Getting closer to our food – seeing a goat slaughtered for the first time

Blog entry created by: Teresa

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A feast of 7 chickens

Last night the volunteers from Ireland were leaving, so there was a special chicken and rice dinner. We heard about it in the morning and when we went to work in the livestock area, we heard John Mike remind the manager to have seven chickens ready by 2pm. We saw the chickens in the pen and heard about how they decide when they should use them for meat – when they stop producing as many eggs. We didn’t see the slaughter – so it was still pretty abstract when we enjoyed our fresh chicken dinner by candlelight that night.

Slaughter up close and personal

Today was different. We were doing laundry (in buckets) at the guest house when a couple of the people from the village came over with an adult goat. They flipped it onto its back and held it down while it protested by crying out. (The youngest ones sounds just like human babies when they cry.) We knew what was coming and it was hard to believe that it was happening 10 feet away from us. While person held the goat, the other unceremoniously punctured its neck with a machete and then proceeded to slash its whole neck while it cried louder. He could slash its neck all at once as one might expect – he had to put in a lot of effort and saw through it for a minute or so.

30 seconds – sometimes it seems like nothing – sometimes it seems like forever

The goat didn’t die instantaneously…he protested for 30 seconds or so until he died…at least I think that is when he died. It was hard to know, actually, especially with the twitching bodies do after death. I hoped that the animal went into shock after the first stab through its neck, and wasn’t really aware of the rest.

Alive one moment and dead the next

We are so far removed from our food source in the US, that I have never seen a slaughter before. We had spent the morning before caring for the goats. Seeing them receive medical care, nurse their young, play in their yard, and eat. We spent a couple of hours cleaning their pens while they played outside. That goat was healthy and full of life one moment and dead the next. Yes, I eat meat all the time, and of course I know where it comes from…and yes, it’s the circle of life, but on this day it somehow seems anything but natural. On the other hand, the livestock keep the 720 orphans hear alive and healthy – they have meat only twice a week. Its just something about the world that makes me think…especially when it happened right before my eyes.

The meaning behind a goat slaughter

It may seem like just another meal to us, but there is a lot of meaning behind the slaughter of goat in Kenyan culture. If you want to honor someone who is visiting, you don’t just go and buy meat, it is a sign of love and respect to give up one of your animals for a meal for that person.

Pleasing the gods – a blood offering

It isn’t just that the family has given up one of its precious animals for the meal, there is even more meaning behind it. The Kamba, Masaai, Kikuyu, Luo and most of the other tribes believe in pleasing the spirits by shedding the blood of a goat. There is respect for the whole animal, of course, and all of it is used, but the blood is especially important. The blood of the goat is drained and used to make a special dish (sometimes mixed with the milk and sometimes with intestines). The first serving of this soup like dish is given up to the spirits by feeding it to the (in Kamba) Muumo (in Kikuyu) Mungomo and (in English) fig tree. They choose this tree because they believe the spirit of one of the gods lives in the tree. Then the rest is served to the elders of the community who eat it with a special part of the goat near the front of the chest and pray to the gods for things like rain and good health.

Bone marrow for the gods

The rest of the animal is then given to everyone in the family/community. They are careful not to break the bones of the goat as they eat, as those will also be offered to the gods in a special shrine. Eventually, wild animals will take the bones from the shrine. Symbolically, the disappearance of the bones represents the act of the gods acceptance of them and the precious bone marrow contained in them.

Blood on the ground – traditional culture slipping away

If you watch the video, you will notice that the blood was just allowed to run out onto the ground. This is because the su sus (grandmothers in the village) were not involved and the younger generation cares less today about the traditional culture. In fact, most Kenyans are now christians and so they no longer worship the gods of traditional culture. Nyumbani tries to incorporate the traditional culture with the modern, which is why all of the su sus are Kamban, so when the children leave the village, they understand both the traditional and christian culture and can be better accepted by the broader community.

Other’s reactions – on the brink of becoming vegetarian?

Tradition aside, some of the volunteers were greatly impacted by seeing an animal slaughter right in front of us. Bella was a vegetarian for about a year when she was younger. She loves animals. She was really upset by seeing the slaughter and didn’t want to talk about it. I wonder if she is thinking about whether she should become vegetarian again. Jeremy, another volunteer here told us that he killed a chicken the other day the other day to see what it was like. It was about two hours from the time it was last alive until it was on his dinner plate. He said it was something he wouldn’t want to do again. He had already been considering becoming vegetarian…I wonder if these experiences will affect his decision.

Fewer slaughters?

I don’t think I am going to give up meat – but I think I will eat much less of it – it’s a healthier choice than eating as much of it as I am accustomed to – and it does make me feel better that I might be responsible for many fewer slaughters. I know many who read this will think that is ridiculous because they feel there is nothing wrong with taking the life of an animal for food. It’s too bad there is not a clear manual on right and wrong that we can use as a guidebook as we move through this crazy life. I know some believe that would be the bible, but although it has a lot to offer, its been used for too often for evil to be my personal choice for literal life guidance.

Care to share in the experience?

For those of you who want some idea of what the experience was like – I have uploaded a video. This isn’t like a PETA movie. This goat lived a happy life and was killed in as respectful and humane way as possible. That’s what blows my mind a bit – that this is the best case scenario and I was still somewhat troubled to see it up close. (note: this video is fairly graphic and not for the weak at heart)

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Posted on: November 4, 2010 | Categories: Blog, Kenya, Poverty, Snacks and Food, sustainability, Traditions, Videos, Well for HIV+ Village- Kenya



  • Doug Tilden says:

    I really like this blog. People need to make the association between what appears on their plate in a restaurant or neatly shrink wrapped in a supermarket and the fact that an animal gave up its life for that meat, poultry or fish to be there. I am not advocating a vegan or vegitarian diet, although these are very valid life choices in my opinion. What I am saying is to be respectful of the process that brought that meat to your table, and as Teresa suggests, maybe restrain consumption some.

    In America we also need to recognize that animals bred for the food chain do not live the lives depicted for the goats in the blog. Generally our animals are bred in deplorable crowded mechanised farms. Read “Diet for a New America’ some time. Or follow the the recent salmonela out break in eggs. The way our meat is grown is inhumane for the animals and certainly cannot be good for us either. Animals experience fear, agression and other negative manfiestations of the aweful conditions under which they are grown and slaughtered. Some of that has to be passed to us in consuming this meat.

    California passed proposition 2 in 2008 that begins to set standards for humane treatment of chickens, pigs and veal cows. This is just the beginning. The issue needs to enter our national consciousness. And yes if we consumed less meat, poultry and fish we would take some of the demand pressure off to mechanise farm ranching of anmimals.

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    Thank you, Doug, for your thoughtful comments. I need to read “Diet for a New America”. I agree that at the very least, we should be aware of how the animals that are killed for our food are treated, both for our health and because it is our moral obligation. What’s difficult in America is that the whole process is hidden from us, so we don’t think about it. Thanks for working so hard to help pass that legislation in California.

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