Law of the farm number 26: “If you want to eat lamb you must be prepared to see blood.
(This post is also the subject of a short TV documentary you may find interesting http://born2farm.blogspot.com/2015/02/choosing-circumsicion.html
December last year was the first time that I have slaughtered a goat. I have killed chickens and fish. I have even shot antelope from the comfortable distance of a rifle’s range, but to get up close and personal with a warm blooded, living breathing mammal is a whole different thing. I don’t enjoy killing. I am sure there are very few mentally balanced people that do. I have however come to see that I am an omnivore, and that my family before me for hundreds of thousands of years (probably longer) have eaten meat as part of their varied diet. Every time I look at my dogs, they are to me a living, breathing reminder of how their species and mine have walked a long way together and have formed each other and shaped what we have become. Someone told me once that humans domesticated dogs 20000 years ago, while we were all hunter gatherers. (even before we invented agriculture). After the dog, we apparently took another 10 000 years before we thought of domesticating the next animal: the cow. The point being, that despite recent popular tendencies toward vegetarianism, eating meat and dealing with the animals that provide it, has been part of our ancestor’s routine for a very long time. It is within this perspective, that I came to say to myself, if I am going to eat meat; I must have the courage to kill. It is always easy to avoid doing the killing myself. The supermarket, the restaurant and the fast-food outlet, make it easy. Together they conspire to make eating meat a light thing.
But the story of how I came to slaughter this goat requires a little explaining. You see, my son Litha, at the age of 18, decided to follow in the tradition of his mother’s ancestors and to become circumcised in the 1000 year old Xhosa tradition. The tradition, I am sure has evolved and grown over the years, but in its current form in our region, it involves a 3 week retreat, which begins on the day of the circumcision. Litha’s retreat was on our farm, where he lived in an Ibhoma, a rough made shelter his brother, cousins and uncles put together for him the week before. The location was secret and not visible from any road, house or public thoroughfare. In that time in the bush Litha had no clothing (he had to make do with a rough woollen blanket); he had no electricity, running water, TV, cell phone or contact with the outside world. A great privilege in fact and the kind of retreat I would encourage every young man to go through.
In the Xhosa tradition, male circumcision is a rite of passage. You go into the bush a “boy” and you come out a “man”. The boy literally leaves his childhood behind, with all his boyhood possessions burnt in the bush on the day that he leaves. The new man leaves the bush stony faced, not permitted to look back at his boyhood in flames behind him. Of course on the day that Litha returned home, there was a massive feast called an Umgidi. There was a lot of meat (and booze) at this celebration, but none of it involved me having to draw blood myself. We had professional butchers deal with all of that.
The goat, that is the subject of this story met his end two weeks before the great homecoming as part of a small celebration in the bush called Omojiso, or literally “roasting of meat”. This function signifies a milestone in the stay in the bush where the Umncibi (traditional surgeon) is happy enough with the healing process to permit the boy to come off the very strictly limited diet of the first week after the procedure. Kind of like “nil per mouth” the hospitals enforce with certain critical cases in their care.
Going into this complex and meandering process, I had made a very conscious decision. I am not a Xhosa man I do not pretend to be a Xhosa man. I quite respectfully have no interest in becoming a Xhosa man. I am interested though, in do what I need to do to facilitate my two sons’ becoming Xhosa men, if that is their choice. So it transpired that I found myself in the curious situation in the bush, at Pebblespring Farm, officiating over a Xhosa function called Omojiso.
Tradition requires that a goat be slaughtered to mark this occasion. While I could very easily have passed the task of killing the animal onto anyone of the junior Xhosa men assembled there on that day. I opted rather to show my full participation in Litha’s chosen path by taking the animal’s life myself. We had bought the goat two days before from a farmer about and hours’ drive from us. It was a beautiful young brown male goat. I chose the goat myself out of the herd that was corralled for the purpose of being chosen by people like me, for events like the one we required a goat for. I had no hesitation in pointing out this young brown male when the farmer asked me to choose. We secured the goat by its horns at the end of a long rope in the middle of a bush pasture and there the goat spent its last days and hours peacefully foraging, sleeping and generally dong what goats do. In the morning of the Omojiso, the speeches and introductions went quite quickly and soon came the time I had been anxiously dreading. The goat was held down by two other men, I drew then knife I had sharpened carefully the night before. I cut first through the windpipe with the sound of the air escaping surprised me, then further into the neck striking the arteries releasing the blood to flow. There was still life in the body, as an older man showed me to cut deep in between the neck vertebrae severing the spinal cord till the body lay limp losing the last of its blood. I felt relieved that it was over. I felt the heaviness of taking this life. I felt good that I had able to play my role as a father and physically and demonstrably support my son in a path that he had chosen to walk.
The goat was cooked there and then in pots that had been placed on the fire for this purpose. Litha was able to eat the meat he had been looking forward to after a week of bland dry rations. The two weeks after the Omojiso went quickly. Litha healed well and return triumphant two weeks later to jubilant groups of friends and family. Litha I am sure learned many lessons in the bush, but I too came away a wiser man. I learned about the heaviness that comes with supporting my children and those I love in pursuits that cause me to fear for their safety. I learned that my son is a surprisingly strong a resilient
man. I learned what it means to kill a goat.
I know it is an obvious fact and that everybody knows that to eat meat, an animal must die. But sometime you need to wield the knife yourself and feel the warm blood on your skin for it to sink in. What other blood do we have on our hands? What is the price that must be paid to run electricity through all of our homes, heating our bathwater and lighting up out plasma screens? At what price to the carbon levels in the atmosphere? At what price to we commute to work every day, causing oilfields to be drilled or deserts to be fracked and wars do be waged? At what price do we employ domestic workers at near slave wages? What of their children, what of their families, their hopes and their dreams? The bread that you eat from barren wheat field of toxic monocultures that spread over the horizon on every direction in the Western Cape and Freestate; where before active soils, and communities of plans
and animals supported stable ecosystems that remained in balance for thousands of years? There is a lot of blood out there and there are very few of us that have hands that are not stained by it.
So I encourage you, wherever you can, whenever you can, to get as close to the brutal truth of your lifestyle as you can. Do this as a test to see if it is not too heavy for you to carry. Because no matter how you try, no matter how modern urban living tries to shield you, you cannot escape the Law of the Farm number 26: “ If you want to eat lamb, you must be prepared to see blood”.