DR Congo’s ‘voodoo wrestling’ provides spellbinding fun

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There has been a power cut, and under moonlight in a poor quarter of DR Congo’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, a figure wearing a dramatic 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 hypnotize her opponent.

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

A huge draw in impoverished neighborhoods of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s sprawling capital 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 interviewed by AFP saying they had followed the example of their elders.

But some experts 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 neighborhood, 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’s a premonition of what’s to come in her looming one-on-one with a wiry male fighter named Masamba.

  • No holds barred –

Staged late in the evening on a rickety wrestling ring in a small school courtyard, the bouts attracted about two hundred people, paying 3,000 Congolese francs ($1.24) for an adult ticket.

A brass band and drummers blared a constant stream of lively music, energizing an enthusiastic crowd. Local cigarettes and plastic sachets of liquor were on sale. Many attendees also lit up joints.

These raucous scenes are a far cry from the well-heeled centre of Kinshasa, which is currently 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 hypnotized 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.

  • ‘Temple of death’ –

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 US 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 neighborhood, 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… he manifests himself through smoke,” Panther said.

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.”

©️ Agence France-Presse

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