Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Pemban Bullfight

When Steve and I first started doing serious research for the first Zanzibar trip we learned about bullfighting on the island of Pemba. Bullfighting was introduced to Pemba centuries ago by the Portuguese, and it has remained popular with a very obvious change over the years: it is a completely bloodless sport.  The Pembans are gentle souls, but it's also the case where animals are simply too valuable to randomly slaughter for the sake of amusement.  It's sometimes joked that in Pemban bullfights the bulls just have their feelings hurt, although I'm sure PETA wouldn't agree with that dismissive oversimplification.  The bulls are agitated and then a group of men attempt to get the bulls to charge them, hoping to jump over them or at least dodge them gracefully.  It's very popular on the island and on our visits we pay for the bullfights, which attracts big crowds and we're told that our support is appreciated because the local Pembans can't afford to run many themselves.  This last year was the first I ever witnessed because I missed the first one when I was laid up with a bad back (too many hours in a bus on bumpy dirt roads).  Truthfully, several of our students didn't like the bullfight because they thought it was cruel to the animals, and I have mixed emotions about it.  There's always the danger of cultural commodification, and I think we definitely see this in some of the traditional dances and the spirit possession ceremonies we attend.  The bullfight seems more authentic, and they'd have one less in a year if we didn't underwrite this one, but I share some of my students' concerns about the treatment of the bulls. We've never seen any of the bulls injured, although doubtless it happens - along with the local villages, no doubt.  Normally after the bull is agitated by people yelling at it or smacking it on the nose with sandals, it makes a few runs at the bullfights and then, when it senses an opening, sprints for home.

Bullfighting excellence (my students took much better pictures than I did). The stars and stripes shirt was no accident, and was an homage to the visitors from Champlain College.

Like I said, it's a popular sport and there was a very big crowd when we were there. In the background you can see the Champlain crew on a raised platform.  This was done partially to celebrate their honored guests (Pembans are incredibly kind and appreciative souls) but also to make it harder for idiot students to get it into their heads to run out onto the pitch to participate.

I was the only person who didn't climb up onto the platform, and not simply because I was the biggest person on the trip and therefore the most likely to bring the platform down.  Instead, I just milled among the crowd talking to people. I especially liked the peanut gallery where the kids were watching the bullfight.

The much more dangerous animals: the Champlain College students.

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