Killing the Goat
David Kerr, born in Carlisle, UK, has lived most of his life in Africa. He is a practitioner of theatre and media for transformation and human rights, about which he has written widely. His collection of verse, Tangled Tongues, was published by Flambard in 2003, and a novel, Passages, under the pseudonym Derrick Zgambo, in 2008 by Brown Turtle Press.
At that time human beings, god and animals all lived in peace, living off what the forest provided for them. Nor was there any distinction between wild and domestic animals.
Sitting on a mattress in the back of a 4 x 4 gave you such a stupid sense of freedom. Even at 9.30, the sun was fierce and Deirdre, who was wearing shorts, had to cover her legs with a kitenge. Kagiso seemed to be enjoying the ride as the breeze-block suburbs of Gaborone sped past. He peeped through the cab window and indicated that she should also look. In the front seat, Brian was driving with one hand, while his other stroked Mildred’s thigh. The car CD-player was banging out a reggae number. Deirdre turned away, with a smile she hoped wasn’t too prim.
Soon after Molepolole they turned off along a dirt road. Villagers stood outside their houses to stare at these symmetrically inter-racial couples. Before long the houses became fewer, and eventually disappeared altogether. The sun was beginning to be uncomfortable and Deirdre put on her straw hat, securing it with a ribbon under the chin. Mildred wriggled her eighteen-year-old torso out of the window, letting beaded dreadlocks fly in the wind.
“We’re free now,” she yelled as she bounced to the music, “No cops here, we’re in the bush.” She asked for some beer. Kagiso crawled to the plastic cooler box and took out a six-pack of Hansa. He tore at the plastic wrapper and pulled two cans off, giving the remainder to Mildred. Deirdre peeped through the cab window as Mildred opened two cans, gave one to Brian, snuggled against his shoulder and swigged at her own can.
Kagiso opened a can of beer and offered it to Deirdre. She hardly ever drank beer, but she felt she had to now. She wanted to quell the queasiness she felt over Brian and Mildred’s lust. She didn’t want to seem abnormal. The remorseless sunshine was making a small fire crackle in her head. She needed to latch onto the freedom of the journey, the escape from library chores of learning Setswana, reading anthropology books, and making sense of her research notes.
After some time man became dissatisfied. He wanted to control everything. He found a way of making fire. One day man’s fire set the bush ablaze.
Brian was a fast driver; orange dust plumed out behind the bakkie. Occasionally they plunged jerkily down slopes to cross dried up river beds. Otherwise the landscape was utterly flat. There was nothing to look at but blue sky, a few, stunted white-thorn trees, and the trail of dust.
Kagiso swigged at the beer.
“I didn’t know you drank,” Deirdre said.
“I don’t usually. Today’s special.”
He hardly looked like a neophyte. Deirdre liked him. He had a more mature attitude than the usual University students. He was a patient Setswana teacher, and seemed to have some genuine interest in her research plans to catalogue Tswana folklore. If, as she suspected, he had romantic designs on her, he disguised them well.
Deirdre gulped at the beer, out of thirst, not desire for alcohol. An extra hard bump sent liquid spurting out of the can onto the mattress. She mopped it up with her kitenge. Kagiso opened a small pack of biltong. He chewed at a piece contentedly.
“Not much use offering you this, I suppose?”
She shook her head.
“Or there are peanuts.”
She accepted these. Kagiso had once told her that Botswana, where cows outnumbered people, was the worst place for her to come and do research. He dismissed her theories of meat-as-oppression-ecological-degradation, pointing out that she would have to develop some sympathy for a cattle culture if she was to penetrate Setswana mythology.
“How did you get to know Brian?” Kagiso asked.
“He doesn’t seem my type?”
“You are a real academic. Too interested in your research and village life. He’s just an engineer.”
“It’s true,” Deidre said, smiling at this snobbery. “He’s not my type. When I first arrived, we went out together a couple of times. But it didn’t work.”
The problem wasn’t that Brian was much older and divorced, but that he was too wrapped up in cars, booze, and chasing women.
“But we still get on okay.”
“Besides, he’s got the bakkie.”
“Right,” she laughed. “It’s torture trying to get transport out of UB.”
