When the South African politician and anti-Apartheid activist Tony Yengeni’s family engaged in ritual slaughtering for a traditional cleansing ceremony it sparked a lot of controversy concerning animal rights and cultural practices.
The practice of ritual slaughter originates surprisingly from Greece. Certain gods were offered sacrifices in the form of animal sacrifices for the purpose of appeasing those gods seeking counsel and blessings. The practice made its way to Rome and was further evidenced in the Bible by the children of Israel.
In today’s context, ritual slaughter has remained dominant in African cultures all over the continent. It has become a large part of cultural identity and participation. What do you say to a community of people whose culture is deeply rooted and defined by their acknowledgement of the ‘spiritual’ world (spiritual world in this context denoting ancestral world) through the ritual slaughter of animals? An African doctrine states that an offering cannot be found acceptable when the offering is not recognized as sacrificial by the ancestor.
The Changing Role of Meat in African Life
The spilling of blood is seen as the offering of one life for another, as life is understood to be contained in blood. When an animal was offered for sacrifice it was previously practice that an experienced elder person or family representative perform or carry out the ritual slaughter. This meant that the animal was treated as sensitively as possible under the fatal circumstances. Respecting the animal was seen as respecting the ancestor.
Animals then were only slaughtered for life-size celebrations such as weddings, the birth of a son and of course to make an offering to the ancestors. Meat was consumed mostly during those occasions and without those celebrations the family survived through subsistence organic farming. The diet mainly consisted of milk, mealie meal, vegetables, beans and grains.
When commercialisation and industrialization set the tone of rapid development in Africa, a trend began that shifted consumption patterns and dietary standards of people. The irony is that cattle owners continued keeping their animals for farming and ritual slaughter and not for normal everyday consumption, even when their diet transitioned to a more meat based diet. The additional meat was sourced from ranchers that used growth hormones and other chemicals, inorganic animal foods, cruel methods of slaughter and unlawful disposal of industrial effluent.
Over the years the debate has shifted away from the justifiability of ritual slaughtering to the method of slaughter of animals in such a way that the animal does not suffer. So the focus shifts to the treatment of the animal before and during the ritual slaughtering. No amount of protesting will stop or limit the number of slaughters so long as the ritual is regarded as part of cultural identification and forms part of the moral defence of traditional practice on cultural grounds.
The Alternatives to Animal Sacrifices
Ritual slaughtering still remains a reflection of what people believe and how they practice those beliefs. In the Bible the first sacrifices were of animal and of fruits and vegetables. Sacrifices were not one dimensional. They didn’t have to necessarily come in the form of slaughter.
Connecting to the spiritual or ancestral world has various modes. South African born internationally acclaimed jazz artist Bheki Khoza and his wife have been vegan for the past 10 years and had a wedding feast, disregarding of their Zulu roots which required them to slaughter cattle. 40 years ago a group of African Hebrew descendents formed a community that forbade ritual slaughters that had formed part of their culture since the days of their great inaugural ancestor, Abraham. The community decided to offer themselves as sacrifices instead of animal offerings. By offering themselves they cleansed themselves and atoned for their transgressions and formed a new agreement.
There is something to be learnt here and that is when we open ourselves to new experiences, new lessons and we internalise them we are actually taking in those lessons and those experiences to the ancestors we honour. While it may be true, in African belief, that sacrifices must to be given in a form that is acceptable and understood by our ancestors, it’s also true that as we take ancestors with us on our life’s journey and we gain knowledge and new methods, so do our ancestors; because death is not a predisposition to obtaining supernatural wisdom in the afterlife.