Twenty of us circled the guesthouse’s only pool table, a lopsided clunker with faded green felt, and—hypnotized—watched for hours as teams chased the elusive final black ball, the jokar. The first official pool tournament for our organization, a methodically documented, highly competitive affair, saw staffers from two different departments go head to head in 18 games of pool. There were upsets; there were shutouts; and there was even a little trash talking, a friendly shove or two. I had already played a game, and so when I pulled my beer to my lips for a swig, the fleshy bit of my right hand between my thumb and forefinger smelled of baby powder.
David, a co-worker, walked into the bamboo and sheet metal shack that housed the pool table and waved me over to him.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“You want to see the goat? We’re getting it ready now.”
I followed him down a narrow ally adjacent to the guesthouse. At the end of the ally, tied to the rusty base of a water tank, was a healthy looking, coffee-colored goat. As I was taking pictures of it and trying to pet its horns, David summoned two guesthouse employees—one shirtless man who carried a kitchen knife, and one young guy in a white tank top and a baseball cap. Before I could even say hello to the two men, I felt David’s hand on my chest. “Stand back. You’re going to get sprayed if you stand there.”
In silence, in a way that made it obvious they’d done this before, the men flipped the goat onto its side. The young man lashed the goat’s legs to the water tower’s base. The other man, the shirtless one, straddled the goat and clamped his hand around its mouth. He pulled its head back and to the side, making all of the tendons in the goat’s neck taught and twisted. Then, with the kitchen knife, with absolutely no hesitation, the man started…sawing. ‘Slicing’ or ‘slitting’ don’t accurately describe the force—the labored cutting and re-cutting—needed to hack your way through a goat neck with a kitchen knife. Sawing is the only way to describe it.
The second the shirtless man went to work, the goat began bleating wildly. After 10 or 15 seconds of sawing, after the goat went silent for good, candy red blood spurted from the wet mess of red muscle inside the goat’s neck. Some of it splashed onto the wall of the guesthouse, and a pool of it made islands of pebbles on the ground. The shirtless man stabbed the knife into the goat’s spinal column, causing one single, final twitch to ripple through its body.
Horrified yet fascinated, I stood motionless as the whole thing played out before me. Only once the goat was hanging from its front legs and decapitated save for a single piece of skin and a tendon or two—once it started looking more like meat than the animal it once was—did I take my eyes off it and turn to David.
“Oh. My. God. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
“Never? You don’t see this in the US? People don’t kill goats there?”
“Some people do, I guess. But no one I know ever kills goats. Or even chickens.” Pause. “Hey, David, I have a question for you: When you see a goat or a chicken die like this, do you ever feel sad, like do you ever wonder what the goat is thinking about as it’s dying?”
He laughed and instantly started shaking his head. “No, no, no. I never think about that. It’s just a goat. When I see a goat being killed, I begin thinking about dinner,” he said, smiling. I thought about how difficult it is to conceptualize animal rights in pet-less places.
I turned to the young guy in the tank top. He was watching the shirtless man, almost studying him.
“Have you done this many times before?” I asked.
“No, just four times. Actually, I’m still learning. Here in Uganda this is a man’s work—the killing. Men always kill and skin the animals, and women prepare the meat,” the man said.
“How old are you?”
We introduced ourselves. “Stephen, it’s nice to meet you,” I said, foolishly reaching to shake his hand. He held it out, we both looked at it—at all of the goat hair and dried blood—and we laughed, settling for a nice-to-meet-you nod instead.
Later, after I’d lost another game of pool and after my team had officially lost (“What’s the punishment for our team for losing?” I asked a co-worker. “Nothing,” he said. “You will just know that you’re the losers. That’s enough.”), I joined four or five people seated behind the pool table.
Beatrice, one of my co-workers and a confident woman with close-cropped hair, had just returned from a three-month trip to the US. As an advocate for our organization, she drove around the country with a few college kids and taught people about what our organization does, about why scholarships are so valuable in this part of the world. The topic of my being a vegetarian came up in conversation, and Beatrice chimed in to back up my strange stance on food.
“It’s true what he says. There are many people like him in the US,” she explained. “They don’t prepare meat like we do here. Their meat is not natural like ours, so people choose not to eat it.”
“Yeah,” I said, “lots of animals are treated with chemicals and hormones to make them grow faster. Many Americans don’t know where their meat comes from. I bet most have never seen a pig or a cow being slaughtered.”
Beatrice nodded as she took a long pull on her beer. “Mmmm hmmm,” she swallowed. “It’s true about the chemicals. You know, there in America you can make a chicken get this big,” she said, holding her hands a foot apart, “in just one week—all from chemicals in the feed. And a cow? You won’t believe that it becomes full grown in a month!” By this point, five or six co-workers had joined the conversation and were staring at her, completely incredulous with furrowed brows. One asked the question all were wondering: How?
“OK, it’s like this,” Beatrice went on. “You know soda bottles here in Uganda?” The group nodded. “And you know how there’s a machine that slams the metal cap onto each bottle after its filled with soda?” Again, nods. “Well that’s how it is with cows in America! One by one, they stand on an assembly line and pass by some type of killing machine! Then another machine cuts them, and another packages the meat. It’s unbelievable, really.” My co-workers started shaking their heads, laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea, at the way America loves its crazy machines.
Someone brought out a mountain of goat meat on a tray. People straightened up in their chairs to get a look at it. Staring at the food, I couldn’t believe that just two hours earlier all of that meat was inside the living, breathing creature tied up out back. Beatrice plucked a cube of meat off the tray and ripped it in half with her teeth.
“How is it?” I asked.
“Mmmmmm,” she said, smacking her lips. “De-licious. Try some, just one.”
“No thanks. It looks good, but I’m off to meet John for dinner. A vegetarian dinner,” I said, smiling.
“You’re sure, not even one?”
“I’m sure. But you guys enjoy it though.”
I walked down the line of staff, saying goodbye to each one with a handshake. When I reached Beatrice, she did what all Ugandans do when required to say hello or goodbye while their hands are dirty: she held out her wrist and let her hand fall limp. I shook her forearm, gave everyone a final nod, and walked out alone into the inky darkness.