The animals began to flee in panic, running from the flames. It became total confusion. There was a stampede of hooves and paws as the forest blazed more fiercely.
She winced as she saw Brian throw his empty beer can into the bush. A solitary red-throated bird lit up the landscape for a second, then was gone. On their first date, Brian had taken Deirdre to a notorious Gaborone pub. There were a lot of busy pool tables, thick smoke and a hubbub of music interrupted by arguments or screaming laughter. At the bar, there were middle-aged white men quaffing drinks and pawing at pretty Batswana teenagers. Deirdre had felt sick.
The memory prevented her from finishing the beer, which was rapidly getting warm. She threw the dregs over the side and kept the can tucked next to the mattress. She felt a stuffiness which sometimes focused as a headache. The open plains and vast blue sky, which had once seemed to generate freedom, were beginning to be oppressive.
The bakkie came to a halt. They were at a crossroads. Three dust roads lay available – all deserted, stretching straight, apparently going nowhere. Brian kept the engine running, but got out of the cab.
“I think you’d better drive, China”, he said to Kagiso. “I don’t know the way. Me and Mildred can get in the back. You guys could do with a bit of comfort, anyway.”
The couples swapped places. The cab shade was welcome. A compilation of old 80s rock hits was playing.
“Do you really want this on?” Deirdre asked.
“Yes,” Kagiso replied, though turning the volume down.
He led the car down the right-hand track, humming to the music.
“Do you think we might find anyone as good as that old Shakawe man?” Deirdre asked.
“The one who told us the story about the fire?”
“Yes, I’m keen on teleological narratives. I’d like to reconstruct a whole Tswana creation mythology.”
“I doubt it. My uncle’s cattle-post is too westernized.”
Deirdre couldn’t help thinking the car stereo and beer cans were somehow chasing away the myths. She looked back through the glass. Despite the heat, Mildred and Brian had disappeared under a blanket.
God became afraid and asked help from a spider. The spider built a swift web. She built it higher and higher until god reached the clouds and took up residence there.
Kagiso pointed out a dilapidated grocery, well off the track, its Coca Cola and Rooibos adverts incongruously garish against the semi-desert landscape. There was no sign of either proprietor or customers. Soon afterwards, a jumble of ramshackle homesteads appeared on the right. Kagiso pipped the horn as he drew the bakkie to a halt outside the wire fence. A young barefooted boy ran elatedly and opened a contraption of bark strips and thorn branches which served as a gate.
An old woman came out of a hut and ululated when she saw the vehicle entering the compound. Two middle-aged men, who were sitting under a thatched shelter also stood up as the bakkie came to a halt. Deirdre stepped out of the cab with the feeling of anticipation and tension which she always experienced when she went to a village. Maurice, her PhD supervisor back at SOAS, always emphasized the importance of first impressions in field work.
She saw the old woman’s eyes looking at the back of the vehicle. To Deidre’s horror, she realised that Mildred and Brian were still under the blanket. Even the ever-cool Kagiso seemed embarrassed.
“Why didn’t you tell us we were nearly there?” Brian’s voice moaned.
The blanket seethed with bumps, the occasional limb protruding, as the couple got their clothes back on. Deirdre felt a flame of nausea rush from her solar plexus. She was angry that the lovers might have spoiled the planned story collection.
At last Mildred and Brian emerged, still adjusting zips and buckles. Looking half-guilty, half-defiant, they jumped down and the introductions could begin. In addition to Kagiso’s two uncles, and his step-grandmother, there were various cousins and step-cousins. This was not the main branch of Kagiso’s family.
Deirdre tried to make amends by being as polite as possible, gripping her right wrist with her left hand as she shook each person’s hand. But Brian went straight to the back of the vehicle to pull out the cooler box.
The children brought stools, benches, and old Chibuku crates for everyone to sit on. Despite the shade of the tree, the noon heat made Deirdre’s head throb. Brian pulled out some beers. Kagiso and Deirdre refused theirs. Mildred, ripping off her ring-pull, started to ask the older uncle about buying the goat. Kagiso had already sent word the previous week, so the subject wasn’t a surprise. Mildred needed the goat to make biltong as her contribution to a stokvel being organised at her sister’s house the following Friday.
