by Laura Fuller
Ron’s blue eyes were bloodshot and watering when he returned to the group. His cheeks were sunburned, his hair sun-bleached. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his white hooded sweatshirt, an act of 13-year-old toughness. He and Mary had volunteered to eat the goat’s kidneys, not because they’d wanted to, but because peers’ opinions outweigh adolescent reason. Mary now smiled proudly in a pack of incredulous girls. Ron fought to put the texture of warm, raw goat kidney behind him and move on with his life, but I could see that he was struggling to gain control of his gag reflex. Kyle offered to walk with him back to the tents, stoically, so as not to make Ron feel weak.
I watched them walk away, their shadows long in the evening grass, and turned back to the other 20-some seventh-graders, all of them perplexed as to how to receive this cross-cultural gift. They were outlined against a horizon of royal blue Tanzanian sky, high above tufts of trees and shrubs on the rocky terrain below. The high rocks on which we stood began to glow reddish in the setting sun. This, I predicted, was both the height and the conclusion of my short, ridiculous teaching career in Dubai.
The kids had all chosen to observe the ritual slaughter of this goat, not wanting to be cowardly among the courageous or rude to the Maasai guides. After sixteen hours of Serengeti driving from the nearest city, we were lucky to have the Maasai patrolling our campsite’s perimeter every fifteen minutes at night to ensure our safety. They silently taught our students to carve spears and showed us the soft cave in the bush where they held their councils.
The seventh-graders, from Dubai – who actually came from all over the planet – were upper-class, elite, and as such, polite and appreciative. They were first inquisitive: goat slaughter? And then horrified: goat slaughter.
We’d watched the men tenderly spread a clean surface of leafy branches on the ground. We’d looked on as they used their bare hands to smother the goat. We’d seen it stop kicking. We’d witnessed their first incisions, leading to a pink, nude creature on a bed of leaves like some strange salad.
“OH-my-God!” cried Melanie, her accent Australian, ever the first to scream, ever apologizing for screaming. “I’m going to vomit. I’m sorry. I’m going to vomit!”
She was not going to vomit.
I raised my eyebrows at her to say, I hoped convincingly, “Not okay.”
This was the happy eight-week anniversary of my first day of teaching. I was on a very tall rock in the wilds of Tanzania, and my kids were eating raw goat bits. A plastic cup of goat blood was being passed among the students. Some triumphantly proclaimed, “It tastes like warm, metal milk!” and others tried hard not to follow in Ron’s barfy footsteps.
I wondered how long it would take upon our return for the mothers to rally around firing me. They would come to school for Zumba class and hear tales of that loose cannon of a seventh-grade English teacher. Just who does she think she is, feeding our kids sacrificial goat’s blood on a cliff?! they would say.
Holy God, I thought. That’s not even sensationalized. It’s just true.
My, how quickly I’d landed on the educational blacklist. How little power I’d ever wielded over my own trip there.
Douglas, our non-Maasai Tanzanian guide, explained the significance of drinking the goat’s blood, but I couldn’t properly learn what he was teaching, stuck between two roles.
I wanted to learn. I was twenty-three years old and in Africa. I’d gotten a yellow fever shot and enlisted in an adventure reserved for characters who were not me, characters who would never have been interested in a domestic life in Des Moines, Iowa, even for a minute, characters who would scoff at girls who had no concept of the Maasai people before participating in their ceremony. By some mistake, I was here in their stead, and learning would justify this.
But I was also a teacher, and eight weeks of that life had been enough to show me that thirteen-year-olds know only three classifications of ages. There were those their age (regular people, those of primary importance), those younger than they were (fools), and adults (those aged 19-106, and the ones in charge). There was no understanding of any continuum from teenage years to adulthood. I knew that newly-minted adults – perhaps myself included – are often dumber than teenagers. I felt scarcely responsible enough to bring myself to Tanzania, let alone to carry the lives and passports of twenty-four children.
Melanie whispered, “I’m sorry, Ms. Fuller. I just – I’ll stay. I just – it’s so gross!”
I bucked up. I took my educational lead from my student and spoke with what I hoped was tender authority. “Yes, sweet-pea, and that’s why maybe you should head to the tents. It’s okay to have limits, but it’s rude to just stand here screaming.”
She nodded, and I continued, “You understand that every piece of meat you’ve ever eaten was an animal first, right?”
“Yes, but to kill it like that?” Her nose wrinkled in disgust.
“Honey, they’re going to use every bit of that animal. They respect that whole goat. They need it to live. This process is more humane than how we get most of our food.”
She turned back toward the action, subdued now, deciding whether she would scream or leave or learn something.
When the cup of blood came to me, I learned that the now-congealing red inside did indeed taste like warm, metallic milk. My kids knew it before I did.
“Brandon!” I called. “You guys are making me nervous. Not so close to the edge!”
The boys nodded and moved their game to safety without question.
I handed the cup to the next observer and washed down the taste of blood with my water bottle.
Laura Fuller is an Iowa native living and working in New York City, where she is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School. Her essays can be found at baddenglish.com.