My first time witnessing animal sacrifices

WARNING: Don’t read this post if you are sensitive to the sight of blood or if you are offended by the slaughtering of animals. Keep in mind that this is a culturally significant tradition dating back hundreds of years. 

On Friday, May 6th my host family told me they wanted to take me to a nearby village called Babaj Bokes for the day. They said there was an important festival taking place. In typical Peace Corps fashion, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but said yes and brought my camera along just in case.

The festival is known as the Feast of Saint George (or Đurđevdan) and it is an interfaith holiday that has been celebrated for the past four hundred years. The holiday was traditionally Christian and is especially important in Eastern Orthodoxy, but it has been adopted and altered by several Muslim countries.

St. George’s Day is especially significant in Albania and Kosovo because it has been combined with two other traditional holidays, one which honors the end of winter and the official start of summer. It is one of the major holiday for the Roma community. It is also a celebration of the Albanian national hero Skanderbeg, whose birthday happens to fall on May 6th.

When we arrived at the village we climbed up to the temple or tyrbja on the hill overlooking Babaj Bokes. There we found pens with hundreds of sheep.

 

We entered the small mosque/temple, known as a Tyrbja, where we donated money, stepped through a large loop of prayer beads three times, and then prayed. Before leaving we were given pieces of blessed fabric to carry with us for luck.

 

The day involves ritual animal sacrifices and the distribution of the meat to the poor. I wasn’t sure how many animals would be sacrificed, but in my mind I thought maybe 50 sheep and a few dozen chickens.

Nope. One-thousand sheep were sacrificed. ONE THOUSAND. All in just one day in this tiny village.

I had never witnessed animal sacrifices before. And it was something I will not forget.

 

The sheep were killed in groups of 50 and then skinned and butchered immediately. The sheep are carried alive one-by-one to the temple, where their throats are slit and the blood is sprayed on the walls. Many locals also bring chickens from home to sacrifice at the tyrbja.

Although it was sad (and gruesome) to see the sheep slaughtered, it was also fascinating. So many people eat meat daily and yet have never seen an animal killed or butchered. Animal sacrifices are also an element of many religions and cultures, so it was interesting to see tradition come to life.

As I was taking pictures I was getting lots of stares, which is understandable given the fact that I was crouching down in pools of blood next to dying sheep. When I began taking pictures of the skinning/gutting process one of the butchers asked me if I wanted to help.

In typical Peace Corps fashion, I said why not!

 

I was surprised by how warm the body of the sheep was when I grabbed hold of it. With several butchers and locals looking on, I grabbed a knife and got to work. I tried recalling good skinning technique from my high school anatomy class, where we skinned and dissected a cat. The butchers were great teachers and encouraged me in Albanian while I worked. Definitely a Peace Corps experience I won’t be forgetting.

I saved the more grisly parts of the gutting process to the professionals.

 

As another 50 sheep were sacrificed, the butchers continued to work, skinning the sheep with expert speed and precision. One of my favorite moments was when the butchers were brought their lunch of, you guessed it, sheep. Some of them continued to work with a knife and carcass in one hand and a sheep sandwich in the other.

 

They also offered me some of the sheep meat, including a cooked sheep lung. Although I regretted not bringing any hand sanitizer, having just handled and skinned a sheep carcass, I decided to follow the men’s example and just go for it. So I stood in a puddle of blood, surrounded by dead sheep, and ate sheep lungs.DSCN2073 (2).JPG

After a few minutes I moved away from the butchering site to enjoy my lunch with my host mother.

After being skinned and gutted the meat is brought to a large feasting tent, where crowds of people gather to visit and eat. Typically all food preparation in Kosovo is done by women, but this day is the exception. Men do all of the cooking and serving of the food.

 

It was amazing to see large groups of men working together to serve hundreds of families from the region. The meat that is not cooked is distributed for free to people in the surrounding villages who need it.

I walked away from the Feast of St. George feeling privileged to have taken part in such a culturally rich tradition. Although animal sacrifices may sound shocking to many Americans, the feast is an amazing example of Albanian generosity and hospitality. The day was also a beautiful and rare display of unification in a Kosovar community, because it is celebrated by the Serbian, Albanian, and Roma communities.

It was a day I will not soon forget. I just hope I stop having nightmares about sheep sometime soon…

When its not culturally appropriate to have pets, so you begin talking to and befriending your dinner

Advertisements

Peace Corps Pets: Meet my new kitten!

A couple weeks ago, after visiting a religious festival with my host family, one of my host sisters told me that she saw kittens outside of a family friend’s home. My host family is well aware of my love for animals, so when I begged if we could go see them they said okay.

There were four kittens, all about a month old, and adorable as can be. The woman of the house saw how overjoyed I was playing with the kittens and began chatting in Albanian with my host parents. After talking in hushed tones to each other my host parents called my name and said, “Brita, you can take the kitten as a pet if you want it.”

I was shocked. I thought they were joking.