When the fire burned itself out the whole world looked just like charcoal. The animals were very angry with man, and most of them declared him their enemy.
After agreeing on the price, the two uncles rose and stood aside to talk. The elder, Reuben, returned to the group, while the younger, Kelebogile, went outside the stockade to where the goats were grazing. Brian put an extension cable from the battery so the CD player could be brought outside. He put on a CD of Country and Western music. Deirdre complained about the disturbance to her anthropology work. Brian shrugged and switched it off. Reuben muttered to Kagiso who explained that Reuben and his mother liked the music. Brian triumphantly switched the CD back on.
Reuben went outside the stockade to look at the dappled, brown goat which a young boy was dragging with a twine halter. Mildred also rose, and Deirdre, not wishing to be left with Brian and Dolly Parton, followed. Mildred pretended to complain that the goat was too small, but finally accepted it. The goat was leaping, kicking, and bleating frantically, as if aware of its fate.
Mildred went across to Brian.
“Darling, don’t you want to see them kill the goat?”
“No, thanks. I don’t like blood.”
“But you like meat.”
“That comes from supermarkets, darling.”
“But they still kill the cows.”
“No,” Brian joked, “they buy it from a meat factory.”
Mildred went to the bakkie and took out her camera. Deirdre was dizzy with the sounds of the goat, but felt, as part of her induction into the culture, she ought to be there.
Reuben, with a self-important manner, collected his knife from one of the houses. Kagiso and Kelebogile dragged the struggling animal to a tree, where the boy had tied a rope from a branch. The tree, sand, hangman’s noose, and noon sun had all the simplicity of a nightmare ritual. Reuben’s knife flashed swiftly. A few drops of blood fell on the sand. Deirdre twisted her face away and held onto the tree. Dust on the floor of the Camden attic, where, at the age of twelve, she had been deflowered by her step-father, had also absorbed such slowly dripping blood.
When the forest began to grow again with the coming of the rains, man began to hunt the animals and, whenever the opportunity arose, the animals, in turn, attacked man.
The drops were followed by a stream, and the screams became a gurgle, then silence, though the kicking continued. Reuben made a neat aperture, so that the goat’s head fell half away from the body. Kelebogile tied one leg into the noose, and with Kagiso’s help they hoisted the carcass, so its head just cleared the ground.
Mildred stood next to the swaying goat and asked Deirdre to take her photograph. She must have realised that Deirdre was feeling unwell, because she quickly turned to Kagiso, who took the snap, while Mildred made a silly pose of triumph.
The boy collected a plastic bucket and Reuben made an incision in the goat’s belly. The entrails slithered out in a mass of black and yellow slime, the boy catching them in the bucket. Reuben began cutting away at the skin, starting with the legs. Kagiso held onto a corner, so that Reuben’s skilful knife could dislodge the pelt from the still quivering muscles.
Even before she fainted, Deirdre knew it was happening. She could feel her back go cold and her legs shivery. She was aware of the sand twisting from horizontal to vertical as she crashed down, but there was no pain – only darkness. It seemed a mere second, but must have been longer, because when she recovered she was lying on the mattress in the bakkie, and Kagiso was fanning her with a Bona magazine. Mildred brushed sand from Deirdre’s shoulder, and Brian was looking on with concern.
Deirdre could feel her heart beating wildly, and the claustrophobia of the Camden dust was still choking. She got up on one elbow, desperate to see the pure expanse of semi-desert. Kagiso propped her head on the blanket. Mildred gave him an already-opened can of Coke and Deirdre supped at it thankfully. As the palpitations went down, she felt well enough to step out of the bakkie. She sat on one of the stools under the tree.
She couldn’t help looking at the other tree, where the goat, now completely skinned, was being hacked down the spine into two pieces. Kagiso went to help his uncles. Mildred and the old woman talked in hushed tones about Deirdre’s swoon. Brian put on the reggae CD again.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
Man had to build villages protected by fences. Only a few animals such as dogs and goats remained loyal to man and stayed in the villages in fear of the wild animals.
