Africa's Lions of the Scrabble Board

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Ernest Diatta

Scrabble contestants from around the French-speaking world flock to Dakar for the annual Championnat du Monde.

To get an idea of how seriously the Senegalese take Scrabble, you only have to look at the attire of their country's national team. Competitors from other nations represented at the game's Francophone World Championships are wearing casual shorts and T-shirts appropriate to the steamy heat of the West African summer; the men and women of the Senegalese team posing next to the national flag are decked out in sportswear reminiscent of its World Cup soccer team — and they take their responsibilities every bit as seriously as do the soccer stars of the Teranga Lions.

And just as those soccer stars caused a dramatic upset by beating France, Senegal's former colonial master, at the World Cup in 2002, so has the Scrabble squad long since bested the French at their own game. The country may have an adult literacy rate of just under 40% according to the latest U.N. Human Development index, and most Senegalese consider Wolof rather than French their mother tongue. Still, when it comes to the French-language version of the wordy board game, Senegal is the team to beat. At last year's World Championship in Quebec, the Senegalese took three out of the four top honors.

This year, they'll get to compete on home turf, with the international francophone Scrabble circus having come to the Senegalese capital for the second time in its 37-year history. The country's sports minister has deemed it one of the most important events of the year, and the government commissioned a special Scrabble song to mark the occasion.

The tournament is being staged at a fairground near the national airport, and entrants from some 20 French-speaking countries hope to break Senegal's grip on the global game. In the main hall, hundreds of contestants play French style: All use the same board that is projected on a giant screen. Whoever gets the highest score can add to the snake of letters on the central board. Absolute silence is enforced by uniformed guards.

"Scrabble here is not a game at all," says Patrice Jeanneret, the Swiss president of the Fédération Internationale de Scrabble Francophone, "it's a major sport." Scrabble sets can be purchased on virtually every street corner, and mastering the game is much encouraged in the country's French language schools. The national Scrabble federation enjoys the active support of the government. But it is the palpable passion of the Senegalese for the game that surprises many foreigners. Don't tell a Senegalese host that you consider Scrabble a pastime for a relaxed evening of socializing; they will deem it an insult to the sport. Last year, Senegal's top Scrabblers were invited for an audience with President Abdoulaye Wade. "It would be hard to imagine a scene like that in Europe", Jeanneret says drily.

"We are very patriotic," says Mamadou Moustapha Lo, a Senegalese player from Thies, in agreement. So much so that he refuses to have his picture taken without his national team jersey. "It's sacred," he says without a smile. Lo's best score so far was 62 points, for the word cabillot, meaning toggle. Not bad, considering that the word isn't carried by many dictionaries.

Lo mastered the game in school, as did many of his teammates. And, he claims, being on the school team was a big a deal — like making the varsity football team in an American high school. "When you are a bright student, you play Scrabble in order to prove and improve yourself," says Lo. "And we all aim for the international stage to play for Le Senegal." Pronouncing the name of his country makes him stand a bit taller.

"We learn in school to defend the national colors, be it in soccer or in Scrabble, and we take that very seriously." He is very confident of his country's chances this time. "If we keep up our game, we stand a 90% chance of winning again."

Indeed, if the mentality is anything to go by, you'd bet on Senegal. While the national team is posing like athletes in a group photo, the French and Belgian equipes, dressed like tourists, are admiring the locally made necklaces on the souvenir stand. Lo does not want to frown upon his guests, but his judgment is obvious. "They hold a different view of the game," he says shyly. Jeanneret, wearing shorts himself, concurs: "The Senegalese are simply more motivated."