Day 7 – Banfora to Bobo – “Sacred Fish Pools are not Coy Ponds”

We moped back into Banfora from our bush camp early that morning, winding our way through donkey-led carts, children on bicycles, women with their market goods balanced on their head, men on their mopeds, and all number of farm animals wandering the streets: cows, chickens, goats, pigs, you name it.

I’m a bit on the sleepy side, after not resting much the night before because of my paranoia of non-existent safari animals wandering into our hut at night. The thing is, the door on our hut wouldn’t close, so we slept with it open both nights, knowing the bush mice and lizards would find their way in with or without a door in their way.  In the middle of the night, I swore I heard Lauren’s metal water bottle fall over, and was convinced a dog or a lion or a crocodile or something sinister had wandered in and was about to eat us. I flail over and whack Lauren in the face.

“LAUREN! Did you hear that?”

“No,” she replies groggily.

“There’s a large animal in here, I just heard it. I swear, there’s something in here, and it’s going to eat us.”

“Do you really want me to turn the flashlight on and look? Because if we look, we’ll see it, and if we don’t look, we can pretend there’s nothing there. Because there’s really nothing there.”

“OK, fine.”

“Besides, there’s a mosquito net around us. They can’t get through that.”

Yah, you wanna bet?

Lauren turns the flashlight on anyway while I hide my head in my pillow, and confirms that the coast is clear. She goes back to sleep, and I lay awake still convinced the intruder will return in the night. The next morning it turns out it was probably just a bush frog, which I found hiding under my pack upon our departure. Stupid amphibians.

Anyway, we make it into town, catch our third Sogebaf bus back to Bobo, and return to Le Zion to find it’s only noon and we have a whole day to kill.  The guide/guesthouse worker named Adama had told us during our previous stay about these sacred fish ponds we could go visit, which were also briefly mentioned in our guidebook too. Fish ponds sound boring to me, but Lauren convinces me they’ll be pretty and relaxing, “like coy ponds, Sara.” Coy ponds, my foot.

Adama obtains two mopeds for us and we begin our expedition to the ponds, stopping at a live poultry stand on the way. Adama buys a live chicken, much to our curiosity and confusion, and I understand (my French is getting much better) that we are to kill the chicken to gain entrance to the fish ponds. (We should have gone back at this point, but we didn’t.) Adama goes through almost every bird in the cage, weighing them in his hands and scrutinizing them, much to the dismay of the poor 13-year-old running the stand, who has to keep capturing new chickens, and who gets chicken puke on his feet from the last bird we finally approve of. Adama ties the bird’s feet together and hangs it upside down on the handlebars of the bike like a grocery sack, where it squawks the whole way as we motor out of town.

We proceed out into the countryside past an expansive cemetery, along a rough dirt track that I swear is just a dry creek bed. The chicken on the handlebars continues to squawk. We arrive at a small hut at the edge of a canyon, leave the mopeds under a tree, and are joined by another man who produces three more live chickens from a basket. We carry the foul, along with a machete and a gas can full of local beer (where did those come from?), on a half-hour hike down into the canyon. As we get to the bottom and near the pools, the man starts whacking rocks and trees with his machete and calling out in a local language, knocking to let the fish know we are coming. I get the feeling this is going to be more of an intercultural experience than I was anticipating.

We descend into a shady, rocky enclosure at the base of the canyon, and all I can immediately see is rows of goat(?) skins slung over tree branches and the ground quite literally carpeted with a thick layer of chicken feathers. We are told to remove our shoes, and we pick our way barefoot through pools of scummy water, all manner of chicken parts, and clouds of flies, past a muddy pool where a man is feeding some enormous water monster with foot-long whiskers.

We climb back into a gap in the rack wall to a bloody altar absolutely reeking with chicken innards and feathers, flies and old bowls of beer, drenched in puddles of brilliant red. Lauren is holding the chicken we have brought; it sees the mess and pukes on her leg in terror. The man with the machete starts going through the traditional ritual of prayer to the sacred fish, pouring some of the local beer from the gas can onto the alter in hand carved calabash bowls, and ceremoniously slaughtering the chickens by slitting their necks and draining them of their lifeblood over the rocks. The smell is overwhelming, the chanting incomprehensible. The chickens flop around on the ground mercilessly after being drained, because how they land and die has some sort of importance spiritual significance. I’m further into the enclosure than Lauren, where there’s no air circulation, and she holds me up as I start to black out as the third chicken goes down. Finally it’s over, and we go to sit in more open air in a pile of feathers and flies while the chickens are plucked and roasted over a fire. We sip some of the traditional beer out of bloody calabash bowls while we watch, because we can’t refuse.

After the birds have roasted, we briefly return to the altar of terror to offer some innards and a final prayer, then go to see the catfish to feed them the rest of the bird entrails. The fish are massive; Adama says some are as big as people. They explain to us that if you don’t sacrifice the chickens, you never see the catfish, because the sacrifice atones for your sins. (This is also why you can’t wear red to the pools and I had to change out of my pink tank top before leaving Le Zion; red symbolizes the blood of wrongdoing.)

When we finally get out of the nightmarish enclosure and back to the mopeds, dying of thirst and thoroughly traumatized, the bikes aren’t working. We get one to run about halfway back to the village, then pseudo-pedal/walk our way home, our poor guide Adama completely exhausted towing the fully broken bike.

Upon our return to Le Zion, Adama’s sister Odile prepared our chicken for dinner, which we brought back from the fish pools in a bloody cardboard box. Lauren and I ate lasagna, insisting the guesthouse staff enjoy their bone-cracking meal of poultry while we felt sick in the corner, eating by candlelight because the power was out.

What a coy pond.

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