Machetes and Motorbikes at Mali's Sangue-Mo Fishing Festival

By Thomas Martinez

Unless your ideal vacation involves drinking far too much in a dirty brothel, there aren't many reasons to visit San, a town in the Ségou region of Mali. In fact, most guidebooks actively tell you to skip it. But once a year, the people of this truck-stop town get collectively piss drunk, have a freaky dance party, and cap it all off with Sangue-Mo, a massive fishing festival.

I arrived in San on the eve of Sangue-Mo and met up with my friend, Abou. We sat in front of a tailor's shop and drank tea while waiting for the festival to kick off.

“Tonight, we dance,” said Abou. “Tomorrow, we fish.” Simple enough.

Over 600 years old, Sangue-Mo started as an animist celebration of survival and life, celebrating the end of summer and the start of the farming season. Despite Islam's dominance in Mali, animism is still a popular belief in the San region. Today, those ancient traditions intertwine with cheap Chinese motorcycles and cops policing the area in search of anyone acting like a drunken idiot. 

A few hours after sunset, Abou and I joined a stream of people heading out of town, passing the police station on our way. Cops were outside, unloading motorcycles and smashing their headlights in the parking lot.

“They took them from people driving their motorbikes too fast,” Abou explained.

Eventually we found the party—a sea of youths wielding makeshift weapons and machetes bobbed under halogen lights suspended from trees. People screamed and leapt and threw themselves into each other, while a few kids wearing traditional mud-dyed shirts beat on drums in the middle. Abou pushed me into the group.

Someone shoved an old motor-oil bottle filled with millet beer in my face and barked at me to drink it. The concoction inside was called tdjimidiama (pronounced a bit like chimichanga), looks like cloudy piss, and tastes like flat beer. At 20 cents a bottle, everyone in the crowd was blind drunk by midnight, with most either collapsing or pouring into the street to watch drunk guys drive motorbikes as fast as they could until the police chased them off.

The next afternoon, tens of thousands of people surrounded the sacred pond, Sangue, the festival's namesake, on the edge of the city. Fishing in the pond is banned, except on Sangue-Mo. After hours of waiting in the blazing sun, a group of elderly fishermen waded in and the crowed rushed after them.

An endless stream of Malians were soon attacking the waist-deep pond, churning the water to muck. Everyone picked their spots and plunged their nets in the water, searching for fish. The chaos continued for hours, until there couldn't possibly be anything left alive in the lake. Crowds gathered around those with the largest fish, snapping photos with cell phone cameras.

As the sun set, everyone headed back into town. At the main intersection kids gathered to watch men wheelie motorbikes, waiting for someone to crash so they could all surge over to check out the wreck. That continued until it was too dark to see, bringing another Sangue-Mo to a close in a hazy, sweaty scramble of fresh fish, motorbike parts, and tdjimidiama hangovers. 

Follow Thomas on Twitter: @tmartinezphoto

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