The first bird with the slit neck landed rather gracefully in the middle of the semi-circle, jumping and flopping like a popcorn kernel in a hot kettle before landing on its back at the edge of the crowd. It was the semi-annual sacrifice in Yong-duuni, a small village on the outskirts of Tamale and the village and their neighbours were honouring the ancestors in hopes of peace, good crops and fertility.
A procession of chiefs and chiefs' wives made their way to raucous drum beats down to the "earth shrine," a spot in a clearing that was protected by a pile of ancient-looking wood. The chief moved slowly -- the "cold" was hurting his bones -- and a man twirled a brilliant red and green umbrella over him the whole way. His wives were collecting coins for the drummers, who were keeping up a steady, chest-shaking rhythm and shouting out the history of the Dagomba as they walked.
We were not allowed to take pictures of the actual sacrifice, which involved a calabash of pinkish liquid scooped over the ground and the ritual killing of a dozen chickens and one very unhappy goat. ("Make the lambs stop screaming...") The way the chicken lands as it dies determines the answer of the ancestors -- whether they'll honour the request for peace and prosperity -- and the first chicken landed well, on its back, to the relief of the crowd. The second, a speckled brown hen, landed on its feet, trying in vain to squawk with its slit throat, blood pouring with the effort. It flipped and flopped into the crowd. Throats were being split like an assembly line and there were flipping and flopping chickens everywhere and everyone wanted them to land without interference, so they could interpret the ancestors' answer.
I was trying to get out of the way of one bird when another landed at my feet. My skirt had already been sprayed with blood and there was a droplet on my minidisc recorder. Something warm slid down my foot and I looked down expecting to see cherry red blood. Instead, it was white and mucusy: chicken shit.
The process was repeated again at the house of the ancestors, although this time the chickens were simply slit and shoved into the circular mud hut. The ground where the libations had been poured was mashed into round, sticky balls of mud and everyone tore off a piece and smeared it on their forehead. It was protection from evil spirits.
More drumming followed and coins were tossed by the jubiliant crowd, which by this time was worked into a frenzy. We made our goodbyes -- the chief gave us a guinea fowl and three yams in thanks for our coming, and offered me a bed for the night -- before slipping back to the main road, feeling exhausted from the chaos.