I walk as though to my own execution, upstairs two flights, down a corridor and outside, blinking into the sharp dawn sun.
I step onto a triangular balcony. There’s a big satellite dish, some storage boxes and jerry-cans arrayed along a wall, a neat row of curved knives on the concrete floor. In the center, standing amidst their pellets: the three unwitting ungulates which have just spent their last night on earth under a maudlin, smog-infested sky. A pall to match my foreboding mood.
“Ah, you decided to join,” exclaims Habte, smiling broadly. “Come, we are about to begin.”
It’s Fasika, Easter Day, in the Bole district of Addis Ababa.
For the last two weeks, dwindling flocks of sheep have occupied every corner of Ethiopia’s capital city. After a connoisseurial search, we purchased ours yesterday from a dusty crossroads in Debra Zeit: 1,000 birr — “best price!” — for three lambs (let’s call them Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner), subsequently steered wheelbarrow-fashion into the trunk of Habte’s Peugeot 405.
Part of me would love to have sidestepped this moment. But I have lived here through the build-up, and sensed the increasing tedium with the relentless vegetarian diet that marks Ethiopian Lent. Over 56 days, watching my friends forsake all lamb and beef, chicken and goat, I’ve felt the anticipation build.
Now, as a murmur of Ge-ez chants emanates from the Bole Cathedral down the road, I owe it to my hosts — and to my decades of carnivorous living — to repay their hospitality with participation, however hesitant. In this most devoutly Christian country, where food is sacred and, notoriously, not always abundant, this is how they choose to give thanks: a lamb’s sacrifice to break the Lenten fast.
And so the people I have been living with for the last month turn butcher. One of the trio is chosen — a yearling with black hide and large liquid eyes — and flipped onto its side.
Muguleta grasps the nose, Habte the legs. At their cajoling, I skitter over and place tremulous, non-committal finger-tips on the creature’s rib-cage. Destaw, formerly a Deacon at the sunken crucifix of Beta Giorgis, most famous of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, wields the knife.
“In the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit,” Destaw intones, in English presumably for my benefit. A hissing noise; the body beneath my palm flexes; impossible to look away…
The knife’s flurry continues until the head is nearly severed. Blood spurts out in ponderous incarnadine sprays, spreading over the concrete like a Hitchcock cutaway. I watch the light go out of its eyes, which fade to opaque jade marbles. The limbs tremble, go rigid, the final desperate paroxysms of life.
Her fellow condemned, Lunch and Dinner, look on in baleful silence.
The butchery begins immediately. The carcass is skinned and eviscerated, the innards spilling out like blancmange, then hung on a wooden ladder. The fleece is wrenched back in a nacre curtain, and piled in a glossy heap next to the head on the floor.
“This is strange for you, yes?” — Habte’s attempt to understand. Our friendship is one of those based on mutual curiosity — forged during endless conversations about the differences and similarities between our disparate worlds. He knows about my reluctance, but this morning the empathy-gap yawns cavernous, a Great Rift Valley of incomprehension. For me this is a trauma; for him, an annual rite from earliest childhood.
Is it strange? “A little.”
“You don’t do this in England?”
“Maybe once we did, but not now.”
“So you buy the sheep and give them to a butcher?”
“Never,” I confess. I explain our different way; tell him about bolt-guns and abattoirs, about identical cuts in plastic packets stacked up on supermarket shelves.
Habte looks up from his blood-soaked blade, incredulous. “That’s so cruel! You do not have respect for your food.” I find it hard to argue with this sentiment.
He thinks for a moment. “So what do you eat to celebrate Easter?”
“We just have chocolate eggs.”
“Eggs!?” He laughs, shakes his head, and goes on cutting.
The butchery is efficient. Within twenty minutes, little Breakfast has been transformed into joints and chops. One of the haunches is still twitching when cleaved away from the body.
The meat is slopped into an orange bucket, and handed to Goldie, Habte’s teenage sister, who will start cooking the meal to break the fast. Up and down Ethiopia, families are doing just this. Two months of privation has just culminated in a fountain of blood-letting throughout the country. By tomorrow, hillocks of empty fleeces will have piled up on central reservations all over Addis, half-chewed skulls stripped by the dogs.
But first an aperitif. Habte, in his capacity of host, insists on bestowing me with a dubious honor. “This was my favorite when I was young. I used to eat it on my father’s knee.”
Pinched between his thumb and forefinger is a kidney, tumescently purple and still warm.
“Like this.” He indicates that I should dip it in a saucer of berbere, a chilli powder confection.
I do so readily, hoping that the chillies will mask the flavor of fresh offal, and take a frantic bite. It tastes bland, faintly metallic, but the texture makes me want to gag. This has gone beyond cultural exchange, and become an initiation.
Yet I smile, say “I’m honored.”
“Take some more…”
The chants of the faithful hum in the distance. The smell of Goldie’s cooking creeps up the stairwell. This is how they do Easter Sunday in Ethiopia.