Four of the younger boys from my Form A class – all of them fourteen – were standing near the classroom block at the eastern edge of the St. Theresa Secondary School campus, drawing knife blades across whetstones when I approached. I watched them bring the steel edge across the stone in long clean strokes and saw how each boy favored their own method.
“Good morning, Ntate James,” one of the boys called out, greeting me in formal Sesotho.
“Boys,” I responded.
“I think you are happy today,” a second boy said.
“And why is that?”
“Because we are eating the meat of the cow today,” he explained, pointing east. Shifting my view down the road, I noticed the three men herding a cow up toward the campus.
“I think you’re happy too,” I said.
“We are very happy, Ntate,” the four boys answered, in chorus, pocketing their newly sharpened knives. From the northwest, I saw other men crossing the road and walking down through the football pitch toward the staff room. I turned from the clear light of dawn to walk back into the shade between the classroom blocks.
To be honest, I was somewhat apprehensive about the whole thing, spending the morning watching the boys and men slaughter a cow. I had been in Lesotho for several months now as a Peace Corps Volunteer working for the Ministry of Education in St. Theresa, a village located in the hinterlands of the small landlocked kingdom. Since I arrived, the hot months of December had given way to April and the clear mountain air had already taken on a distinct chill, cold enough for a first slaughter, they said.
This gathering was one of the first times I would meet many of the parents of my students, and I was nervous about their impressions of me. In training for our Peace Corps tours, our instructors had spoken about the initial period of intense scrutiny we likely would face in our communities. For many of us, we would be the first volunteers to serve in our regions, and we were to expect many questions. Before leaving home, I had my responses prepared. No, I was not an Indian from Durban – despite my similar heritage. Yes, I really was from America. Yes, I am here only as a volunteer.
When I arrived, villagers on the trail between the shops and the mission where I lived would stop me and demand answers to their questions, and, at first, these stock responses seemed to satisfy. But as time went on, I felt that my being there was still just as startling, and that my answers only fueled more widespread curiosity and speculation. I wanted to be asked questions about my work and my home and what I thought of Lesotho, but as the questions became tertiary and routine, I felt like I would always be an outsider.
“We call cattle lihomo,” Paki, my closest friend and fellow colleague, explained to me from his desk as we waited for the festivities to start.
“I actually knew that,” I replied.
“But have you ever seen a cow killed before?” he countered, leaning back in his chair. Outside I could hear the laughter of students and watched as a group of boys appeared over the flats dragging lengths of felled wood behind them through the drainages filled with agates and tussock grass.
“In America they are usually killed in factories or big farms,” I explained, wondering if such a process was conceivable. Paki looked at me and nodded slowly. “It’s just all processed by someone else,” I offered. “People hunt, just like they do for kudu and impala in South Africa.”
“You will come and watch the way we do it,” he said. “The way Basotho do it.”
Someone called out that they were about to begin, and we headed outside. Beside the kitchen quarters a group of men were already straining to hold the cow in place with a few lengths of rope. One of the groundskeepers was at the flank of the animal. As I watched, he raised his hand up revealing a long blade.
“Jesus,” I muttered, under my breath.
“He will cut the cord there at the base of the neck,” Paki explained.
“And not the throat?”
“This is the way we do it, Ntate James,” he insisted.
The men grunted with exertion and then in an instant the groundskeeper brought the blade down into the column of bone and flesh. The cow reflexively contorted and the men holding the ropes were pulled forward by the brutish strength. The groundskeeper had removed the blade and was now sinking it deeper into a spot further up the spine. I turned away.
Each hunting season back home in Eastern Oregon my friends would stalk mule deer and cow elk in the Eagle Caps with rifles or bows. They had all learned how to gut and clean an animal when they were young, and such skills were held in esteem. I, on the other hand, had killed little more than lake brown trout and rainbows that were plentiful in the shallows and pools of local rivers and alpine lakes. Using a knife at close-quarters to dress a mule deer, let alone a cow, was an entirely new conceit.
“It is done,” Paki told me, taking my arm with his hand. I looked and saw that the cow had indeed collapsed to its front knees in the grass and was quietly bellowing. Mucus and blood dripped from its mouth and after a long moment of repeated jabs it fell to its side. With a quick plunge of a second blade a knife pierced the artery and a metal basin was pushed beneath to collect the blood. I felt my stomach clench as I watched the cow convulse in the grass, its large dark eye moving as it breathed sluggishly. After what felt like a long while, it finally stilled. One of the men cut off the tail and offered it to Ketola, the school principal and respected village elder.
