When I think of pleasant ways to spend a Sunday afternoon in Uganda, listening to a six-year-old sing karaoke to “My Heart Will Go On” while watching a man hack an entire roast pig to pieces with a machete in preparation for a cock fight isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
But when in Uganda, do as the Filipinos do (that’s what I always say). I was escorted to this whizbang of a socio-cultural experience by my new friend Richard, to whom I was introduced this weekend thusly:
“This is Richard! Tomorrow, he’s going to show us his cock!”
Intrigued, both by the introduction and by the way this small man reminded me of Seth Green in Can’t Hardly Wait, I befriended him and scored an invitation to what turned out to be his distant relative’s baptism celebration, which, he told me ecstatically, wouldn’t be complete without a traditional Filipino cock fight.
Sunday morning saw me barreling down Entebbe Road in a car driven by a hungover Japanese ex-supermodel, listening to Richard explain the finer technicalities of the legal status of cockfighting in Uganda.
“The cocks are so big in my country,” he informed me proudly. “So the police here, they cannot trap us. Our embassy told the government about the cocks, and they said, if we have the cockfight in private, it’s okay.”
Thus assured, I arrived at the house of Richard’s relative, too late for the baptism but just in time for the karaoke. Richard regaled the crowd with a few songs in Tagalog before relinquishing the microphone to a little girl who proceeded to alternate between Madonna and Celine Dion for the next twenty minutes.
Then came lunch, announced by the ceremonious rolling-out of an entire spit-roasted pig. The head was hacked off to cheers and continued karaoke, pork juices flying across the dining room and landing on the carpet and, occasionally, on innocent bystanders – a true symphony of sights, sounds and sensations.
After lunch we went outside to examine the cocks. Richard explained the differences between local, Texan and Filipino cocks (“These local cocks, they are weak. The ones from Texas are aggressive, but the cocks we have in my country, they are clever!”), and I was persuaded by a chain-smoking man with gold teeth to pose for a picture with his cock. “This will make the New Vision,” he promised me, though the captions I was imagining seemed more fit for the Red Pepper.
As the weighing and sizing of cocks for the first fight began, I was struck by how serious of an event this actually is. I assumed one simply threw a couple of roosters into the ring and let them have at it until one of them gave it up in a burst of blood and feathers, but the procedure is much more complex.
First the cocks are thoroughly examined for injuries. Their owners then swap cocks to inspect their opponents, ensuring that both are approximately the same shape and size. Then the cocks are given to the cockmasters, who strap a scythe-looking blade onto the left foot of each competitor (“All cocks are left-handed,” Richard tells me).
The owners step into the ring with their cocks tucked under their armpits. Each cock is given the chance to peck at the neck of the other before they are set on the ground, facing each other. And then it begins, with the squawking and the flapping and the slashing. It lasts approximately 30 seconds, or until one of the cocks is too battered and limp to continue.
I was ready to go after the first fight, but Richard and his countrymen were loving this — 50,000 shilling notes and hundred dollar bills were flashing around like confetti, and I learned that some gamblers can earn as much as $1000 a week if they choose the right cocks. I refrained from betting, suspecting that the protection afforded the Filipinos by their embassy may not extend to me (and also a bit hesitant to place my money on a cock who, if I picked wrongly, may shortly meet his maker).
After a few more rounds, I left Richard to his cocks and returned to the relative safety of Kampala, where I spent the rest of the day trying to ward off the images of bleeding cocks that were assaulting my brain. While I appreciate Richard’s enthusiasm in sharing what is obviously a very important part of his culture, I think I’ll stay away from any future offers to accompany him to events involving bloodsports.
For those who aren’t so opposed: research today uncovered advertisements for the International 8-Cock Derby and this gallery of fighting cocks.