Two years into slaughtering sheep and goats as his day job, Birhanu Taddesse is pretty confident he ranks among the best in his craft. When it comes to the speed, precision and quality of the service he delivers, Birhanu is quite confident with his skills. At 19 years of age, he shifted from being a shepherd to a butcher while delivering lambs to restaurants in Addis Abeba. Two years of experience have made him skilled enough to process a fairly large sheep in about twelve minutes, he boasts.
A common feature of major holidays in Ethiopia is the slaughter of animals in most households. Ethiopia is home to around 29 million sheep and 30 million goats. Most families, especially in urban settings, opt for the services of sheep/goat butchers, like Birhanu, on the eve of or on the actual date of the holiday. Butchers, especially on holidays, come in short supply, have some serious hygienic and ethical issues and are rumoured to cost hefty prices, according to customers.
Sintayehu Ejigu is a 49-year-old single father of two teenage boys. Slaughtering the sheep he buys for a holiday often becomes a huge issue, as butchers are in huge demand on those occasions. The biggest challenge he faces is in finding a competent butcher in the early hours of the morning of the holiday – the peak time for the practice.
With 18 years of experience in the business, Tagess Shomre agrees that they become men of the hour on the mornings of holidays. A veteran butcher at 48 years old, he usually spends a good portion of major holidays on the job away from his family. Owing largely to his long years in the job and his previous exposure to slaughtering animals in the countryside where he grew up, Tagess does not face any criticism on his skills.
Heagrees with Sintayehu, however, that some novice butchers get in trouble after taking on a job that they are not competent enough to handle. Tagess recalls various instances over his many years in the job where customers beat up or refuse to pay butchers for a job poorly done. In these cases, particularly with large animals, rookies usually end up contaminating the meat with hair or accidentally making a hole in its hide and skin. The customer usually ends up making the cuts of meat in these cases.
As ongoing health concerns surrounding the outbreak of acute watery diarrhoea (AWD), the hygiene of the butchers is also high on the agenda for many customers.
“As most butchers show up for work in clothing covered in animal bodily fluids, hygiene doesn’t seem to matter to them,” Sintayehu argues.
The city’s abattoirs keep insisting that all animal slaughtering should be done through its inspection or under its facilities, but people still heavily relay on the services of butchers.
Bahiru Elias, 33, once faced the wrath of an angry customer, who got mad at him for butchering his goat into bits and pieces in his early days while learning the practice. He recalls that if it wasn’t for the kindness of the customer’s wife – who was also kind enough to offer him the traditional drink, tella, a local brew – he would have been dealt with some serious punches and kicks. Bahiru is now well endowed with his skills and rarely disappoints customers. It only takes him a maximum of ten minutes to butcher a sheep and around 20 minutes to prepare a goat into prime cuts.
Showing up drunk or highly intoxicated with alcohol is not unusual for a butcher, especially on holidays, claims Sintayehu. In some cases, there are brothels that offer traditional alcoholic drinks to customers, who include butchers as their regulars. And with disposable cash in their hands during holidays, butchers tend to frequent these places and get a bit tipsy in between jobs.
“There are some who even cut their own fingers while working,” Tagess claims. “This is in addition to the damage they cause to the meat cuts and also the animals’ skins and hides.”
Some butchers are also accused of ethical misconducts, particularly with theft. Butchers are infamous for stealing knife sharpeners from the homes of their clienteles, Tagess stated.
“I’ve become accustomed to angry customers complaining about a stolen knife sharpener,” he added.
Robel Besifat, a 25-year-old lamb and goat trader, agreed.
“With some customers giving less attention to the slaughtering process, it is likely that the butcher may take advantage of the situation to pick a few things here and there,” he said.
He has been in the trade for the past year. Over the year, he has heard all kinds of theft cases – from people stealing a piece of meat, to household utensils.
The current market looks good so far, with most of their stock of animals brought from Debre Birhan and its environs, according to Robel. The supply of goats, mostly from Harar, is also smooth he added.
“The average price of sheep was 2,500Br, while a large goat could fetch as much as 4,000 Br,” he claimed.
An official from the Addis Abeba Trade Bureau stated a slightly lower price range for the animals.
Though butchers may be accused of these shortcomings, there is no doubt they serve a critical service on important cultural and religious dates. In addition to actually slaughtering the animal, they also take part in the trade, according to Robel, who was displaying his goods to customers around CMC Square. Most butchers participate in making the sale of the animal before securing their real job, he stated.
This added diversification of their role increases their income, Bahiru told Fortune. Not that they were in desperation when it comes to the amount of money they charge for a single service. Sintayehu is quite dismayed at the rate at which the price of butchers is rising.
“I charge as much as 500Br to slaughter a goat,” said Birhanu, quite contentedly.
This is on top of the hide he takes with him to sell.
“Butchering lambs is not as difficult as a goat, so we charge between 350 and 400Br on a holiday,” said Bahiru.
On any given day, the price for lamb is between 150 and 250Br.
“Pricing all depends on the customer,” Tagess claims. “It all rests on the person’s general mood and being into the holiday spirit of sharing and giving when it comes to pricing and tips.”
Most butchers argue that it is quite a hustle to do the job and actually make a living out of it. Despite its difficulties, however, the job does have its funny moments. Birhanu once temporarily lost a lamb on the road while making his way to the customer’s house. The incident lasted for several minutes, with him chasing the disoriented lamb, dodging incoming traffic and risking his life in the process. The panicked lamb and butcher finally calmed down, as the former felt he had found refuge in a vegetable shop where he was ushered into the hands of Birhanu.
Bahiru is also familiar with similar funny stories that come with the job, but he says nothing tops what happened to one of his friends. A customer once bought a lamb and took it home along with the butcher. Once there, the customer went inside to change his clothes, so that it would not be spoiled. But taking the customer’s absence as the ‘go ahead and do your thing’, the butcher slaughtered the animal. It so happened that the customer was a Muslim and the butcher was a deacon from the Orthodox Church. Having realised this, the customer had no choice but to buy another animal, Bahiru said, as he smiled from recalling the event that left his friend awarded with a whole lamb.
Tagess also remembers once when a customer insisted on making the first incision to kill the animal, but did a very bad job of it. The animal, suffering some cuts to its throat, managed to break loose and spread its blood all over the place. By the time it lost mobility, the whole place was painted red with blood and the family incurred an extra chore of cleaning the compound.
Almost no one remembers the butchers once they have come and done their job, unless they have seriously messed up the meat. But they are an integral part of the holiday festivity, with adolescent boys trying out their negotiation skills in setting the price of the service and the selling of skins and hides. Holidays bring a combined opportunity for butchers to make some quick bucks in a rather non-festive manner, but also the spirit to celebrate the festivities with their loved ones.
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