Fifteen-year-old Kadi Ben Wahab puffs out his chest and poses for a photograph with several friends, before setting off to hunt cats in northern Mali’s Timbuktu.
As part of an age-old tradition in the city, in the desert north of the Sahel, Kadi and his band of hunters hit the streets after dark to trap, skin and cook cats. They dance and sing after a successful hunt, throwing the skins of their prey over the electric cables that hang over the alleyways.
“I killed this one a few days ago,” Kadi said, pointing to a cat skin hanging nearby — not an uncommon sight in Timbuktu.
The boy said that he is the best cat hunter in his neighborhood and, as such, is the leader of his gang.
The children standing beside him are aged six to 12 years old. They lead otherwise ordinary lives, but after dinner, they often sneak out to hunt cats — always targeting neighborhoods other than their own.
Their weapon of choice is a crate-like wooden trap, which contains a piece of mutton as bait and can be pulled closed with a piece of string.
The unusual pastime offers children an escape in an otherwise tough environment: landlocked and conflict-torn Mali is one of the poorest nations in the world.
Compounding the shortage of distractions, Timbuktu is in Mali’s volatile north, where an extremist insurgency has raged since 2012.
Timbuktu residents seemed unable to pinpoint the origin of the city’s cat-hunting tradition, but several cast it as a rite of passage for boys. The practice appears to be older than living memory.
Timbuktu poet Sane Chirfi said that after one of his octogenarian relatives died, an old cat trap was found among his possessions.
“It goes back a very, very long time,” he said. “It’s impossible to find anyone in town who didn’t hunt cats as a child.”
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