Delfosse
In a fetish match, Loboko versus Django, they use planks and chains as weapons. The outcome of the fight is always more or less fixed, but there's always some improvisation during the match.Colin Delfosse
A match between City Train, named in honor of a now defunct local bus company, and Spider in the Matete district.Colin Delfosse
A losing wrestler after a classic match, one of the first fights Delfosse photographed.Colin Delfosse
Despite being criticized for its pagan rituals, Congolese fetish wrestling is popular with street children.Colin Delfosse
A match between Cinq Chantiers (Five Construction Projects) and Hulk during an event celbrating the DRC's 50th anniversary of independence from Belgium. Colin Delfosse
A fetish wrestler, Mabokotomo, parades in his district before a match.Colin Delfosse
A wrestler jumps from the ropes onto an opponent during a match in the Massina district.Colin Delfosse
A classic wrestler, Ninja, after a fight.Colin Delfosse
Accompanied by a marching band, fetish wrestler Mabokotomo executes his signature magic dance to kick off the fight.Colin Delfosse
A fetish wrestler, bewitched by his opponent, throws himself onto the ropes.Colin Delfosse

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