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Why I always buy injured sheep

Sheep on sale for Tabaski Image copyright Other

Tabaski - or Eid al-Adha - is on Sunday. It means every self-respecting family in Mali has to roast a sheep.

The livestock market just across the road is overflowing. No, I haven't stepped in something; there is a permanent whiff of dung in the air.

Bamako's usual array of mega-village sounds - crowing cockerels, braying donkeys and trotting horses - has been augmented by bleating.

Thousands of sheep have descended on the capital for sale ahead of Tabaski, the West African name for Eid al-Adha.

It is the biggest festival of the year and celebrates Abraham's (Ibrahim's) sacrifice of his son.

The Archangel Gabriel (Jibril) intervened at the last minute, switching young Ishmael (Ismail) for a ram. That is why Muslims kill sheep for Eid al-Adha.

I am a year-round glutton for mutton - hence my acquaintance with sheep and goat trader Mohamed Kante.

His charges endure terrible journeys to Bamako, crammed into lorries or teetering on the tops of buses. Some never make it. Others arrive with broken legs.

Not wanting to be seen as a lily-livered European, I used to disguise my soft spot for injured sheep as a bargaining tactic.

''How much is this one. Oooh that's far too much. And that one? How about that miserable brute over there?'' I would state, pointing to the limping one. I am now known as the strange white woman who prefers injured sheep.

These are brought to me in various states of distress. I invariably end up buying the one which looks in the most urgent need of being put out of its misery. Then I turn away. Kante appears later carrying a blue plastic bag with warm contents.

In the run-up to Tabaski, the sheep have spread across the road, in among the carpenters' workshops, second-hand tyre traders and metalworkers.

The sports stadium is packed. The shepherds - some of them Fulani nomads in conical hats, others wearing flowing Mauritanian gowns - have draped mats over the goals, turning them into shelters for sleeping.

There are spin-off industries, such as boys selling bits of rope for tethering your purchase.

I can also reveal that the sheep-feed traders do a discreet line in peanut-based nutrition supplements, intended by aid agencies for malnourished babies. This produces what you might call mutton dressed as lamb.

A week ago sheep prices started at about 60,000 francs, which is about £75. They have risen daily.

''Where do the tastiest sheep come from?'' I wonder.

"People used to say the North but the crisis has changed that,'' Kante explains.

The crisis is what Malians call the rebel occupation of the north. For two years, due to landmine attacks and highway banditry, it has been too dangerous for the northern shepherds to bring their flocks to Bamako.

''If someone says their sheep are from Timbuktu, it's a lie,'' Kante confides.

But sheep chic has survived.

"That one over there is a balbal. Minimum price: 600,000 francs," he says.

It's a splendid ram, waist-high and white all over. It has gorgeous ice cream cone horns.

Kante pulls the floppy ears down around the snout. They touch. It's a balbal all right.

But who would spend £750 on their Tabaski dinner?

''Oh no the balbal isn't for roasting. You build a pen for it in front of your house. You take great care of it. On the day it dies you know it has sacrificed itself. It has come between your family and some terrible misfortune,'' he says.

Most of my bleating neighbours are of course what you might call also-rams.

Once bought, they will be bundled into the boot of a car, if they are lucky. Others can expect a hair-raising final journey, hooves strung together, astride the buyer's lap, zig-zagging through the city traffic on a motorbike.

Image copyright Other

Tabaski is not unlike Christmas. It features two types of consumers.

There are the cheap sheep shoppers, like Mr Doumbia in my street.

He bought his ram early to beat the rush. But he has to feed it - an expense he puts at close to £1 a day. And he is lucky to have understanding neighbours, because a sheep removed from the flock is a bleating sheep. Night and day.

My friend Goita, on the other hand, believes staunchly in One Man, One Ram.

He is like those people who speed through the shops on Christmas morning then tell you they found everything they were looking for plus some items that had been marked down for the sale - and the department store was deserted.

Goita will sheep shop on Sunday - Tabaski itself - while everyone is at the mosque. He is convinced he will get a bargain from a rural shepherd looking for his bus fare.

But it's a risk, Goita admits: one year he had to settle for a sheep with a broken leg.

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