I grew up deep in Canadian suburbia, sandwiched between the thick metropolis of Toronto and the rural farmlands. Burlington exemplifies any classic image of what a suburbia area should look like, with its mega malls and big box stores dominating all consumerism, a semi-successful attempt at downtown cultural development, distances between locations only traversable by car, ect.
One of the outcomes of such an attempt at big-city qualities in a smallish town is a disconnection of the residents from nature. Despite the heart of Ontario farming being only a short distance away, it would almost seem as though an early goal of the city’s development was to stamp out this agrarian heritage to make way for modernity. Hell, my house, with arguably is located in a rather posh neighborhood of the city, used to be situated right beside a peach tree field, but good luck finding any evidence of this now.
All of the these ramblings were really only created as my excuse to my friend, Davis, when I had to explain to him how it is that I am a 24 year old man and have never slaughtered a chicken. Yes, it’s true, I had been a virgin when it came to the killing of an animal. Despite the hundreds, if not thousands, or chickens and cows that I have consumed in my life up until now, I had never personally killed one of these delicious animals for personal consumption. My reality back in Canada was that in some far off place these animals were being processed and packaged, eventually to be shipped to my local grocery store where they would be lovingly placed in their Styrofoam tray and wrapped in cellophane to seal in the freshness. Hell, until yesterday I had never even held a chicken in my hands!
And then it was placed in my lap. Our other friend, Mr. Ben, had just arrived with that afternoons meal and, knowing that I was to slaughter it, handed it to me. I gripped the birds legs with my one hand and the bird sat calmly on my fist and wrist. I must say, it wasn’t at all as big or heavy as I had expected a chicken to be. They always seem like big powerful animals, but this one couldn’t have weighed more than 5 pounds. It was bony in feel, causing me to wonder where one might find the meat, and had a very warm temperature radiating from its body. The feathers were very soft and pleasant to the touch, despite their rather tattered and unkempt look about them. What I think was most fascinating about this bird was the look on its face. Ignoring how ugly this face looked, it had fascinating features to behold over its head, from its extremely fine feathers covering every inch to its funny shaped beak. And the eyes! The eyes had an amazing emptiness about them, making it seem as though the bird was looking at nothing but everything at the same time. It would dart its gaze from spot to spot, like a fleeting thought had crossed its mind only to leave in an instant.
Eventually Mr. Davis appeared with a rather crude looking knife and informed me that it was time to do the deed. As Davis explained, “It’s time for this bird to face the music.” We walked to the backyard, where to my left I could see a pot of water was boiling over a wooden fire on the ground underneath a roof of rusted tin sheeting. Davis took me over the nearby garbage immolation pile, where he found a flat open spot to place the bird. He explained that it is important to securely restrain the bird by placing one foot on its legs and the other on its opened wings. If you don’t do this, there is a very good chance that the bird will become frightened and attempt to escape, making the whole process much more difficult. He then clutched the beak in one hand and raised its head up, stretching and exposing its neck.
My job was simple: in a slow and smooth motion I was to cut through the neck. I remember being quite astounded at how calm this bird was as I approached it with the instrument of its demise. Davis explained that by restraining it like he was the bird becomes very submissive, almost as though it is accepting its inevitable slaughter. I leaned in and placed blade on the middle of its exposed neck. Slowly I pulled the blade back, making sure to apply pressure as I moved the sharp metal across its flesh. You can actually feel it as the skin is cut, as you sever the veins and arteries. It is subtle, but it’s almost as though it is one last unintentional act of defiance by this chicken.
It is important to make sure you completely sever the main arteries, as that will ensure a fast and relatively painless death for the bird. It was only at the moment of the cut that the bird finally made a motion of distress as the body began to twitch and spasm. There was still not a noise coming out of the bird, but somewhat violent jerking motions sent the now released head ragdolling around, spurting blood around the area. While the head was still attached to the body by the skin and some muscles, I could see that the spinal chord was now detached and was sticking out of the exposed neck, causing the head to flop around in a very loose manner. There was nothing for us executioners to do but to watch, to wait for death to slowly grip the animal, and sure enough the twitching became less and less violent, less and less spastic and in no more than 30 seconds after the curst cut the bird lay motionless on the ground.
The blood was still draining out of the bird, though not at all as much as I had expected, as Mr. Davis picked the bird back up by its legs and carried it over to the pot of boiling water. One must remove all of the feathers before they can prepare the bird, and the only way to do this is to boil it whole in order to soften up the feathers. As we removed the carcass from the water and started to pull away the soaked feathers, I was amazed at both how effortless this process was, as well as at how beautiful the color blue was at the base of each of the feathers. The three of us picked and pulled at the feathers until the decapitated fowl lay naked on the banana leaf it had been placed on, and the feathers were disposed of, having no use to us.
Now it was time to prepare the bird for cooking, and this was a job that for some reason was deemed to be the work of the woman. While there is no question that the young girl that was with us was very talented in the realm of culinary creations, I couldn’t help but taste a slight hint of misogyny in the way this had been said. Regardless, she stepped up to the naked bird lying before her, and with the same crude knife in hand she got to work unabashed.
The first step is to remove the lower half of the legs. This easily done by cutting at the knee joint, dislocating the bones and severing the tendons. Next, cut down the loose skin of the wings and remove both of them. After that you must make a slight incision on the chest and, using your hands, pull out the stomach. This will display what the chicken’s last meal was, though hopefully away from the rest of the bird. Next, with a little muscle you must cut through the rib cage and expose the insides. Using your hands again, you must cut and scoop out all of the gory innards and place the to the side. It is very important to be careful while doing this, as there is as the small green cylinder that is the gall bladder cannot be breached, or else the toxins inside will ruin the rest of the innards.
Now that the carcass has been cleared, take the knife and cut the body down the middle, separating it into two even halves. Once the body and innards have been cleaned up a bit, everything is thrown into the pot and our chicken friend is ready to be fried up, served with a heaping pile of Ugali and some Sukuma wiki. The head has also thrown into the pot as well, as no part of the bird is put to waste, but only after the beak has been pulled off. Fun fact: in order to ensure that there will be no fecal matter getting in your way as you dissect it is important to starve the bird for 24 hours before the slaughter, also ensuring that that bird has a particularly agonizing final time in its existence.
I found that the ease of everyone present in dealing with this gore and death was quite amazing. Nobody flinched at any part of the process; nobody had any qualms about getting their hands right into the gore. As I stood above the massacre happening before me, I noticed that the young 9 year old boy that was standing beside me had clutched in his hand the severed head. As he watched the innards being exposed to our eyes, he kept pulling at the exposed artery that was dangling from the neck. Everything about this event was not out of the ordinary for this child. Davis had previously explained to me that death, whether having to do with that day’s dinner or that of a family member, was a common occurrence, and thus there is a kind of cultural sensitization to it. Rather than being repulsed by the thought of holding a severed head, something that many Canadian adults would likely feel, this young child seemed to have a kind of curiosity about it all, poking and pulling at the death himself.
Some time later we had our dinner and it was absolutely delicious. While there wasn’t at all as much meat on this bird as you would find back in Canada, it had a texture and flavor about it that I had never experienced. We all hungrily consumed every morsel of food in front of us, and all left the house that day feeling satisfied and content.
As we were eating, Davis asked me if now that I had experienced this I would be interested in checking out the slaughterhouse for the cows and goats. Having a feeling that in regards to gore and slaughter I hadn’t seen nothing yet, I of course accepted.
Just another day in Kenya.