This July I was standing in a dusty schoolyard in Nansana, Uganda listening to Icona Pop’s “I Don’t Care” at a party for the NGO where I worked for two months. My stomach was full of a mysterious barbecued meat and the Ugandan equivalent of PBR my boss had purchased for the occasion. I asked my friends who had been cooking what I had just eaten. They told me it was goat, and I made the connection between dinner and the cute little goat I had seen in the morning, which had since disappeared. “Who killed it?” I asked. They gestured to Hamza, a soft-spoken student of mine, who frequently tried to convert me to Islam yet blushed and was silent every time I greeted him with “As-salamu alaykum.” He laughed at my shocked response, “Hamza, you killed that goat?”
“No, Maggie. You kill people. You slaughter animals.”
I was very interested in the goat, specifically how it went from grazing near the outhouses to being in my stomach. My boss came over to me—laughing—asked if I wanted to slaughter the meat for the next company gathering. I agreed excitedly.
“Maggie, I don’t think you could do it,” Hamza told me quietly, mumbling something about mzungus, a Swahili word used in Uganda as a blanket term for white people. A fellow intern confided, “I watched them do it today and almost threw up.” I immediately began spreading the word among my co-workers and students that I was going to slaughter the next goat. I was also energized by the idea of a great answer for “interesting fact” icebreaker activities.
In retrospect, I was not so much excited about killing, or eating, as I was fascinated with the broader, horrible concept that is ending a life. Even though I eat meat, I consider animals to be on the same spectrum of living as humans; I think that killing, not slaughtering, is what I was agreeing to. I reasoned that as a meat-eater it is important to experience what has to happen (approximately) every time an animal is killed for me to eat. I felt compelled to understand the reality behind ending life for human consumption for the first time in my life.
The day I was scheduled to slaughter my goat kid, I woke up feeling nauseous and scared. This was a cute baby goat, though undeniably delicious (don’t knock fresh goat until you’ve tried it), also a living creature. I had killed lots of stinkbugs and been on many fishing trips, but this was different—there would be blood. I could feel my skin cells vibrating against the sunny East African August day. I could feel the adrenaline pumping from my stomach, making me feel at once dizzy and powerful.
I arrived to the schoolyard and saw Morgan and Robert, the two guys in charge of goat preparation, washing knives. They greeted me as my eyes scanned the yard and fell on the goat.
“Oh my God, you tied it to the playground?” There it was, a small goat grazing lazily two feet from a swing-set where I played with kids during school breaks. The sickening situational irony of schoolkids and goat kids and this rusty playground clouded my thoughts.
It was Ramadan and I heard a call to prayer playing over the speakers of the neighborhood mosque. I asked them if Hamza and the other Muslim students would be able to eat the goat if I were the one to slaughter it. They looked at each other and Robert shrugged. “You speak Arabic, right? That seems good enough.”
Morgan started untying the goat from the metal frame of the swings and motioned for me to pick up a knife, “Careful. Don’t let the goat see it.” He and Robert quietly laid the goat on its side, neck poised over a drainage ditch. I was shocked at how unfazed the goat was, and I was thankful for its lack of foresight, or graciousness, depending on how intuitive you believe goats to be.
“Will it take long? Does it hurt a lot? Is this really the sharpest knife you have?” I asked a stream of rhetorical questions as I knelt down in the dirt, Morgan and Robert clearly amused at my inexperience.
“So now you start cutting, Maggie,” Morgan said. Wait, cutting? As unsettling as it may be, “cutting” is an accurate description of what followed. There was no infomercial-quality Japanese knife set in that dusty playground, and it took a full thirty seconds to turn a live goat starting to squirm against four hands to a decapitated body that was soon to be dinner.
Initially, I found the gore of the thirty seconds of this transfiguration to be more unexpected than repulsive. I had not anticipated the sound like a pillowcase tearing, or the flood of red-orange blood speckled with clumps of black hair still attached to flesh. My eyes stinging with dust and the taste of stomach acid scratching my throat. The crack of bone and slow-flowing marrow. The surprising release of taut skin when the last fibers are severed and it is over. The sound of life flowing from the body that is louder than the goat’s protest.
We finished and I sat on a swing, still holding the knife.
“Okay, now we skin it and take the organs out,” Robert said as he strung up the headless body by its feet from the crossbar of the swingset next to me. I assumed that I was just going to help with the slaughter, but it turned out I had to help with the rest of the preparation, which was the more unpleasant part. See, blood doesn’t smell bad, really, but the inside of a goat most certainly does. The sound of skin separating from muscle is haunting, and made my own skin crawl and shiver.
As we worked, the boys quizzed me on what each organ was and they proved incredibly knowledgeable about anatomy. It dawned on me that my insides probably look (and smell?) strikingly similar to this goat’s. The guts of a goat may not be particularly beautiful, but they are pretty incredible. And how different are humans on the inside? I am all skin and muscle and bones and bulbous tubes of pink-brown, and so is a goat. We’re big bags of blood and guts, and it’s amazing that a thin layer of flesh, easily sliced with a blunt knife, is holding it all in.
I managed to finish helping with the preparation of the goat for cooking and promptly went home where my roommate welcomed me, avoiding a hug for fear of my bloody clothes, and asked how it was. It was nauseating and exhausting, I told her. I began to reckon with the fact that I had just ended a life; I had made dinner. If this goat and I are not so different—we are made of the same material, bleed the same if we are cut—how do we make the distinction between slaughter and killing and how do we justify it? I have yet to stop eating meat, but I do feel differently about the potential for harm and for production in my hands. For the time being, I remind myself that cows and pigs and goats are more similar to myself than not. I am not able to consume meat because I am a better creature, a more worthy bag of blood and guts. I simply happen to be the kind of animal that holds the knife.