The Goat That Told Our Fortune

Ethiopia Travel Blog

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I don’t believe in reincarnation--"but I do know where I lived my past lives. Don’t we all? At least one of mine had to be in Africa, even then an exotic land where flamboyant sunsets ticked off uneventful days of serenity, month after month, year after year; where my world was an uncomplicated ten-mile radius that didn’t require many decisions of consequence; where I often met with a couple of friends to manage the noontime heat and a few goats from under the shade of a lone acacia tree. I can see our bodies silhouetted against the red clay earth.

Scenes of that uncertain century played in my head as our Amharic-speaking driver turned his Land Rover and its light cargo of tourists onto Ethiopia’s only major highway south out of Addis Ababa, a two-laner constructed of potholes. Once south, we traded this highway for a variety of venues such as empty riverbeds and grassy fields showing no discernible tracks, which we euphemistically called “roads.” We sometimes traveled in temperatures higher than a hundred degrees while battling tsetse flies that flew alongside our car just above the four-foot-tall grass that scraped our windows. These hornet-sized pests flew not in a buzzing swarm but in straight lines like tiny Air Force escorts. Would we keep the windows open to mitigate the heat, or close them against the flies whose bite is “like a red hot needle” and carries Sleeping Sickness? (Snore.) Eventually we got within a stone’s throw of the Kenyan border as we circled through the bush, the savannas and the mountains, visiting some of the most colorful and friendly people in the world. Modern civilization has barely begun to arrive in some of these areas where animal skins are still worn for clothing and the sound of a motor vehicle is rare enough for children and adults to come running. There are no stores, streets, gas stations, plumbing or electricity. No hotels, no houses, just round huts of mud and sticks. Here we camp out, in a place where, after our lunch, an empty soup can makes a welcome gift.

This kind of travel can be fraught with anxiety. Would we have car problems where there are no mechanics? Would there be any accidents? Rain? Sickness? Fortunately we were among people who can know these sorts of things about the future by reading the intestines of a goat. The tribal elders in a village near Dimaka were happy to determine for us what was in store, hopefully with answers that would put our minds at ease. That meant one unlucky goat.

I had never thought of an animal as looking “innocent,” but this one looked sad and very much guiltless as it waited patiently for the one who would determine its last breath. I considered petting it goodbye. Just as it is with people, I thought, one moment you're alive, the next you're not. And like this goat, we can be totally unaware of the impending doom. Had this poor thing but an inkling, it might have taken in its last breaths of African air with great deliberation. It might have relished those last moments of warmth from the sun on its back, or savored the final beauty of the pastures it grazed and the mountains it was never allowed to wander off to. It might have sought solace from the young boys who named it and cared for it.

A young man with corn rows trailing into braids, and wearing his wrap like a long skirt combined with a Western-style pull-over sharpened his knife on a rock. “Can’t you sharpen it just a little bit longer?” I mentally implored on behalf of the goat. I thought of the lyrics in that old Frank Sinatra song: “Give me five minutes more, only five minutes more. Let me stay … five minutes more.” I think the sentiment would have worked for the goat.

First the knife was used to saw through the twine that tethered the goat to a tree. Then its cutting edge was turned toward the throat while an accomplice, using a single hand, clamped the goat’s mouth shut and pinched its nostrils closed to lessen the bleating, if not the bleeding. I noticed one of the younger boys among the onlookers giggling at the six wincing Americans as I clenched my own throat.

Moments later the animal hung from a tree by its hind legs, its skin on the ground. Young men placed its intestines on the skin, wrapped it up and carried it to the elders for examination. The old men pushed and poked authoritatively with their bare hands, lifting, turning and studying the sticky mess until our future was divined. Onlookers seemed pleased: during the rest of our trip no one would fall ill, there would be no accident, it wouldn’t rain and the roads, where there were any, would be good. The chief elder gathered up the corners of the skin, tied the hooves together to form a handle and carried away the remains like a purse. It was over. Done. A wrap. The goat was dead, but we knew what to expect tomorrow.

Next day, after the rain stopped, we discovered why the village elders had wished us no rain and good roads. Without gravel on them, the slightest rain can turn road surfaces into grease. One of our four-wheel-drive vehicles got hopelessly stuck at the bottom of a hill until a car carrying Italian tourists appeared--"a miracle, given the sparsity of visitors to this part of the world. They had a rope long enough to pull our vehicle, from atop the hill, up the incline.

The slaughter of an animal in service to dubious fortune telling is not the cruel waste it may seem. The villagers use the animal’s hide for clothing and the meat for food. They are quite reverent in their appreciation of the animals that sustain them; every cow and every goat is named, and each knows and responds to its own name. Our guide had purchased my little goat friend of short acquaintance before it was slaughtered. For our dinner that night, our excellent cook, Fakada, prepared it in a huge stainless steel pressure cooker set on three stones over a small wood fire. We sat under the stars around our long portable camping table with somber faces as we ate the poor thing in silence, remembering it had been killed so that our future could be told. Each of us knew what the others were thinking, although no one would speak it aloud: that darn meat was really tough! We could hardly chew it. (All the other goat dishes we’d had on the trip were excellent.)

Finally someone spoke. “I think that little goat got the last laugh.”

Everyone roared, ordinary conversation ensued and references to the goat’s last laugh were heard throughout the rest of the trip.

Copyright © 1998 by Larry Hallock

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