(Apologies in advance for the volume of emails, today and tomorrow–I’m trying to get the Akha trip written up before I leave for India, and I’ve only got a day and a half. I’m going to try getting the Akha photos up on the website, too–probably tomorrow.) ———————————- Sometime in the afternoon, I asked how often the Akha killed pigs. Being a city girl, I am of course fascinated by livestock…after four months in Asia, the novelty of chickens and pigs is starting to wear off, but I’d never seen a pig slaughtered before, and I mentioned that.
As it turned out, they were slaughtering a pig that day! Asaw asked when, and they said, “Right now!” So, we ran off to see.
On the way, Asaw explained to me that this wasn’t a normal slaughtering, but a ritual requirement. This pig had had a very small litter–only two piglets–and they both died. This made it a “bad-luck” pig, which had to be killed immediately and the meat distributed through the village. It also meant that the animal had to be killed outside the village gates, up on the hill used for such sacrifices.
(Akha villages, by the way, have gates that they take very seriously. The legend is that once upon a time, spirits and humans lived together. Then they quarreled, and the gods decided that they should live in different places. The village gates delineate the boundaries of the humans’ place (the village) and the spirits’ place (the jungle). They’re ceremonially rebuilt once a year–the old gateposts are left up, so you can get a rough estimate of the age of the village by the number of old gateposts lined up before the current one. It is taboo for tourists to touch the gates, and if you do, they have to hold a purification ceremony–so I didn’t.)
I asked Asaw to explain what made a pig a bad pig, and he explained that each animal had different standards. If a chicken, pig, or dog had a small litter (1-2 babies), that was a “bad-luck” animal, and it had to be killed on the first good day, and the meat distributed to everyone unrelated to the owner. (For example, Ahta, the Akha wisewoman teaching me spinning and weaving, was related to the owner, so wasn’t eligible. Asaw and I weren’t, so we got some.) A pig/dog who had its entire litter die also had to be killed, but that wasn’t so bad–the owner could sell its meat at half-price.
Similarly, a pig that gives birth in the village, a dog that gives birth in the forest, or a cow that has twins (twins are considered very bad luck among the Akha), all are unclean and must be slaughtered and the meat distributed. Finally, a cow, dog, or pig that gets up onto the roof has been possessed by spirits, and must be killed.
You heard me. A cow on the roof.
This is a neat trick, since Akha roofs start four or five feet off the ground. I could see a dog doing it, if it got a running jump, or a pig (they’re very bright), but a cow??
No one had ever seen it, but apparently the elders assure them that it can and does happen. Apparently the possessing spirit enables the cow to walk around on the roof, but as soon as you see it, the spirit can’t keep the cow up anymore and it comes crashing through your roof. 🙂 Since a possessed cow is major bad news (anyone who’s seen “Christine” can testify to the evils of possessed livestock/autos), it has to be slaughtered.
(If you are looking at this set of rituals and beliefs and thinking “How quaint,” you have obviously never been to a corporate team bonding event, or in fact to a corporate meeting. Any culture that comes up with falling out of trees as a “trust-building exercise” is not exactly in a position to throw stones; I suspect the Akha would crack up immediately if they ever saw the elaborate rites around a corporate meeting. ‘Nuff said. 😉 )
So anyway, this pig had had a litter of only one or two, *and* the babies had died, so it was being slaughtered. I ran up the hill.
The slaughter itself was done in two steps. Normally the throat is cut, but for unclean animals, an incision is made over the heart first. At least, I *think* it was the heart–four or five guys held down the pig (one held its mouth shut), and a man with a machete made an incision partway down the chest. I could see something beating rhythmically, briefly–then they shifted and started sawing at the throat of the pig. (They didn’t stab it in the heart; it was more of a crosswise slice.)
The pig, needless to say, was not happy about any of this and was uttering awful squeals. Oddly, I didn’t find any of it particularly hard to watch–perhaps because I was in journalist mode, trying to record what was going on. The photos are pretty difficult, though–I don’t think I’ll put them up, if you’re interested I’ll email them.
