The Chickens

Katie Mastriano - Senegal


January 11, 2020

The Chickens

The walls in the house are yellow more similar to the color of sand on the beach of Ocean City rather than the sand along the roads in Tivaouane. Noise was normal for a weekday night: the fighting and laughing of my siblings, the television blasting telenovelas, the buzzing of mosquitoes, the singing from the mosque across the road. I sank deep into my plastic lawn chair in the living room fully decked out with my blue mosquito repelling jacket and socks. My Papa sauntered in-between the tv and the rest of us with a large knife in hand then right out the front door into the darkness. The sound of scraping metal on rock back and forth resonated an ominous feeling; I sank deeper into my chair. I guess I was so fixated on not looking towards that direction that I missed him go up the stairs to the roof. That’s where we keep the one hundred chickens. Suddenly I heard chickens – well – screaming. On top of the noise from living room and the sweltering heat, I went into my room and turned on the fan. I laid on my bed reading, trying to cancel out the noise. I’m not sure how much time passed, but I realized all of the noises had stopped except the buzzing of my fan. I laid still for a minute taking in the silence then I heard a soft knock on my door. My five year old sister Mareme said, “Ramatoulaye…” and beckoned me with her hand to come. I took her hand and walked towards the area in the back. My family was sitting in a circle illuminated by soft orange light. My Papa looked up and said, “I thought you might be lonely. Come join us.” I walked closer then I stopped. My family sat around a mat of bloody chicken feathers while buckets full of headless chickens surrounded them. I didn’t want to know what happened to the heads. Feet stuck out of buckets in all directions so that my father was able to grab them and give them to my siblings to defeather. My sister Habibatou sat by a pot of boiling water on a portable gas burner in which the chickens were dipped. When a chicken was thoroughly defeathered, it would be thrown across the circle into a bucket. They gave me one of the plastic lawn chairs to join the circle. I sat and watched the process, the whole family, even the five year old, participated. There was some conversation between everyone, but they were focused on their task and I was trying to take it in. The last chicken was thrown into a bucket and I got ready to take my chair and go back inside. Then my dad grabbed a chicken and snapped off the feet. I looked up at the stars and tried to hide my facial expression. I stayed for about six pairs of feet and then I told them I had to go inside. They were very understanding. A little while later approximately five dozen headless, feet-less chickens were lined up on a mat that matched the walls on our living room floor. Then, the nightly noise began again. 

At first, I was very surprised and appalled by the scene. This is due to the difference of what I’ve known and what I’m starting to know. Shocked by what I first saw and smelled, I wanted to turn right around and go back to my book. However, this is a family event. The whole family takes part. The family benefits from this hard work. I am now part of this family. Who am I to turn around and go back to my room? I feel honored to have been a part of it all. Every time they do this, whether it be six or sixty chickens, do I still cringe? Yes, of course I do, a screaming chicken was my alarm clock once. However, I know how proud my Papa is about the hard work he puts into raising, killing, and selling these chickens in order to support the family. In terms of helping with the process, I’m not quite there, but as part of the family, I appreciate the hard work. I call this event Chicken Night.

I wrote this in the beginning of my time here in Tivaouane and I have even more of an appreciation for the poultry business my Papa runs. It’s become such a nonchalant event. That’s what makes it fun. Have had many a Chicken Night.. and Chicken Afternoon and Chicken Morning. 

What’s an experience that you really didn’t like being in, in the moment, but now you’re grateful that you were? 

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Katie Mastriano