Beef cattle are a huge part of Botswana culture and economy.
Beef is the number two export for Botswana, second only to Diamonds. Raising cattle is one of the most certain ways of making money in Botswana.
If you want to marry a woman from Botswana you first have to negotiate Lobola with your fiancé’s parents. Lobola is the payment which is given to the bride’s family for the privilege of marrying her. The going rate is eight to ten cows. The ceremony where Lobola is paid is carried out at the Kgotla, always on a Thursday. The Kgotla conveniently has a corral adjacent to it to hold cattle. The marriage is officiated at a church two days later on Saturday. You can be legally married without paying Lobola , but the community won’t accept the marriage as real unless this is carried out.
For the record, if Tish’s mom had asked me for 10 cows for Tish’s hand in marriage, I would have gladly paid it.
If you are born in Botswana, you can apply to the land office for land on which to raise your cattle, and it will be given to you. The country is the size of Texas and there are less than two million inhabitants, so they have plenty of land to give out. If a Motswana (a citizen of Botswana) has enough money to buy a cow and a bull, and money to drill a borehole so the land will have a water producing well, he can get the land and give it a go.
Maatla, the son of our host mother, raises cattle. He also butchers and sells the meat to over 32 government institutions, schools, hospitals and the like. He tells us that every month he sells meat worth about P850,000 ($1 ≈ P6.15). That is a lot of Pula, and that is a lot of dead cows. Maatla slaughters the cows for his business right on the property where we are living. This usually happens when we are off at training, but on Sunday morning Tebogo told us that they would be slaughtering cows if we wanted to watch, which we did.
Up until now, if I wanted a steak, I would go to Kroger or Publix and select a rib-eye or filet mignon cut. It is usually all wrapped up in plastic, clean and fresh. Americans know intellectually that the meat we eat comes from cows, but we are so far removed from this process that we scarcely think about it. I am no longer far removed from the process — they are slaughtered about 200 feet from where we sleep.
So Maatla came by and got us and we walked out the front gate, and turned right and he said the cattle were in the corral. I had noticed a pretty wall with decorative stonework next to the gate, but had never bothered to look over the wall; if I had I would have seen that that was the corral. Inside there were about 12 cows that had no idea what was about to happen to them.
He took us around to the other side of the corral and we climbed on some large rocks and then on to the wall and watched. Maatla took a shotgun, loaded it, and walked a few steps closer to the cattle which were bunched up near the gate. He took aim at one cow in the bunch and, BLAM; the noise startled me even though I was expecting it. One cow in the middle dropped while the rest, startled, ran to the other side of the corral.
What happened in the next hour was routine for Maatla’s employees, and educational for us albeit a bit gruesome. They dragged the dead cow over to the slaughterhouse where four men dressed in white butchered the cow with quiet efficiency. The blood was drained, the tongue was cut out, the skin removed, all four hooves removed, then it was raised up by a hoist and the cow was opened up and the organs removed. As we were leaving one man was cleaning out the intestines at a sink, and another was about to start in on the cow with a saw.
It turns out that in Botswana, every part of the cow is eaten by someone… the stomach, intestines, hooves, every part… none goes to waste. Even the skin is sold to someone who will make leather products.
We walked over to Maatla’s shop next and he showed us the freezer he uses to store the meat. There were many huge slabs of meat hung up. In another room there was a band saw where one of his employees was cutting the frozen slabs of meat into cuts of meat that would be sent out to his customers. Maatla showed us the refrigerated truck he uses to make his deliveries also. So we have now seen the whole process from a cow in the corral through to separate cuts of meat.
I thought I would see a lot of interesting things in Africa, but had no idea I would learn about butchering cows. It only makes sense that we would learn a lot about cows since they are such a big part of the culture.
In Setswana the word for cow is Kgomo. Beef is called “Nama ya kgomo” (meat from cow). I still can’t wait to have a good old fashioned American hamburger again.