Feeding Dar es Salaam: where does all the meat come from?

By Marc Wegerif. PhD-candidate at the Rural Sociology Group, Wageningen University and carrying out research on food provisioning in Dar es Salaam. Contact: marc.wegerif@wur.nl

It was a Sunday afternoon, I sat at a table drinking beer and eating a grilled goat’s leg with Larry and Samuel. We were at the Pugu cattle market on the edge of Dar es Salaam and my companions were and are meat traders, butchers I suppose, there to buy some cattle. Dar es Salaam is Tanzania’s largest city with a fast growing population of around 4.5 million making it a major market for animals from across the country. From our table in the shade we could see groups of cattle and observe negotiations going on and the odd fight between bulls and arguments between traders.

Two days before, about 400 kms away, Ezekiel walked with his son, herding two of his 20 cows from his village of Kitaita to a larger village of Chakwale 15 kms away. Cattle, goats and some sheep were gathered in large numbers in the open ground in Chakwale, more often used for football, but every two weeks converted into a livestock market. Local farmers and pastoralists brought their livestock to sell and traders came, some from far afield, to buy. The gathering attracts more business with food, clothes and other items being sold. Ezekiel sold the two cows to a Masai trader. I mention the trader was Masai, because that is how Ezekiel referred to him and because I have so often heard people saying the Masai don’t sell cattle. This trader, who happened to be Masai, certainly knew about markets and made his living from selling and buying cattle.

Cattle Numbered1 FaceAt the end of the day the trader had the cattle he had bought herded to the town of Gairo where, with the help of cattle pens and a loading ramp, the cattle were put on trucks, along with those belonging to other traders, to be driven to the Pugu market in Dar es Salaam. Now Ezekiel’s cows were probably somewhere in the large market where I sat. After sometime we had finished our meat and more beers and Larry had bought four cattle from two different sellers and arranged to have them loaded on a truck, each one with his number written on its side. When the cattle were unloaded at the Ukonga Mazizini abattoir, a few kilometres away, Larry’s workers would use the numbers to identify and separate these from dozens of other cattle on the truck and tie them up at Larry’s place in the slaughtering area. Larry and I went to Ukonga to see the trucks starting to unload hundreds of cattle in the dusty ground where they would meet their end. This is the biggest abattoir in Dar es Salaam. It consists of a large walled ground within which are three slaughtering sheds, some cattle pens, a small office, toilet facilities and some shops. Each slaughter shed is a concrete slab with a zinc roof over it and rows of metal rails with hooks to hang the meat on. With the cattle now at Ukonga there was not much to do, yet. Lameck went home to eat and rest and I went to visit some peri-urban chicken and dairy farmers in the area.

Returning to the Ukonga abattoir after 11pm that night the place was filling up. Over 200 hundred butchers are members of the butchers association and working at Ukonga most nights. Each has several assistants and, as I would find out, there are numerous other traders and service providers all there creating a business from different parts of the cow. The slaughter sheds were now full of cattle, tied up, waiting uneasily. A few bare light bulbs caste shadows on what was becoming a crowd of people busy with different activities. The street outside the ground was also now full with women and men selling food and drinks and other traders selling cell-phone vouchers and more. I walked around one of the slaughtering sheds, no space to get between the cattle, I was soaking in the atmosphere and counted about 200 animals. A tall man, showing his muscular body to good effect in cut-off jean shorts and sleeveless t-shirt was talking loudly to a group of men who watched his work. He challenged me, with the same loud voice, on what I wanted there. The axe blade at the end of a metre long axe handle was glinting in the dim light as he scraped it fast on the concrete and then inspected it. More men were arriving – only four of the butchers are women and even their assistants are all men – and cattle were being wrestled to the floor, their legs tied together. The men then gathering around the slaughter areas, everyone with a sharp knife, many sitting or leaning on the low walls that ran down two sides of the concrete floor where the cattle stood.

A quiet descended on the cattle lying in lines on the floor and the men around, a pause. Then two men held a cow at one side of the shed, while a third wearing a round, brimless, embroidered hat slit the cows throat with such a swift motion I was not sure if I had seen anything, but the cow gasped and the blood was real. Then there was a stab in the chest (could it have been straight to the beasts heart?) that released another stream of blood and the man was already slicing the throat of the next in line, stepping, slicing, stabbing with swift and economical movements. The butcher’s assistants scrambling to have the next cow held still, with throat exposed, ready for the knife. The blood spread on the slightly sloped floors running into gutters that formed small warm crimson streams running to concrete pits at the edge of the shed. Behind the man with the hat was a trail of dead cattle quickly being skinned and dissected. The tall man with the sharp axe swung into noisy action chopping off the horns and then returning later to split each carcass, splitting the spine in half down its length with accurate, practiced blows. I saw another axe man stepping from cow to cow, doing the same task in another part of the shed.

