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“Voodoo wrestling” is a real thing and it's empowering women in the Congo

Catch Fétiche — loosely translated, “voodoo wrestling” — is a uniquely Congolese fighting style: a combination of traditional African wrestling moves, old religious practices, and one man’s obsession with Hulk Hogan.

by Dexter Thomas
Oct 7 2018, 2:55pm

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Super Angaluma stood in the middle of the wrestling ring and held the live chicken above his head. His opponent cowered in fear. The trumpets blared. The crowd cheered.

Super Angaluma had stolen this chicken from an onlooker, using some sort of invisible beam to drag the chicken’s owner from the crowd to the ringside, and then snatch the bird away from his hands.

There must have been at least a thousand of us in the crowd, shuffling in the dirt, craning our necks to get as close to the ring as the guards in military garb would let us. We watched from the crowd as Angaluma held the chicken. His touch seemed gentle, almost inquisitive. Not what one would expect from a voodoo spell. The chicken blinked and calmly shuffled its wings.

Then Angaluma lit the chicken on fire.

The next few minutes are a blur. By the time Angaluma drop-kicked the flaming bird into the crowd, it was still alive, flapping its wings frantically. The crowd erupted into chaos, five hundred or so limbs flying in all directions. I think I elbowed someone in the face. I got kicked in the chest. When I finally looked up, Angaluma had already pinned his opponent, and was celebrating, dancing to the rhythm carved out by the drums and jubilant horns.

The referee called the next two combatants to the ring. The crowd cheered.

Crowds cheer on Super Angaluma, champion of the Kasa Vubu District, as he puts his opponent into an arm lock. Jackson Fager for VICE News.

Catch Fétiche — loosely translated, “voodoo wrestling” — is a uniquely Congolese fighting style: a combination of traditional African wrestling moves, old religious practices, and one man’s obsession with Hulk Hogan. I’m not kidding: Edingwe Moto, generally recognized as the godfather of Catch Fétiche, says he saw Hulk Hogan on television in the ‘80s, and was entranced.

Edingwe’s singular contribution to the sport was the inclusion of fétiche, or voodoo — which he says was inspired by former President Mobutu, who in the ’70s had put into place an official government policy of rejecting colonial influence and embracing what he considered “authentic” culture. That policy eventually fell out of favor, but in the sport of Catch Fétiche, the voodoo stuck.

Today, Catch Fétiche is second only to soccer in popularity within the Congo. Wrestlers seem to be more celebrated even than soccer players, and every neighborhood has its local superstar. The biggest wrestlers can’t even walk outside in Kinshasa without being mobbed by throngs of fans in the street. All you have to do to find Super Angaluma is go to his neighborhood and ask — someone will take you to his home. “My name is my address,” he likes to brag.

Sacré Nfumu savored this brief moment of victory. Five minutes later he was soaked in blood lying on the ground ten feet from the ring, babbling to some Congolese nurse who his friends couldn’t stand but who he called mama. Jackson Fager for VICE News.

In modern Catch matches, pretty much anything goes: hammers, concrete blocks, razors, fire, witchcraft. Live animals are common — as weapons, as ritual tools, or both. Some fighters use voodoo almost exclusively, preferring not to engage in physical combat. Others, called “technicians,” use only their physical fighting skill — most are proficient in a number of combat arts, including Greco-Roman wrestling, various traditional African wrestling styles, and kung fu. But even those who don’t use voodoo overtly respect its power, or use it in a more subtle way, as a preparation before stepping into the ring. “I always have protection,” one technician told me.

But Catch Fétiche’s biggest recent trend isn’t the diversity of fighting styles; it’s the diversity of combatants. As Catch Fétiche has grown in popularity, a growing number of young women have turned to the sport as a source of empowerment. In a war-torn country with one of the widest gender gaps in the world, where countless women can tell you horrifying stories of rape and violence, this is no small accomplishment.

This is Miss Marth, three-time champion and master of the emerging smoke bomb. She eats two cans of sardines every day. She’s also in the military and a mother of three. Jackson Fager for VICE News.

Miss Marth is one of the first women to not only wrestle in major competitions but also successfully use voodoo in the ring. She has multiple championships to her name, and she prefers to fight men. She is also coaching a new generation of women fighters, including a young woman named Shakira, who is able to use her wrestling earnings to feed her family. Like Miss Marth, she prefers to fight men, and her walls at home are decorated with action shots of her in the ring; a running catalogue of men who have fallen to her in battle.

For the little girls in the audience, these two fighters are role models — women who are not only beating men at their own game but also earning a living doing it.

This is Bras de Fer. His shells come from Lake Kivu near the border with Rwanda. They sleep under his bed. For Bras de Fer, when he holds the shells up to his ear he says he hears animals mating, taxi cabs honking, and his opponents breathing heavily in fear. Jackson Fager for VICE News.

A lot of the magic of Catch Fétiche can be confusing to an outsider, especially one who is used to the wink-wink-nudge-nudge theatrics of the WWE. And sure, it’s a little hard to believe that people are actually cutting out opponents’ entrails at the end of a match and eating them, only for said opponent to miraculously recover the next day. But watching a 300-pound slab of muscle hold up a much smaller man by his neck before he can manage to whip up a voodoo spell, or seeing a fighter cough up blood in the ring, is enough to convince the most skeptical viewer that the wrestlers are dead serious.

To see a Catch Fétiche match from a distance is to be jolted back and forth across the boundaries of sacred and profane, life and death, real and unreal.

A local fighter lays "dead" after his opponent tears out his guts and eats them. At a Catch Fetiche match, its sometimes hard to figure out what's real and what's part of the show. Jackson Fager for VICE News.

But if you can get a bit closer, standing in the dirt, right next to the ring, and push up as near as those military men will let you — you’ll realize that those boundaries are meaningless.

It’s all real.

Cover image: Local fighters face off in the Masina neighborhood of Kinshasa. Jackson Fager for VICE News.