Throwing with a sheep to have a showdown? What kind of hobby/exercise/animal cruelty is that?
It is part of an annual religious festival we stumbled upon in central Bolivia (although I reckon that the hurling of sheep has nothing to do with religion). How did we end up there? Well, we were doing a project for an NGO.
The Belgium NGO Solidagro (previously called Bevrijde Wereld) was in need of photos and text of their agricultural projects in Bolivia, and we happened to be there and available for the job. In Bolivia people hardly starve (unless maybe there is a severe drought or another natural disaster) but their diet is often limited to corn and potatoes, and Bevrijde Wereld focuses on projects related to food security and food variety.
Bevrijde Wereld finances various Bolivian NGOs that teach people in the countryside how to grow vegetables and plant fruit trees so they can vary their diet, and how to increase yield by setting up irrigation systems. Other projects we visited were related to women empowerment, such as helping women setting up a yoghurt factory.
Some of the projects were around Presto, a village near Sucre. On our arrival we learned about an upcoming festival, honoring San Santiago (patron saint of Spain, still much venerated in South America). There was more to it than carrying Santiago around during processions and lighting candles in church. It was party time with lots of food and chicha but most of all, a unique traditional competition: sheep hurling.
A Religious Festival in Bolivia – Processions
In South America, religious celebrations hardly ever last only one day. In Presto this was no different. The evening procession was by a second one during the following afternoon, during which San Santiago on his white horse was carried downtown. Around the plaza locals set up shrine-like tables where the procession would stop and the priest would give his blessing.
Pork, Corn Drinks and More
As I said, lots of food and drinks to be had, so a great place to taste some local specialties. Chicharrón is a popular dish; dozens of people were cooking and selling it. Sometimes we wonder about this kind of lack of creativity. One starts selling chicharrón and a dozen will follow.
One starts selling, let’s say, pancakes: in case it’s a hit, the dozen will quit their chicharrón and follow the initiator in selling pancakes as well. This is not specifically Bolivian or South American, we remember this phenomenon in Asia as well: rows of vendors all selling the same food or stuff.
Fortunately, we like chicharrón, which are pork ribs seasoned with garlic, oregano and lemon. It is cooked in its own fat with chicha (corn beer). For breakfast we love an api (hot corn drink) and pastel (fried pastry with filling), and sometimes we just eat what’s in the pot and hope for the best…
Burning Candles in Church
Throughout the day until late in the evening the church was packed. Many enveloped San Santiago in a mist of scents while others burned candles or stuck coins to the wooden cross.
The Tarabuco People of Bolivia
This region is largely inhabited by the indigenous people of Tarabuco, who live together in small communities. They are easily distinguishable by their dress. The montera, for example, is their leather hat of which it is said that it’s a reminder of the helmets of the Spanish conquistadores.
The Sheep Fight
The sheep hurling competition started in the afternoon and went on throughout the night. It’s clearly a demonstration of strength. Two men turn a sheep around into one direction and suddenly hit it on the ground with force, with the goal to unbalance the opponent. As the night wore on and one bucket of chicha (corn beer) followed the other, it became tougher for the competitors to stay on their feet.
It’s easy to be aghast about animals being used for a sport like this (or how the Central Asians use sheep for a sport called buzkashi or kokpar, a kind of polo). On the other hand, killing animals for food or play, is there really a difference? I’m not so sure.
It’s not a game I would pick to play myself, that I do know for sure. Having said that, coming across aspects in life that are distinct from the culture we grew up with is part – and an attraction – of traveling and that’s how we look at this event: a local tradition.