Now Larry was back and overseeing the dissection of his cattle and negotiating who would get which bits for what price. By this stage the feet and heads had been taken away, the stomach was carried away by someone else, the skin already sold. Soon what was left of the cow would be in quarters hanging from large hooks and rails about 2 metres high running the length of the slaughter areas. All the miscellaneous bits that had helped the cattle in different ways in life had been removed and become part of another business from which multitudes of different traders, some with workers, some working alone, all derive a livelihood. There are many bits to sell, and many costs as well. For every animal slaughtered Larry pays the owners of the abattoir, an association of five of them descended from those who started the place in the early 1970s. He pays for the slaughter done by people from the Muslim association, who do the actual kill in a rough conformity with requirements for it to be halaal. He pays a tax for the Municipality, pays the axe man, and pays his workers who handle the cattle when alive and later skin and cut up the beasts.

In another part of the ground a concrete slab about a metre above the ground level was covered with rows of stomachs, these were being energetically cleaned. Each was filled with water and tied closed – stinking misshaped beach balls – then thoroughly beaten with buckets to loosen the part digested contents, before the water was poured out again. Not far away the stomach lining was being strung up on sticks for cleaning. A little way from there the penises from the bulls were being cleaned and piled up on sacks. The young man with the long white sinewy muscle of the penis gripped in his hand, told me they sell them to Chinese businessmen. The testicles had become part of another business. I watched as two men sat on crates one holding the testicles of a fallen bull for the other to slice the skin from around the top, throwing the resulting bracelet of skin and hair into a pile that will be sold as treats for dogs to chew. The testicles themselves are then separated and scraped clean with the knife before being put on another pile ready to go to market. Nearby cows heads were being thrown onto the back of a 3 ton truck, many would later end up in beef soups. Back at the slaughter shed some beasts were still being cut up, men lifting heavy carcasses to hang on hooks and pushing past each other in the crowded space. A young man stood knee deep in blood in a pit at the edge of the shed, using a bucket to scoop the content up and pour it into a 200 litre drum on a push cart. More than 10 of these 200litre drums would be filled that night, from this one of three slaughtering sheds. The blood later cooked, dried and sold as an ingredient for chicken food.

Then, in one of the corridors of hanging meat, I saw an attractive young woman in a bleached white coat, her braided hair under a white hair net almost covering her bright orange ear rings. In her hand was a knife as long and sharp as any of the men’s, she made deep slices into slabs of meat in front of her, then moved to the next. She flashed silent stares, knife in hand, at anyone daring to call to her or argue with her pronouncements. Following behind her a man held a large stamp and ink pad, on her nod, she never spoke, he stamped the meat as government inspected; fit, or reasonably so, for human consumption. She was a university graduate in veterinary sciences, one of the government employed health inspectors who work every night providing some form of oversight and regulation, although they are the first to admit this does not conform to ideal or internationally accepted standards. Should the woman with orange ear rings or her colleagues not be satisfied the meat is condemned, not a common occurrence, but it happens. The cows had already undergone at least a cursory health examination before being allowed to be slaughtered, hence a few lost and lonely cattle that did not satisfy the vets were still standing in a pen to the side. Not surprisingly this abattoir, along with all others in Dar es Salaam, has been the subject of health concerns. The government has shut it a few times and instructed that improvements be made. The saving grace of the system has to be the speed of it all. The live animal is slaughtered after midnight, beef is in the shop by dawn and most is sold the same day.

The floor was still red, but the lines of hanging meat were beginning to look almost orderly, buyers were arriving and walking down the lines, inspecting carcasses, squeezing dead thighs, sometimes cutting a bit to get a better look and feel. The trading becoming a cacophony of voices as people negotiated and argued over prices and meat quality.
By 3 am there were more than a dozen 2 ton trucks and another ten smaller vans, all painted white in conformity with at least one part of the regulations. Leaning on one truck I found the smartly dressed owner and driver watching a movie on his IPad. He got an accounting degree at university, after a year employed in a car company he started his own business, importing a few cars, farming chickens and then branching into meat transport. He has two trucks, one he drives himself. He carries meat for a number of traders every night delivering normally to ten butchers in different parts of town. By 4 am trucks are leaving down the narrow crowded road. I buy a chapatti and strong spiced and milky tea, there are still deals being made, but the slaughter sheds are getting emptier. I know from other nights that by sunrise the place will be empty and shutting down. It will be hard to imagine the amount of activity that had gone on a few hours before. I decided to leave as I wanted to interview some fresh milk traders from different villages who early every morning are selling outside a filling station in Ubungo, but that is a another story.