/ 13 August 2023

The DRC’s ‘voodoo wrestling’ is spellbinding

Drc Voodoo Wrestling (1)
Mystical: A voodoo wrestler whispers incantations over his opponent during a fight in Kinshasa. Photo: Alexis Huguet/Getty Images

There has been a power cut, and under moonlight in a poor quarter of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC’s) capital, wrestler Maitresse Libondans explains how she invokes her ancestors to cast spells that rout her opponents.

“I research the fetish,” says the 28-year-old, who is wearing a red wig ahead of her fight and holding a cane that she says is imbued with mystical powers.

Maitresse Libondans is a practitioner of “catch-fetiche”, also called voodoo wrestling — a wildly over-the-top Congolese sport where fighters grapple with each other and use magic to try to gain supremacy. She will only step into the ring if her ancestors, reached through spiritual rites, assure her of conquest. 

And once in combat, she uses her signature fighting technique: baring her chest to hypnotise her opponent. 

“I made him suck my breasts,” Maitresse Libondans said matter-of-factly about her most recent victory. 

A huge draw in impoverished neighbourhoods of Kinshasa, voodoo wrestling features men and women of all sizes, who use various degrees of magic in the ring. 

The precise origins of the sport are unclear, with wrestlers saying they had followed the example of their elders. 

But some say mystical confrontation dates to the 1970s and the era of the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the legendary boxing match in Kinshasa between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. 

Over a beer before her fight in the Selembao neighbourhood, Maitresse Libondans, who is also a spiritual healer and whose real name is Ornella Lukeba, whispers incantations as her eyes begin to cross. 

Her coach, enjoying a beer at the same plastic table, freezes, transfixed. It is a premonition of what is to come in her looming one-on-one with a wiry male fighter named Masamba. 

Staged late in the evening on a rickety wrestling ring in a small school courtyard, the bouts attracted about 200 people, paying 3 000 Congolese francs (about R24) for an adult ticket. 

A brass band and drummers blared a constant stream of lively music, energising an enthusiastic crowd. Sachets of liquor were on sale. Many people also lit up joints. 

These raucous scenes are a far cry from the well-heeled centre of Kinshasa, which is hosting the Francophone Games, roughly the French-speaking equivalent of the Commonwealth Games. 

In the first bout, a male fighter in a woman’s dress and Adidas boxing shoes downed his opponent with a spell, and conjured up a burst of flames in the ring. One fight later, Maitresse Libondans strode into the ring, parading to the music of the brass band. 

Her contest with Masamba was tough. They flipped each other over and performed mock sexual assaults on each other. But then Maitresse Libondans lifted up her shirt, freezing Masamba and the referee, who both proceeded to suck her nipples.

Under her spell, she made the hypnotised pair dance to the music as she walked away victorious, to roars of delight. “He should go home and better prepare his incantations,” she said after the bout.

According to the fighters, voodoo wrestling is judged based on three criteria: technique, courage and magic. But there appeared to be few strict rules during the fight in Selembao, other than to entertain and break taboos. 

The final fight was won by a burly Congolese army officer wearing a suggestive pink tutu.

Many wrestlers say they make a living solely from the fight winnings, with prize money running to the equivalent of thousands of dollars for the largest events. Most also supplement their income by working as healers. 

Panther, a wrestler-healer in Selembao, chose not to fight at the bout in his neighbourhood, judging the winnings too meagre. But he said people came from far and wide for his cures.

The 48-year-old performed rituals at his shrine of figurines and lit candles, installed beneath walls covered with fetish images and “temple of death” and “black demon” written in French.

Uttering a string of incantations, Panther, his face covered in talcum powder, placed a lit cigarette in the mouth of one statue. It then appeared to draw a puff on its own, with smoke escaping from its mouth.

“The statuette that emits the smoke is the oldest ancestor of this temple,” Panther said. “He manifests himself through smoke.” 

Spiritual traditions as well as Catholicism run deep in the DRC, which means that not everyone looks kindly on magic.“There are people who are afraid of me,” said Maitresse Libondans, clutching her stick. “But,” she said, “there are also lots of fans.” — AFP