Culture and the religious slaughter of animals

By By Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro
July 2010
Other Articles
THE slaughtering of an animal is a cultural tradition still greatly observed within the Ovaherero culture.

The carcass is dissected in primal cuts different from the way butcheries would cut that juicy steak offered in popular eateries.

Such traditional cuts, especially of mutton or beef, have a special cultural meaning and importance. However, certain cultural practices must be observed in the slaughtering of an animal.

The intention to slaughter and the purpose thereof must first and foremost be communicated to the ancestors. Purposes can vary and may include the need to just having meat, sometimes as the main course, known as omutwe; or having meat at rituals such as child-naming, cleansing, introduction of newborns to the ancestors, reporting one’s earthly acquisitions such as a car or house to the ancestors for blessings and to keep misfortunes away.

Other occasions for feasting on meat include a homestead head’s birthday, a wedding or death, where a good number of cattle are slaughtered, especially in the event of the death of the homestead’s figurehead.

Cooking of such meat takes place at the homestead’s fireplace but sideways. To the Ovaherero, based on their faith, the life of an animal is of no less importance than that of a human.

The centrality of cattle in their existence as the main source of livelihood explains this. Its skin used to be their cloth, its milk their drink the cultural milk, omaere, or as pure milk used for many purposes such as being whipped up in special calabash known as ondungwa, to eventually produce butter that again goes into making cultured fat, omaze wozongombe.

The whipped milk is known as omatuka, which means diluted milk.

Even in difficult times like battles, cattle had been a source of inspiration and power for the Ovaherero. The sheep is regarded as a sacred animal in the Ovaherero culture as it is slaughtered for various rituals. Yes, the goat as well, mostly for meat, and to a lesser degree for milk but not for rituals because of its bleating, taken to be undignified and thus not fit for rituals that are meant to be holy and cleanse people of omens.

The slaughtering of the animals must be humane and dignified. This entails the animal’s head facing west, its legs northwards and its back southwards. The west, where the sun sets, signifies eternal rest and the Ovaherero thus believe such an animal must have its head facing the west.

Another practice that seems to be dying out is the strangling of and animal with the knee pressed on to the animal’s throat. Only when the animal is lifeless need one slit its throat immediately to let the blood out before skinning it. While others are busy slaughtering, some would prepare the place where the meat would be put, known as ovihuno, which involves leafy tree branches without thorns.

Thorns are a sign of omens in the Ovaherero culture besides for the hazards of them landing in the meat. The blood, especially of a slaughtered sheep is put in a container and cooked for consumption.

Slaughtering and skinning is an art and not everybody can do it apart from seasoned slaughterers and skinners who have grown up in rural settings learning this from their elders. It is believed that there is a connection between the strangler and how long it takes the animal to die when being strangled. The longer it takes, the longer the strangler himself is going to live. But these days an animal’s throat is slit. Still it takes a seasoned slitter. One would want to avoid a situation of an animal running away with a slit throat. This would be an omen. So the first poke-slit of the throat must be accurate.

The same applies to skinning. A seasoned skinner would not damage the skin which is also of use. Also meat must not be left on the skin. A slitter can be the skinner as well.

Skinning starts from where the throat is slit pass the dewlap, not cutting it in the middle but making a detour, to the chest and all the way up to the hind legs. The dewlap is ultimately used to tie up the skin that is later either cooked or processed and used for many purposes like clothing. If cooked, it is a delicacy for the blue-eyed children in the homestead. Once skinning has been completed the process of cutting the various parts begins starting with the left front left leg as operationally, the Ovaherero are traditionally left-handed.

Unlike the primal cuts in butcheries, the Ovaherero split up the carcass in a certain traditional-cum-natural way. There’s a natural path to follow leading one’s way to cutting up the carcass in a way that produces different cuts but careful not to deprive any part or cut of meat. Such cuts are designated for consumption by the different members in the homestead as per their socio-economic standing. Likewise neighbours would also have a piece earmarked for them.

With regard to both front and hind legs, the blade bone and leg bone are separated and are cooked first and separately. These are starters for men, especially senior men including guests of honour.

Unlike nowadays when parts like the intestines either go to waste or given to dogs, hardly any part of a slaughtered animal went to waste in the olden days, including the skin. The traditional diviner would use the intestine to foretell the homestead’s fortunes or misfortunes, or any other mishap that could befall the community or the country. PF