In Kosovo having a cat as an indoor pet is practically unheard of. In fact, most people either hate cats or are terrified of them, because they are all strays.

But it was not a joke and I am now the proud owner of a Peace Corps pet!

Many volunteers all over the world get a pet during their service. This happens for two main reasons:

1.There are stray animals everywhere and our sensitive American hearts can’t take it.

IMG_0336It is overwhelming how many stray dogs and cats there are in Kosovo, as there are in much of the world. I see dozens on a daily basis. You know those heartbreaking infomercials with malnourished and sad-looking animals that get you to donate to animal shelters? Sometimes I feel like I am watching those when I walk to work.

My site-mate once saw a stray puppy snuggling up to the stiff body of a dead cat trying to get warm.

Because having pets is not a thing here, people view cats and dogs primarily as pests, which results in them being treated poorly. It’s not uncommon to see people throwing rocks at the stray animals, although this is usually done out of fear. (And I’ve learned that stray dogs can be very frightening.) Even without being mistreated, most kittens die from lack of food, the cold, or are attacked by other strays.

So when I see a bunch of adorable kittens and know what their future holds, of course I want to take them home and protect them!

2. Being a PCV can be lonely and stressful and we need an Emotional Support Animal.

IMG_0417 (2)Pets have a healing and calming presence. And being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a mental/emotional roller-coaster ride. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that my service has had its fair share of lonely or stressful moments.

Having a little kitten to welcome me home after work and to sit on my lap as I correct English tests is seriously the best. Some events in the past several months have made 2016 an extremely challenging year, so this kitten felt like a gift from heaven. The first night as she sat purring on my lap I cried tears of sheer joy. I don’t know if I’ve ever appreciated having a pet so much.


The Challenging Bits…

Unfortunately having a pet in the Peace Corps presents a few unique obstacles.

  1. Lack of suppliesMy first night with my kitten was spent trying to throw together a makeshift litter box and bed for her. Turns out it’s pretty difficult to find pet supplies in most towns in Kosovo. It took nearly a week to find a store (in another city) that sold cat litter.IMG_0478 (2)Kitten food was another challenge. I had to improvise with milk and scrambled eggs for a few days. We eventually found cat food, but the kitten became sick for several days, probably due to the sudden change in diet. Thankfully after a few days she recovered.What would I do if she stayed sick? What if she gets fleas? Is there a way to get her vaccinated? What about having her spayed? These questions began racing around in my mind as soon as I brought this adorable kitten home.
  2. Misconceptions about animals
    IMG_0391
    The picture I sent my mom at 3:00 AM after dealing with the aftermath of the chocolate incident.

    Several people were warning my host family about how the kitten would give us all diseases. Most people here see cats as very mangy and unhygienic because they’ve only seen the strays that scavenge in garbage.

    One time when I was being protective of the kitten someone told me not to worry because cats have nine lives, so she won’t die. I immediately had to explain that this is just an expression, and that the kitten could in fact die very easily.

    Another night someone fed the kitten chocolate, which is toxic for cats. That night she got horribly sick, throwing up and getting explosive diarrhea. Not fun for either of us.

  3. Fear of how people will treat her

    This is a big one. Because no one has grown up with pets, people can be incredibly rough with the kitten. My Peace Corps service is about people, not pets, so I don’t want to resent anyone here because of how they treat animals.
    Luckily my host family has been absolutely wonderful so far and they are very open to my instructions about kitten-care. But a big part of me is terrified of what could happen if some younger relatives or neighbor kids come over. During PST I saw a kitten whose leg had been ripped off. It was horrific.Call me a crazy cat lady, but my mom instincts are kicking in and I am terrified of my kitten being hurt or traumatized.

4. When service ends…

The hardest question is what to do when my service ends. Do I take the cat back to America with me? I’m sure the process is not an easy (or cheap) one. Or do I leave her here in Kosovo with my host family? I’m just trying not to think about this question at the moment.



IMG_0294In the meantime having a pet is great. The past three weeks have gone surprisingly well and my host family is officially in-love with our kitten! She is completely trained to use the litter box and is quickly growing.

Having a pet has also been a valuable cultural exchange with my host family. They never understood how Americans could welcome an animal into their home or why I speak so lovingly of my childhood pets. Now they fight over who gets to hold or play with the kitten.

IMG_0484 (3).JPGThey told me how they suddenly think about animals differently. When they see strays on the street, instead of being afraid or annoyed and trying to scare it away, they feel concern. Seeing them go from fearful and skeptical to absolutely infatuated with the kitten has been amazing.

They also selected the name for our kitten by combining the first letters of our names to spell B.E.J.B. (pronounced like Babe or Baby). IMG_0406

2017 Update: After finishing my Peace Corps service I was torn about whether or not to bring Bejb to America with me. I looked into it, but the process was complicated and would have easily cost me $1,000. My family was also extremely attached to her and promised to care for her. So I left my beloved pet behind. My family took great care of her and sent me regular updates and pictures. Sadly she either disappeared or died a few months after I left, leaving my host family and I heartbroken.