La Fête du Mouton

Blood blooms black on the streets and the throttled bleating of a thousand sheep echo around the crumbling tenements of Magnambougou.

The local muezzin, a wizened old man of indeterminable age, hobbles from household to household to cut the throats of sheep to mark the beginning of La Fête du Mouton in this poor quarter of Bamako.

The holy man takes a brief moment to mutter a blessing in Bambara before sawing into the sheep’s neck with the blunt knife.

He’s given a few hundred francs for the job, and shuffles off to the next family home.

This may all sound very gruesome, but this rite marks the beginning of Tabaski – an annual Muslim festival to celebrate the sacrifice of Abraham – in Mali. The event is dictated by the lunar calendar, and typically falls 70 days after the end of Ramadan.

And really the celebration is no different to our Canadian Thanksgiving, which coincidentally falls on the same day this year. Both events are essentially an opportunity for families and friends to reunite, eat and drink.

It’s just instead of a store-bought turkey, Malian Muslims kill and prepare their own main dish.

The day begins on a football field of all places. The local mosque is too small to accompany all the families in the quartier, so the pitch is the most obvious place for the festival prayers. Men are dressed in their fine, heavy boubous and women wear kaleidoscopic gowns, ornate tatouage flowing down to their fingertips and toes.

The local iman, under an already scalding sun at 8 a.m., leads a mercifully brief prayer. Row upon row of people genuflect and bow on their prayer mats, sweat starting to soak through their gowns.

After the morning prayers, families head home to slaughter, skin and dissect the sheep they have bought especially for La Fête du Mouton. Many families live together in a single building, and typically they pool their resources to buy une mouton.

Looking out from the top of one such tenement, you can see neighbouring families in their courtyards also in the process of butchering les mouton. The men hack apart the sheep and play with their children, as the women play sous-chef. Some of the young children want to help their fathers; one girl holds a leg as it’s skinned.

And no part of the animal goes to waste.

Shit is squeezed out of the small and large intestines like icing sugar so that they can be eaten. The skin is kept for a rug. The head is boiled, and its eyes, tongue and brain eaten.

Even the testicles are eaten and offered up as a starter – and, they’re surprisingly tasty.