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Dakar rallies Scrabble contenders

Scrabble shirt

By Piers Edwards
BBC News, Dakar

Senegal may conjure up images of the singer Youssou N'Dour, the Dakar rally or perhaps the football team's successful 2002 World Cup display.

Yet for Ndongo Sylla, his home nation is just another word that can be rearranged in different ways - whether that be 'agneles' (lambed), 'glanees' (gleaned), 'langees' (nappies) or 'sanglee' (strapped).

Sylla, 29, is that Senegalese rarity - a world champion - whose titles have come in Scrabble, a board game where competitors score points by forming words from individual lettered tiles.

Ndongo Sylla
Scrabble champion Ndongo Sylla is an advisor to the Senegalese president

He is competing in the 37th Francophone Scrabble World Championships, which are taking place in Senegal this week.

Some 600 competitors have travelled from 21 countries to the capital, Dakar, where they face the task of beating the hosts.

In 2000, Ndongo Sylla and his partner, Arona Gaye, became the first Africans to take a world title when they won the Pairs section.

Since then, Senegal's standing has improved to the point where it took three of the four titles on offer at last year's world championships in Canada - not bad for a country with a 40% literacy rate.

National priority

To say Scrabble is taken seriously in Senegal is an understatement.

The Sports Ministry now gives it the same importance as football, and has declared the championships - which have their own song - a national priority.

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Senegal's scrabble song

Meanwhile, Sylla's new fame has helped propel him to work for President Abdoulaye Wade as an economic advisor.

"When your CV says you are a world Scrabble champion, that can be impressive for potential employers," Sylla says.

"I first met Wade in 2000 in Paris where I was studying economics", he adds. "I was Senegal's Scrabble champion and said I would soon be a world champion, and Wade said he would give me full support if I was. The next month, I did win."

"Since then, Wade has done plenty for Scrabble which is now at the forefront of Senegalese sport", says Sylla.

Training camp

In fact, the game is the West African nation's most successful - with Senegal boasting nine world titles.


Scrabble is a religion here. Nowhere else in the world can you find such excitement and dedication to the game.

French World Champion, Antonin Michel

And nothing has been left to chance as they host the championships, with the local players even undergoing a 10-day training camp.

President Wade believes Senegal's successes in beating the French at their own language reveals the nation's untapped potential - although France's sole reigning world champion is keen to address that.

"Incredibly, I was the only non-Senegalese to win in Quebec last year," says 31-year-old Antonin Michel.

"So I have huge pressure on my shoulders. But I'm pretty confident that six or seven of us can compete with the Senegalese.

"It's fairly simple why they are so good", says Michel.

"Scrabble is a religion here. Nowhere else in the world can you find such excitement and dedication to the game. After all, this is the first place where I have seen street vendors selling Scrabble."

Spectator sport?

So perhaps it is unsurprising that the championships are being televised.

But since games are played in near silence as participants decide how to best use their letters, Scrabble is an awful spectator sport - which might explain why the devoted competitors greatly outnumber spectators.

Scrabble competitors
Top players learn about 50, 000 words

"We live in St Martin in the Caribbean, close to Guadeloupe and Martinique, and we have come over with people from both islands," says Dr Ribeau, an elderly French expatriate.

"The championships are a great way to meet Francophones from all over the world."

Guinea's Moussa Diasso agrees. "I love Scrabble because it's a game where I can improve my French," he says, adding that he hopes to raise Scrabble's profile back in his home country.

Having travelled from Africa, Europe and North America, the competitors are not just united by their love of Scrabble - which they take extremely seriously - but also by a shared desire to travel and meet people.

Master the dictionary

Of course, they also want to demonstrate their mastery of French, and the leading players go to mind-boggling lengths to finish on top.

"To be a world champion, you need to master 98-99% of the dictionary," says Michel. "I'm learning the words themselves, not their meanings, so that I can play any word during matches. Players like me master 50,000 words."

To put that into context, a university professor's vocabulary is believed to extend to around 15,000 words.

Yet Francophone Scrabble players must now also know various words from the Senegalese dialect, Wolof, with 14 words having made it into the game's official dictionary - such as 'thiof' (a local fish) and 'xalam' (lute).

"It gives us pride to see our Wolof words accepted," says Sylla.

It may also give the Senegalese an edge over their international rivals.

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