ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA – On a bumpy stretch of road somewhere on the east side of town, between the crowded Meganaña bus station and the mud roads of Kotebe, a steep embankment dotted with trees marks one of the city’s most popular livestock markets. On the hillside, shepherds tend their small flocks of goats and sheep and negotiate deals with prospective buyers. We drive past the market every day on the way to school, my face pressed against the car window.
This is my second time visiting Addis Ababa; I’m here as a volunteer, bringing supplies to Fresh and Green Academy, an elementary school for impoverished children in Kotebe. It’s the middle of April, a perfect time for food lovers to visit Ethiopia. This is the week leading up to the celebration of Coptic Easter. After 53 days of religious fasting, the city buzzes as it prepares for the year’s biggest feast.
The first sign of Easter? Goats on cars.
Throughout the week, I observe an increasing number of chickens and goats tied to the roofs of cars. Sometimes they’re piled into the flatbeds of tiny pickup trucks, bouncing along the dirt roads of east Addis. The thing that strikes me as both unsettling and intriguing, is that these animals are still alive. I’ve never seen anything like it, but it makes perfect sense. In a country where not everyone owns a refrigerator and electric power isn’t always a guarantee, buying livestock – alive – is the best way to assure the cleanliness and safety of your meat.
In the United States, we have an Easter bunny. In Addis Ababa, people talk about the Easter goat. Here in Ethiopia, the goat doesn’t magically deliver chocolate treats in colorful baskets. The Easter goat is the treat. The traditional feast includes all types of meat, from chicken to mutton, but goat is considered a luxury, tender and flavorful. On more than one occasion I’m told that goats are preferred because they graze on aromatic herbs that enhance the meat’s flavor when cooked.
At Fresh and Green Academy, where I’m volunteering, the students live in extreme poverty. One of the best aspects of the program is that it provides each child with three meals a day, even on non-school days if they need to come in and eat. The other volunteers and myself decide to chip in and organize an Easter feast for the students and their families that have nowhere else to go. In other words, we were going to get ourselves an Easter goat.
On the day before Easter, two men from the school, two volunteers and I drive a small pickup truck to the hillside market. The crowds and chaos remind me of a shopping mall the day before Christmas. The road is completely blocked. Cars attempt to park wherever they find an empty patch of dirt. Boys and men trudge down the road with goats and sheep draped over their shoulders or harnessed with a thin woven rope. Cars honk at herds weaving through the traffic, ushered by shepherds hoping for a quick roadside sale.
We hit the market hill and survey a number of herds. As expected, today’s prices are double for last-minute holiday shoppers. This is one of the most lucrative days of the year for livestock vendors.
I have to report that these animals are healthy, strong and well-treated. Though it may be difficult for some people to read about a livestock market, or to come face to face with their food, it’s a comfort to see firsthand how these sheep and goats have been raised. In Ethiopia, shepherds have an incredible amount of pride for their flocks and take great care in their animals’ upbringing. On this hillside alone, there are hundreds of goats and sheep raised by individuals. This is not factory farming.
Up the hill, a fight breaks out…between two goats. In a spontaneous territorial battle, the goats rise up on their hind legs and lock horns until a shepherd runs over to break up the fight. There’s action everywhere. The competition to sell is fierce; negotiations are serious, voices are raised.
We get a goat.
The other volunteers and I wait at the bottom of the hill as the final negotiations go down. Being an obvious foreigner doesn’t exactly keep the prices fair, so it was better for us to remain at a distance. When we get a heads up that the deal’s done, we head back to the truck.
Our goat is large, shiny and chocolate brown. We hoist him into the flatbed of our pickup and carefully bind his feet so he can’t injure himself on the drive back to the school. It may sound cruel, but there’s no other easy way to transport a live goat. All around us, goats and sheep are being loaded onto car roofs, into back seats, even into trunks. It’s just the way things are done in Addis Ababa.
As soon as we pull up to the school the children rush over, jumping up and down with excitement. For them, the goat in our truck represents an unexpected holiday meal. The older boys crowd around the truck. It’s a group effort to ease the goat onto the ground and into the schoolyard, where we tie him up for the afternoon. Early the next morning, the Easter goat will be slaughtered and prepared by the students’ mothers.
I’m thrilled to help give the schoolchildren and their families an opportunity to celebrate Easter. In Ethiopia, this holiday revolves around feasting after a long fast and I love a good feast — goats and all.