Birthday cake on the hoof

It was little Trina’s first birthday and her dad—a childhood friend of mine—decided to buy an ‘African cake” to celebrate the small milestone.

After jotting down a list of what he needed, we set off to the notorious Kiamaiko slum, east of Nairobi, to get the ‘cake”—a goat. Kiamaiko is not the kind of place most people would choose for a fun
outing, but the lure of their famed goat meat can be intoxicating.

It had rained the night before, but on the shopping day the sun was shining under the cover of some grey clouds. We found our guide, Abdi, waiting for us at the main junction that leads into the slum. You cannot go to the slum without a local to keep you from falling into the handsof muggers.

Abdi had once helped a friend of ours buy a goat there. After exchanging greetings, one in our group of five was left to watch over the car because the side mirrors, stereo and tyres have a ready market here.

As we trooped in I could sense that, despite its reputation as a finger smith’s paradise, business was brisk. Herds of goats headed deep into the bowels of the slum where the market lay in an open field with a slaughterhouse nearby. The smell of goat, meat and murky water was overpowering.

We walked through the narrow alleys, mud sticking to the soles of our shoes until they looked like platform shoes. Our route march was flanked on either side by the brickand-mud shack butcheries that dot the slum like the spots on a cheetah.

At times we had to stand still because more than 100 goats trotted past, either blocking the way or butting people from their path. The ungulates, which had travelled for more than 1 000km tightly packed in a lorry, looked happy to be walking again as they pranced around savouring sweet, if fleeting, freedom.

Abdi told us the main ‘ingredients” that make these goats tastier than the usual fare is the arid environment in north-eastern Kenya where they are fed salty grass. Apparently the 50°C of daily sunshine also helps to ‘marinate” their scorched flesh and make them soft.

Dodging the goats, we nearly got lost several times because Abdi trotted on briskly like a tracker on a scent. He sometimes took a sharp corner that left us wondering where he’d gone. There were other obstacles that slowed us down.

A car whose engine had died stopped in front of us in a narrow alley. 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 our shoes.

By the time we reached the field I felt as though we had walked several kilometres. It was 10am and there were many buyers.

Abdi looked around for a good goat within our budget (the equivalent of R300). 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 until I saw the men working at the slaughterhouse. 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 realise how fast they were when it took us more than an hour to skin the young goat we bought. As a rule, never pierce the skin. The leather can only be used or sold without knife marks. Back at the market, we were pressing flesh.

How do you know a goat has good meat?

First you hold its butt and feel the flesh there and then, in a motion that caresses and prods, slowly move the fingers up to the stomach and shoulders. If it’s lean you’ll feel the bones immediately.

We had to agree with Abdi after the ‘fat” goat we had our eyes on turned out to be bloated because of over-drinking after the long journey. After getting a rather ebullient female goat with a booty, we set off back the way we’d come.

And that’s when I realised how dependent the Kiamaiko economy is 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 R5 some women will wash the innards and meat. Then there’s a man who sells R2 plastic to wrap your meat.

Warning: never try to carry the meat on your own, there’s someone to do the job, it only costs R3. 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 R2 then paid another guy with 50 goats another R2 to let our goat join his herd. This is how it works. There is a leader goat that the 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 in the direction he wants it to go.

The others will always follow. This is the only permissible way 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 to make a living, and their services come cheap.

When we reached the exit junction, the herder went east, but we needed to head west. ‘Where’s our goat?” we wondered apprehensively.

Abdi saw it and made a crude mark on its back with charcoal. We headed off towards the car: as long as Abdi led the goat, no one had a problem.

Before we got into the car we had a bite of mutura, an African sausage. It’s made of well-cleaned goat intestines stuffed with mincemeat, then grilled. We gave Abdi a R15 tip and he also received a tip from the seller for bringing customers.

Arriving home we found little Trina at the gate. Her eyes popped when she saw the ‘monster” trotting behind her father on a rope, and ran away. Two hours later, guests were chomping on juicy ribs. Everyone agreed that the meat was tender and tasty.

Abdi’s number did the rounds when guests inquired where they could find good goat meat.

Little Trina—who owns a tooth or two—gnawed on a soft mutura, with focused attention. I turned to Trina’s dad, and told him it was the best ‘birthday cake” I’d ever eaten.

Munene Kilongi is a journalist with the Africa bureau of McClatchy Newspapers in Nairobi

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