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Animal Sacrifice – Ritual Slaughter in Africa
When the family of South African politician and anti-Apartheid activist Tony Yengeni participated in a ritual slaughter for a traditional purification ceremony, it sparked much controversy over animal rights and cultural practices.
The practice of ritual slaughter surprisingly originates from Greece. Sacrifices were offered to certain gods in the form of animal sacrifices in order to appease those gods who sought advice and blessings. The practice reached Rome and was further proven in the Bible by the children of Israel.
In today’s context, ritual slaughter has remained dominant in African cultures across the continent. It has become a large part of cultural identity and participation. What do you say to a community of people whose culture is deeply rooted and defined by the recognition of the “spirit” world (spirit world in this context denoting the ancestral world) through the ritual slaughter of animals? An African doctrine states that an offering cannot be considered acceptable when the offering is not recognized as a sacrifice by the ancestor.
The Changing Role of Meat in African Life
The shedding of blood is seen as the offering of one life for another, as life is understood to be contained in the blood. When an animal was offered for sacrifice, it was formerly customary for an experienced elderly person or family representative to perform or carry out the ritual slaughter. This meant that the animal was treated as delicately as possible under the lethal conditions. Respect for the animal was seen as respect for the ancestor.
Back then animals were only slaughtered for life-size celebrations such as weddings, the birth of a son and of course to make an offering to the ancestors. Meat was mainly consumed during these occasions and without these holidays the family survived through organic farming. The diet consisted mainly of milk, flour, vegetables, beans and grains.
When commercialization and industrialization set the tone for rapid development in Africa, a trend began that changed people’s consumption and dietary patterns. The irony is that cattle owners continued to keep their animals for breeding and ritual slaughter rather than normal daily consumption, even as their diet shifted to a meat-based diet. The extra meat came from farmers who used growth hormones and other chemicals, inorganic animal feed, cruel slaughtering methods and illegal disposal of industrial waste water.
Over the years the debate has shifted from the justification of ritual slaughter to the method of slaughtering animals in such a way that the animal does not suffer. Thus, the focus shifts to the treatment of the animal before and during the ritual slaughter. No amount of protest will stop or reduce the number of massacres as long as the ritual is considered part of cultural identification and is part of the moral defense of traditional practice on cultural grounds.
The alternatives to animal sacrifice
Ritual slaughter still reflects what people believe and how they practice those beliefs. In the Bible the first sacrifices were of animals and of fruits and vegetables. The sacrifices were not one-dimensional. They didn’t necessarily have to come in the form of slaughter.
Connecting to the spirit or ancestral world has several ways. South African-born, internationally acclaimed jazz artist Bheki Khoza and his wife have been vegan for the past 10 years and celebrated their wedding, disregarding their Zulu roots that required them to slaughter cattle. 40 years ago, a group of Afro-Jewish descendants formed a community that forbade the ritual slaughters that had been part of their culture since the days of their great founding ancestor, Abraham. The community decided to offer themselves as a sacrifice instead of animal offerings. By offering themselves they were cleansed and atoned for their transgressions and entered into a new covenant.
There is something to be learned here and that is when we open ourselves to new experiences, new lessons and internalize them, we actually take those lessons and those experiences to the ancestors we honor. While it may be true, in African belief, that sacrifices must be made in a form that is acceptable and understandable to our ancestors, it is also true that as we take the ancestors with us on our life’s journey and gain knowledge and new methods, so did our ancestors. for death is no predisposition to the acquisition of supernatural wisdom in the afterlife.
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