It took a surprisingly long time to saw through the throat of the pig–they kept going through layers of muscle as the pig snorted and squealed–but finally they got through the windpipe, and almost immediately after, they hit a major artery/vein. Suddenly, blood was everywhere. It flooded up out of the throat–the pig gave one or two twitches, then lay still–and into a bowl that a man was holding ready. They drained a surprising amount of blood out of the pig: well over a quart!
After the blood stopped flowing, they turned the pig upside down and carved off the belly skin, exposing the abdomen. They then started pulling out the internal organs, putting them on a banana leaf.
I hadn’t realized this, but the abdominal organs are enclosed in a sheath of connective tissue–so they were easy to pull away cleanly, just tug on the connective tissue. Pulling out the intestines was kind of gross, as they were still attached at one end–the less said about that, the better.
After that, they split up into two groups–one cleaned the internal organs, and one went off with the rest of the pig. I followed the men with the pig (all the slaughterers were male), to where a fire was burning.
They flung the pig on the fire–Asaw explained that this was to remove the hair. After one side was singed, they flipped it over, and started scraping at the carcass with knives and sticks. They flipped and scraped it until the outside was burnt, and not a trace of hair remained. (Which is important, because their pigs are *really* hairy.)
Meanwhile, the other group cleaned out the internal organs, cutting apart the liver, washing out the stomach, and snipping the intestines into tiny bits. This was kind of gross since the undigested contents were still in it (I don’t know what happened to the large intestine, and didn’t ask–some things you don’t want to know!). But, they washed the whole thing out thoroughly, and cut each organ into thirteen pieces, one for each family receiving part of the pig.
(There’s nothing particularly significant about the number thirteen–it could be more or less, depending on the number of recipients–i.e., village families unrelated to the owner.)
I asked if *everything* got cut into thirteen pieces, or if they just weighed it out and approximated–but no, every organ and most of the identifiable muscle meats get hacked into thirteen pieces, so each villager gets a totally equal share of the pig. The only exceptions are the head and feet, which go to the men helping butcher, and the brain and tongue, which (for unclean pigs) must be eaten by old men whose wives are past childbearing.
They brought back the main carcass and hacked it into bits, which they strung on bits of bamboo, skewered on sticks, or put in plastic bags to give to the families, and that was that–a very quick process, maybe forty minutes from live pig to fully distributed pork bits. I was quite astonished.
Oddly enough, it didn’t affect my appetite at all. I had kind of expected the whole thing to be grosser.
On the way back, we saw fires burning outside in the yard of a number of houses, which is unusual–normally they’re inside, in the kitchen area. I asked Asaw, and he said that unclean animals have to be cooked outside and eaten outside–and the utensils used must be left outside overnight as well. Quite serious, here.
We got invited to dinner with the (former) headman, to eat our share of the pig (Ahta, the woman I was staying with, was related to the owner, so she couldn’t get any). He was a really neat guy–he had been headman for four years, but decided it was a major headache, so gave up the position. We ate the pig as larb, which cooked Akha style is a bunch of coarsely chopped bits cooked and mixed with spices, eaten over rice. I’m not overly fond of Akha-style larb (especially since the first thing I got was a chunk of liver), but since the entire pig had to be eaten that day (leftovers had to be discarded), I ate my share. It tasted, well, like pig. 🙂
After dinner, we drank some herbal medicine “to ward off the effects of the bad pig”–this wasn’t an Akha tradition, but a Chinese herbal medicine that the headman’s father/grandfather had bought from a Chinese guy for five silver coins, several decades ago. It’s good for settling the stomach, a good idea when eating an unclean animal. It tasted very nice (which is unusual for Chinese herbal medicines)–like licorice tea.
That was more or less it for the evening; we went back down to DAPA, where I spent the evening. (No hot showers, however. *sigh*)
The following day, I started learning weaving and spinning, but I’ll leave that for another email.