Mildred got a couple of beers from the cooler for herself and Brian. She put her arms around his neck, and whispered into his ear. Brian went to the cab and fished out a gas container and cooker. Mildred found the frying pan, and took the chicken pieces and boerwors from the cooler box. She began cooking. Brian took out the bread and the plastic container of salad. Mildred left the cooking for a minute while she whispered to Brian again. They stole some kisses.
Brian went to the cab and took out a large bottle of Mainstay from behind the seat. Kagiso, who had returned from his goat duties, took the remaining beers and soft drinks out of the cooler and poured out the slush of icy water. Reuben and Kelebogile brought one half of the goat each, and they squeezed them into the cooler box. Kagiso put the remaining block of ice on top and replaced the cans of beer and softies. Mildred offered the Mainstay to the two men. They thanked her profusely and sent a girl to collect two plastic mugs.
Mildred offered soft drinks to the old woman and the children. Kagiso opened a beer for himself. The two uncles refused any mixer, preferring to drink the mainstay neat. Mildred asked Brian to look after the meat so she could dance to the reggae; she dropped her shoulders and the dreadlocks fell shaking over her face. Brian switched off the gas cooker and announced that the meat was ready. Mildred served up on plastic plates. Deirdre refused hers, but nibbled at some remaining peanuts, so that she shouldn’t seem to be excluding herself from the meal.
After they’d cleared up the food, and they were all into another round of drinks Kagiso brought up the topic of the old stories, explaining that Deirdre wanted to collect them for her research. The uncles, who had seemed so self-assured when working on the goat, were suddenly reduced to incoherence, as if the Mainstay had instantly taken away their dignity. They encouraged the old woman, into whose Coke they reluctantly allowed a tot of liquor, to think of stories, but she too seemed to have a total memory failure.
God was also angry with man and made him work hard cultivating the land for his living. Man had to pray to god so rain could fall and irrigate the fields.
Kagiso shrugged at Deirdre. She stood up and whispered in his ear.
“Don’t worry. I can see we’ll get nowhere. Let’s just leave it.”
“It seems a waste.”
“There’ll be other villages.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I think I want to go for a walk – before we have to set off.”
Kagiso stood up to accompany her. They went out of the stockade past some spinach being grown under a shelter of straw. The sun was getting low and a different young boy was whistling and cracking a whip to lead a large herd of cows back to the kraal.
Deirdre and Kagiso walked across the track and into the scrub, treading carefully to avoid large thorns. Kagiso held her hand. She looked at him, not sure whether he was doing it out of solicitation for her health, or to press the friendship towards romance. They stopped walking and she disengaged her hand. Kagiso finished his beer, and looked as though he was about to toss the empty can away, but changed his mind.
“I think I want to be alone, Kagiso.”
“Are you sure you are alright?”
“There aren’t any wild animals here are there?”
“I’m fine. I want to think.”
“Okay. I’ll check you after half an hour, if you don’t come back. We’ll want to leave then anyway.”
He started walking towards the houses. She turned and looked at his progress in time to see him drop the beer can in the sand. Deirdre walked further away from the homestead till it was a mere speck on the horizon. There were no cans or torn plastic bags, not even cow plats – only the sand, bird song, and thorn trees, their shadows lengthened by the late afternoon sun. On the far horizon, plumes of smoke arose from a bush fire.
From that time every year after harvest men and women burnt the fields in remembrance of the first conflagration and poured libations so god could forgive their sins.
She found a slightly bigger tree than the others and stood under its shade. There was a flat stone which she sat on. Deirdre could hear her heart still pounding. She leaned back till her hands took the weight of her body and her head hung loose. She looked at the pattern of white thorns, astonishingly brilliant and complex against the blue sky. The prickly earth felt warm and reassuring. For the first time since they’d left Gaborone, the stuffy feeling in her head was easing away. Even the birdsong began to fade, and the lulling silence was replaced by a low rumble. She closed her eyes and the ground trembled minutely. The rumbling got louder and she saw in her mind the lovely leaping herds of buffalo, kudu, wildebeest, impala and springbok, thundering closer. She stood up and walked calmly away from the homestead towards the approaching stampede.