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It’s Sunday afternoon, and a group of men are placing bets in the hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. It’s a matter of national pride. But if you’re imagining football, you’re half a world away. These men are in a market in the tiny Southeast Asian country of Timor-Leste (East Timor), where:
Cockfighting is a legal and treasured pastime.
The sport is called futu manu and is beloved by men across the country, from rural markets to the busy capital. They tie razor-sharp blades to the talons of their fighting roosters, put them in a ring and the bloody slasher war begins. The “skirmish” lasts anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, says David Hicks, anthropologist and go-to guy on Timorese cockfighting. These aren’t just any old cockfights, though. First of all, the birds have trainers, like in boxing, and they’ve been known to give their protégés mouth-to-mouth if they need an extra boost of oxygen between rounds. And the owners love their birds like their own pet pups: They’ll walk around town with their feathered fighters nuzzled in the crooks of their arms, kissing them. It’s considered a “very macho thing,” says Hicks.
For Timorese, cockfighting is an ancient cultural practice, says Gabriela Pinto, a spokeswoman with the Timor-Leste embassy in the U.S. It’s said to go back centuries, although no one knows for sure when it began. What we do know is that cockfighting has some even bloodier roots, at least according to Hicks. He argues that the sport evolved from a not-so-distant Timorese practice of beheading rivals, an activity Portuguese colonizers quickly stamped out by 1912. In the local Tetum language, the word asuwa’in refers to a victorious cock and someone who has beheaded an enemy. Hicks explains that the shedding of masculine blood — by roosters or headless enemies — is linked to fertility. In other words, the cockfights act as a quasi cultural stand-in for the man-to-man fights of yesteryear, even if this is “strictly an anthropological interpretation.”
The sport may be legal, but the government is trying to regulate the illegal high-stakes gambling that comes along with it, says Josh Trindade, a Timorese advisor on socio-cultural issues at the presidential palace. But his main concern is a little less dark. As the older generations tend to do, Trindade laments that the youth are losing interest in the pastime, spending more time doing things like reading or going to the movies. Kids.