“For a switch,” Paki explained. “It is our tradition to offer the tail to honor the slaughter itself.” I nodded and watched as the men went beside the kitchen and drank from a pail of water before wiping their bloody hands on their overalls. They talked for a moment and rolled loose cigarettes. Then the boys and a few of the men gathered around the carcass and began to prepare the cow. The groundskeeper told the boys to hold the cow’s legs apart as he pushed a long curved blade through the flesh at the base of the breastbone. Drawing the blade downward, he made a shallow cut through the skin and subcutaneous fat and showed the boys how to flay the skin back with their own knives. A young girl collected the basin of blood. I felt faint when I saw it thick and hot and red like paint. Some other students were stoking a fire of brush and lengths of firewood too bulky to cut for the brick cooking fires inside the kitchen. They had killed two sheep and were now cleaning them beside the cow where the men were laboring.
Paki brought me a Fanta orange and I drank it even though it was warm. It was sweet and fizzy and it quieted my stomach. When the men cut into the belly of the cow there was little blood and I was surprised at how clean and smooth the organs were.
“Do you want to try, Ntate James?” Ketola asked, with a broad grin as he came to stand beside me.
“Not really,” I admitted.
“I think this is new for you,” Ketola said. I nodded and he nodded too.
I had never been naïve about the industry of slaughter, but the act of killing the cow had startled me. I was impressed by how solemn the boys were as they watched, their brown eyes paying careful attention to how the men worked – wanting to learn from their example. As the animal was quartered, the methodology of butchering grew familiar, and I felt I could join the boys and use my own knife to section ribs or to carve out the back strap. But I remained at the edges, walking around them because I had forfeited my chance by turning away earlier.
Instead I took several photographs and went to stand with the girls who were also watching beside the kitchen quarters. It was clear that the division of labor fell along gender lines, but they had been just as eager to watch from the periphery. They laughed when I showed them the images on the small display screen, pointing at the boys and the way they tried to rub the blood off their hands in the dead grass. To me the stains seemed to mark a rite of passage, while my own hands remained bloodless.
“Come, Ntate James,” Ketola said. “Let us cook some liver together.”
I followed and watched as he cut into the smooth organ and then salted it heavily. It began to char and the blood ran red before browning above the spitting coals. I had never eaten liver before, and when I bit into it the meat was gamey and faintly metallic.
“You like?” one of the men asked, watching me carefully.
“Kea rata,” I said agreeably, just to appease him. I ate another piece and realized surprisingly that I found it pleasant enough. The texture was still off-putting, but I realized the liver had acquired the subtle taste of beef, a flavor I had all but forgotten since arriving in the mountains.
“Ntate James will also eat offal with us,” Ketola announced, grasping my shoulder. “It is a tradition that the men share this together.” I nodded, wiping my mouth as the men resumed working around me. I knew that this invitation to eat with the men was important, and when the lid from the cast iron pot was removed I was the first to reach in and pinch a piece of tripe between my fingers that I brought to my mouth and ate.
“Not bad,” I admitted.
“You are Mosotho now,” Ketola remarked, loudly to everyone.
The boys hooted at that, and when they joined us they told stories about hunting hares, swimming in the Mashai, playing football, and running from thunderstorms when they were high in the mountains tending sheep. I told them my own stories of growing up, some that weren’t so different from theirs. I realized that these boys and men alike were opening up to me in ways they had before not, and I wondered why. I had not participated in the slaughter, and instead had only proven my eagerness to share in the cooking and eating. Yet something had clearly changed.
As I accepted a piece of heart offered by the school groundskeeper, I realized that the origins of this change were in the very act of sharing this food. In coming together around the slaughter, the tokens of my previous outsiderness had briefly lifted. I also realized that when I had arrived in St. Theresa I had been just as curious and speculative, and even superficial, about the very same villagers I encountered. I too demanded stock answers to my many questions. Perhaps it was the brunt of the slaughter that had led to this newfound welcoming. Ultimately the killing of the cow had provided not only a seasonal source of protein and a cause for celebration, but also the important opportunity for both teaching and acceptance.
A jug of joala ba Basotho was passed around. The drink reeked of yeast and was colored like thin coffee with too much cream, but I drank when it was my turn. The boys laughed when I tried to choose other choice pieces of meat instead of the organs they preferred, our hands rising to our mouths, fingers slick with fat. More people arrived from the villages and we all sat there in the grass eating and talking as the women and girls began serving bowls of stewed beef and pap. I listened and watched everyone, feeling like I was part of the village, feeling for a moment that I belonged.
James Stolen is a recent graduate from the MFA program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He has work in Bellevue Literary Review, Shenandoah, Sierra Nevada Review, and Ghost Town, among others. He currently lives in Oregon.