October 2012 | Sabah, Malaysia
The villagers have a buffalo bound for slaughter.
It is bound to a tree, next to the river that runs through Kampong (Village) Babagon, tethered by ropes running from each limb.. A water buffalo is a huge animal, weighing at least 400kg, but lying sideways on the ground it seems almost docile. I wonder about what it must have taken for the villagers to have got it there.
Then I notice the puddle of red that has pooled in the earth beneath its mass.
Our guide Helmie explains that it was a sacrifice, a mandatory offering of penitence from a young couple who had conceived a child out of wedlock.
In the spiritual village communities of Sabah, tradition dictates that such a transgression upsets the equilibrium of energy within the village. This can only be set right when the couple offers the buffalo meat to every household in the village, usually a costly undertaking. But once the community accepts the meat, it is an unspoken rule that they can no longer discriminate or speak ill against the couple, who will eventually marry.
When I next see the buffalo it is a mass of innards, quivering and glistening in the sunlight.Most of its skin and flesh has been peeled back. A few men work around it, wielding machetes, sawing ribs. They have already severed the head of the buffalo, which lies a few feet away from the body, flies already swarming around it.
It is a study in animal anatomy, laid out textbook-perfect. Intestines small and large, pancreas, kidneys, stomach.
Then Helmie asks if I want to have a hand in skinning the buffalo.
As I approach the carcass a cloud of flies erupts from the entrails in a hundred different directions. The handle of the machete is slick with blood and the blade heavy in my grip. The skin, attached to a layer of flesh and fat, is still warm to the touch and oozes a pale yellow liquid as I bring the blade to it.
I saw away but my lack of experience means little of the flesh comes away at my knife. Around me the men laugh – there are no other women participating in the process. Already they have a fire going nearby, with a small grill on top. Perhaps they will cook the first cut of meat on this.
I hand the machete back and retreat to watch the rest of the disemboweling from a distance. Later I wash my hands in the river, rinsing off the residue of blood and animal fluids. Afterwards they still feel heavy from the weight of the experience. This is the closest I have come to life, and death.