Anyone who knows me, not even very well, knows that I am a huge fanatic of the feline species. Whether it’s domesticated cats, kittens, lion cubs, tigers, I love them all. Up until my sweet Simba’s passing after a battle with cancer came to an end in January of 2011, I have always had cats in my life. From Peach, to Pachelbel, Emma Kitty, Scooter, Max, Simba and now even crazy Keeper who lives with my parents, there’s always been a soft spot in my heart for these furry wonders who, for the most part, show unwavering unconditional love not to mention countless hours of entertainment. After all, one must be a crazy cat lady to bring her beloved Simba to Ghana, as I did, back in 2004.
I vaguely remember people making comments about eating cat in Ghana during my first say here back in 2004, but was reassured when I heard that it only happens in the north. I never once thought that Simba’s life was in jeopardy that he would end up in a rich and spicy local tomato soup. In fact, due to his large size, a robust fifteen pounds then, people here were afraid of him when they came to the house. A year in Ghana and he was fine. As I said, he didn’t meet his maker until, what? seven years later on a completely unrelated destiny. My friend here told me that she had eaten cat before, but she has a wicked sense of humor and so I never thought too much of it and thought she was kinda pulling my leg. It really stuck in my head that we in the south of Ghana don’t eat cat. That only happens in the north. This perception has now been shattered.
If you follow me on Facebook, you’ve seen pictures of kittens that live just across the toe path from our house. There were two when I arrived in July, one tabby whom I have an affinity for and another mostly white one. Their mama had another litter of babies, three, just before Christmas, including one with crazy intense blue eyes. On Sunday I was hanging out at Sarah’s house. Her neighbor, George was there. Funny guy. He couldn’t remember my name for the first four months that I was here. He’s a carpenter and always quick with an infectious smile and laugh. I keep asking him to please make me a stool and I’ll pay him ten cedis and he always says, “tomorrow” much in the sense of “mañana”. Now it’s just a running joke between us. So on Sunday, George told me that they had too many cats (about seven or eight, I think) so they were going to kill one. In horror, of course my immediate thought was, get her fixed! Obviously, not an easy nor feasible option around here. In the meantime, the cat had run away and wasn’t seen for about 24 hours. Sarah said she ran because she was scared after she heard George talking about killing her. Again, the cynic in me was like, Yea, right that’s why the cat ran away, but who knows. Perhaps I underestimate the intelligence of these feline masterpieces. Then, low and behold, mama kitty showed up and one of her babies ran to her to suckle at her very used and worn out bosom.
Fast forward to yesterday afternoon. I was sitting outside, enjoying the low sun of the late afternoon and welcome breeze that comes with it. Sarah came walking home from work, we greeted each other with a hug and skipped off to her house when I declared, “Now we’ll have a fun afternoon!”. Upon arrival at her compound there was lots of energy. Kids were just arriving home from school, Olivier and I arrived, there were folks sitting in the kitchen in a close knit circle. George’s wife was frying fish, baby chicks frolicked about, and another neighbor, Shue who speaks impeccable English AND can sign for the deaf not to mention probably speaks at least two or three other languages, enthusiastically placed a small bowl of soup on the kitchen wall ledge. She pointed to the bowl and looked at me with a smile saying, “cat”. Seeing as how the cats here eat leftover people food I assumed it was for the cats. I said with a questioning tone in my voice, “For the cats?” She continued to smile, nodded and carried on with the excitement in the air. In my head I continued reasoning, That’s a lot of soup for them. And how are they going to eat piping hot soup? I guess once it’s cooled down they’ll try it. I didn’t think anything more of the bowl of soup. I was so in the moment that the conversation from the day before about there being too many cats had completely slipped my head. Clearly I was on ADHD external stimulation overload to put all of the pieces together.
I was curious to see who was in the kitchen. I looked for George to greet him and nudge him about my stool, but didn’t see him. I didn’t want to barge in to the kitchen because I couldn’t tell if the four men were in a meeting or eating. I didn’t recognize any of them. Shue was sucking on some meat and commenting about how tasty it was. As is Ghanaian custom she offered for me to try some. I said, “Sure!” since Sarah always teases me that I don’t accept their offers of food (If it’s fufu I can’t eat it because the pounding of it is done with pipe water and soup is usually about ten times spicier than I can handle). So I took a small bite, maybe a half a teaspoon size, and immediately commented on how spicy the chicken was. That’s when someone said, “It’s cat!” I thought for sure they were kidding. So for the next, and longest, two minutes of my life the conversation went like this:
Me: No it’s not.
Them: Yes! It’s cat!
Me: No, you’re joking.
Them: Melis! It’s cat!
Me: What??? You just fed me cat?
Me: No, you’re joking.
You get the idea. Then, no longer having concern that I might be interrupting something, (and I suppose at that point I also realized the guys were in fact eating, not having a meeting) I went into the kitchen and asked the four guys closely huddled around a bowl of food, “Excuse me, what kind of meat are you eating?” They answered in complete unison, “Cat!” That’s when I walked out, in total horror and began to cry while still questioning if they had actually just fed me cat. Obviously there was a bit of a cultural/language breakdown somewhere along the way. I immediately wanted to throw up and wondered if I could actually make myself gag. I couldn’t even bring myself to do that I was so upset. It was the mama cat. She met her destiny and now a tiny bit of her was somewhere between my mouth and stomach. Next thought, I need a beer. For some reason I assume that the alcohol in in beer will kill/cook anything in my system. I don’t know where I get this idea from and I’m pretty sure there’s not much in the way of scientific proof that this is possible, but you know what? It helps me psychologically and that’s all I needed. Everyone felt terrible. I could see the pain on my behalf in the eye’s of George’s wife as she continued to fry fish. Shue, felt terrible. Sister Sarah felt badly. Olivier, ever the adventurer and travel buddy, totally laughed. But, he also understood how upsetting this was to me. He took a bite as well just so I wouldn’t be the only obroni eating cat. Taking one for Team Obrofo, me dase, Olivier! So here’s the thing, though.
I sat rather quiet for the next 20 minutes or so totally absorbed in observing the baby chicks and their mama. All 7 babies were tucked under their mama as she sat next to me with an occasional tiny beak or webbed foot poking out. As I sit here writing I can reason with myself, that perhaps that was the mama cat’s spirit coming to comfort and distract me as I grieved the fact that a tiny portion of her was in me. And yes, I do eat chicken. I’ve never been a vegetarian. I prefer my chicken from the store all packaged up and totally unrecognizable as having formally been a bird like the one’s I see scampering around here all the time. I don’t like freshly killed and prepared chicken, it’s too chewy. And I admit, I eat lamb from time to time even though they are totally cute and adorable. But I really have a hard time with the cat piece. I am totally open to cultural differences and I place zero judgement on my friends who enthusiastically prepared and ate Mama Cat. You see, that’s the thing. When there’s a need, such as you need to feed your family and there’s too many cats, you put two and two together and just do what you have to do. I chalk all of this up to one of the many experiences I’m having in Ghana. I’m already kind laughing at it all, even though I’m still sad about it (and slightly freaked out). There’s a balance. And you know what? It all happened on leap day so technically, I hardly have to “celebrate” this anniversary.
RIP Mama Cat.