It was little Trina’s first birthday and the dad, a childhood friend, decided on this big day to buy an ‘African cake’ to celebrate the small milestone.
After jotting down a list on what he needed to buy we set off to the notorious Kiamaiko slum to get the ‘cake’ – a goat.
Kiamaiko is not the kind of place you may want to venture into but the allure of their famed goat meat can be intoxicating.
It had rained the night before, but on this day the sun was shining under the cover of some gray clouds. We found Abdi waiting at the main junction that leads to the slum. Abdi was going to be our guide and adviser; he’d helped a friend buy a goat there some seasons back.
After greetings, one in our group of five was left to watch over our car because … the side mirrors, stereo and car tires have a ready market here.
As we trooped in, I could sense that despite its reputation as a finger-smiths paradise, business was brisk. Herds of goats moved in groups heading deep into the bowels of the slum where the market lay on an open field with a slaughter house nearby.
An overpowering smell of goat, goat meat and murky waters wafted in the air. But time and again a swirl of pristine air, which acted as an air freshener, came as a relief.
We walked on the narrow alleys, squelchy mud sticking tight on our shoes till they looked like platform shoes. On either of our sides were tens of corrugated iron sheets, brick-and-mud-shack butcheries that dotted the area like the spots of a cheetah.
Small kids happily played football in the muddy puddles as hundreds of goats passed on either side of us.At times we had to stand still as more than a hundred goats scurried past either blocking the way or pushing people from their path. The ungulates that had traveled for more than 1,000 kilometers tightly packed in a lorry, looked happy to be finally walking again as they pranced around savoring sweet freedom.
Abdi told us that the main ingredients that make these goats tastier than the usual fare was; the arid environment in northeastern Kenya where they are brought up eating salty grass, and their ‘marinated’ flesh that is scorched by 50 degree sunshine daily makes them soft.
As we moved between them we nearly got lost several times as Abdi trudged on briskly like a tracker on a scent, sometimes taking a sharp corner that left us wondering where he’d gone. A car popped in front of us in a narrow alley as its engine died. Then a stubborn herd of goats blocked our right of way as they came between us and the car. We stood still as they passed, their small hard hooves trampling hard on our shoes.
By the time we reached the field I felt like we had walked several kilometers. It was 10 O’clock in the morning and their were many buyers. Abdi looked around the market for a good goat worth R300. His eyes etched in a look of concentration that comes with experience. We had already seen what we wanted but Abdi pointed us towards two goats in a different herd that we could not even see well.
We had to trust him; the guy had already slaughtered and skinned 30 goats by the time we met him. I’d thought it was a joke till I saw the men working at the slaughter house. A goat is slaughtered in seconds and skinned in 10 minutes flat. They removed the skin so fast; it was like undressing a child.
Later I came to realize how fast they were when it took us more than an hour to skin the young goat we bought. As a rule – which slowed us during skinning — never make a piercing on the skin. The leather can only be used or sold without knife marks.
Back to the market. How do you know a goat has good meat? First you hold the goat’s butt and feel the flesh there and then in a motion that caresses and prods, slowly move the fingers up to the stomach then shoulders. If it’s lean you’ll feel the bones immediately.
We had to agree with Abdi after the ‘fat’ goat we wanted turned out to be bloated due to over-drinking after the long journey. After getting a rather ebullient female goat with a booty, we set off back.
And that’s when I came to learn how much the Kiamaiko economy is dependent on goats. It even has some unwritten jungle rules if you try to bypass the economy at any stage. If you want your goat slaughtered you pay a small fee and the guys do it pretty fast. Then for 50 bob some women will wash the innards and meat for you. Then there’s a man who sells Kshs 20 plastic paper to wrap your meat.
Warning: never try to carry the meat on your own, there’s someone to do the job. It only costs 30 bob. And if you decide to carry your meat you will be mugged in broad daylight. That’s the unwritten jungle rule.
We bought a rope for 20 then paid another guy with like 50 goats 20 to let our goat join his herd. This is how it works. There is a leader goat which others follow, it knows the route up to the entrance of the slum, if it misses a corner the herder holds it by the tail and it turns the direction he wants it to. The others will always follow. This is the only way allowed to transport a live goat.
A leader goat is never sold until another leader goat arrives and masters the same route. Even with a live goat, if you bypass the economy, you get robbed. This system helps the jobless youth make a living, and their services come cheap.
We reach a junction and the herder goes east and we are heading west. ‘Where’s our goat?’ We look in apprehension, Abdi sees it, and he makes a mark on its back using charcoal. We head off towards the car, as long as it is Abdi leading the goat, no one has a problem.
Before we enter the car we have a bite of mutura, an African sausage. It’s made of well-cleaned goat intestines stuffed with mince meat, then grilled. Then we give Abdi a 150 tip, he’s also going to get a tip from the seller for bringing customers.
When we arrive home we find little Trina at the gate. She leans her head forward, her eyes popping out as she looks at the ‘monster’ trotting behind a rope, and turns to run away.
Two hours later, guests are chomping on some juicy ribs. Everyone agrees the meat is tender and tasty. Abdi’s number does the rounds as some guests enquire where they can find good goat meat.
Little Trina, who owns a tooth or two gnaws on a soft mutura, all her attention focused on it. I turn to Trina’s dad, and tell him this is the best ‘birthday cake’ I’ve ever eaten.
© Munene Kilongi 2009
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