Haiti’s earthquake survivors turn to cockfighting to raise spirits
FUENTE: TIMES ONLINE
30 / ENERO / 2010
Martin Fletcher in Port-au-Prince
The entrance is a narrow back alley blocked by a man at a table charging 25 gourdes, or about 75p, to enter. Beyond, in a large dirt yard covered with a tin roof and enclosed on three sides by high breezeblock walls, a packed crowd is gathered in a circle, looking inwards, yelling, cheering and gesticulating wildly.
Less than three weeks after the earthquake that devastated their capital and left more than 150,000 dead, Haitians have resumed their national pastime: cockfighting. The participants are unapologetic.
“Many people have lost their houses and families. They have come to forget their troubles,” said Gabriel Theagene, 83, the rheumy-eyed, gold-toothed, second-generation owner of this particular pit in Plaine, a wretched township on the northern edge of Port-au-Prince.
“People need this as a distraction to forget the earthquake,” says William Cherry, 40, who said that his house had been crushed. “This is the only place we can come and have fun,” said Dominique Joseph, 43, who lost a sister, aunt and uncle.
In truth, they would be here anyway, for cockfighting — cok gages to give it its Creole name — is a national passion, imported from France and Britain long before Haiti became the first black republic in 1804. It is a means by which Haitian males — women neither attend nor necessarily approve — inject a little passion and excitement into lives of relentless hardship and monotony, and it is perfectly legal.
On this particular afternoon more than 100 men had gathered for the thrice-weekly fights, and by the time The Times arrives halfway through the afternoon the pit is already spattered with blood and feathers.
Cocks in various states of health or distress are tied to posts or bicycle wheels around the yard’s perimeter. One man hawks an evil-smelling moonshine called bois cochon from two filthy plastic containers. Another takes bets on a card game. People urinate against the walls.
The excitement builds as the next contest approaches. The owners take the hoods off their black-and-brown birds and parade them around the pit. They cut off their combs and trim their neck feathers with knives so that there is less to grab hold of. One owner takes sips of water and blows them deep into the feathers of his bird to keep it cool in the afternoon heat.
Men who profess to be unemployed and penniless produce wads of soiled banknotes from their pockets. Soon they are shouting and wagering 10, 20, 50 gourdes. A whistle blows. The pit is cleared. The spectators crowd around standing on the concrete benches that encircle it.
The owners thrust the two cocks at each other to provoke them, then let them go and they fly up in a blur of wings and feathers. “Mangez, mangez bien!” the spectators roar. “Frappez, frappez!” More bets are laid. even as the fight continues.
Finally, after nearly 15 minutes, one bird loses the will to fight and the judge stops the contest before it is pecked to death.
The owner of the victorious bird dances a jig of delight. He has just earned himself about 1,000 gourdes — a lot of money in a country where 80 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. The secret, he says, is to feed the cock good food — eggs, bananas, lemon juice. The loser throws his half-dead bird into the dirt.
By the time the seventh fight ends the light is fading. The pit has no electricity, so the crowd departs. It manifestly does not occur to them that their sport is cruel. Why should it? In Haiti life is and always has been cruel — for humans as well as animals.