Filed Under: Graphic, Culinary Underbelly
The city of Uyo rises at dawn, but somewhere in Urua Ekpa, the day begins even earlier. Along the bend of a dusty road, there’s a mango tree – you’ll only realise it’s two trees when you draw closer. The second tree has no name and bears no fruit. Right under where the leaves of the two trees hug, there’s a restaurant – actually, it’s a bar – Ekpeyong Bar. All the walls are made of concrete that’s knee-high. For the rest of the way to the roof, it’s wooden frames, wire mesh and mosquito nets. All the tables are square and plastic, like the chairs. The floor of the bar is a little smaller than a basketball court. It’s a Thursday in July 2017, and work has begun, but the bar doesn’t matter at the moment – what matters is at the other side of the road.
It’s an unassuming empty plot, with whatever is in it only shielded from sight by a fence made of rusted corrugated sheets. It has a nameless-fruitless tree growing in it too.
I’m not here alone. There’s Chris and Jesuloba, my colleagues; Obong, the guy who knew the back road that helped us get here faster. There’s Idiong, the man of the hour, part-chef, part-butcher, and full-time smiler. He’s worked at the bar for two years.
This bar has only one item on its menu for the day: plantain porridge.
A lot of fresh vegetables – it could be anything from Uziza to Ugu, but today, we use spinach.
Stock cubes to taste
Onions, a shit load of it.
“Do you want to see it now?” When Idiong asks, he’s not talking about the two dogs sitting under the mango tree – those ones are pets. He’s talking about the other one behind the rusted fence. I want to see it.
It smells like wet sand and leaves, but if you pay closer attention, you’ll catch a whiff of death. At the far end, there’s a small ditch with a charred heap of soil. The centre of the small clearing has the nameless-fruitless tree, but I have no business with it. Under it, there’s a small cage that’s only a little taller than a 30-centimetre ruler. Atop the cage is a stone slab as dead weight. In the cage, there’s a dog that’s the same breed as the two dogs I’ve just seen beside the bar. Looking pale and attentive to our presence, the cramped cage is evidence that it is sentenced to sit until it dies.
You know how they say you need to give a dog a bad name to kill it? It doesn’t matter here. “This one no get name,” Idiong says, “na meat.” I don’t imagine it’d be fun digging into a piece of meat thinking, “hmm, tastes like happiness and Busky.” I name it Thursday after the day Idiong says he’ll die.
Killing a dog is unlike killing most domestic animals. The first animal I ever killed for food was a hen and I was 16. Its feathers had many shades of brown and the only real challenge was knowing when to stop cutting – I’m not scared of blood, nor creeped out by life living a hen. After I’d secured the wings and feet, all I had to do was cut fast with our sharpest knife – jaw to jaw – until I had the carotids. It took a few seconds to finish, and an extra minute of holding it in place for the twitching to stop. A few years later, it was my first ram. It was mostly the same, but with more hands to hold it down. In both cases, there was little to no struggle after subduing them.
But dogs are different. They’re predators and hunters, sharing 99.9% of their mitochondrial DNA with wolves. Dogs are fighters.
“If you try use knife kill dog like say na goat,” Idiong explains, “the teeth fi tear your hand,” and this is what makes killing dogs for meat infamous in popular culture, not just in Nigeria, but all over the world.
While Western culture mostly detests dogs as food, it’s different in the Far East. In Vietnam, dog meat is a staple. In South Korea, up to 2 million dogs are killed a year for food. But China takes the first prize at 20 million dogs a year, including having a dog meat festival. There aren’t any estimates about dog meat consumption in Nigeria, but I have Idiong’s stats – he kills over 300 dogs a year.
“The first dog ah kill,” Idiong says, “e hard me, I been dey fear.” But two years have passed since, and almost every day since then, each kill made him more ruthless and quicker. He’s cheesing hard, proud of his own growth.
To kill a dog, he uses a DIY’ed animal-control pole – it’s an iron rod with a worn-out noose around one end made of plastic rope. Idiong removes the stone from the top of the cage and lowers the noose into the cage and over the neck of Thursday. By the time he realises what is happening and tries to struggle, it’s already too late – the noose is around his neck. And Idiong pulls. The force of Idiong’s pull drags the dog out of the cage by the neck. He screams, and as Idiong’s noose tightens, the screaming becomes inaudible horror – large black eyes filled with morbid fear.
“E done do! E done do!” I scream in one quick breath. Frankly, I’m not sure how many times I say it, but he stops. He’s grinning, but he’s not stopping because I asked him to, he just had no plans for killing the dog. “This one na for tomorrow,” he says as he lowers Thursday back into the cage. “I just wan show you.”
We came a little too late for the morning slaughter, and I’m more relieved than disappointed. By the time we’d showed up at Ekpeyong, our second stop for the day, work was in full swing.
Idiong goes on to explain everything that comes next.
With the dog pinned to the ground with his pole, he clubs the head in one strong swing with a large piece of wood, large enough to have the same intended effect on a human. All screaming and movement stop. Then he puts the dog on a corrugated sheet, cuts the head with a knife, holding it as the blood drains from the body onto the sheet and into an already dug hole.
He starts a fire in the small ditch with wood and petrol as fuel, and when it begins lapping up and demanding an offering, he throws the dog in. The fire engulfs the dog, burning the ticks and golden hair to black.
By the time the dog is out of the fire, and the char has been scraped with a knife, and the stomach has been cut open to reveal the steaming insides, morning is in full blast.
The intestines will be rid of worms and cleaned. All offals are destined for a life of pepper soup. Everything else becomes porridge, but first, it must be boiled. The killing is done, and what used to be a dog is now 404. Back at the restaurant, the pots are getting washed and prepped for the fire by two women. One of them is Ekaette – I didn’t hear anyone call the other’s name, and I didn’t ask.
“Do you have any idea why people call dog meat 404,” I ask Inem, my friend and old colleague who makes impeccable plantain porridge – not the 404 kind. I ask her as I’m writing this, almost 4 years later.
“I don’t know,” she says, “but I can ask my mum.” Inem is from Akwa Ibom, the state where Uyo is the capital. “It’s named after the reigning Peugeot of the time; 404,” her mum says.
404s were a big deal in post-independence Nigeria and the symbol of a country in motion. Ekene Dili Chukwu’s 404 saloon cars transported people between Lagos and the Southeast. 404 pickups were popular for moving cargo and produce, and if you go to a village, chances are that you’ll find a 404 moving – laboured movement, and body brown with rust but moving nonetheless. The 404 was popular for its resilience, ruggedness, and speed – just like the local dog breed that’s popular with dog meat enthusiasts.
The parts of dog meat are named after car parts – the head is the brainbox; the kidneys, liver and heart together make up the gearbox; limbs are tyres. The intestines are called telephone because they’re long and curly.
“She said the meat is seasoned first,” Inem tells me, then onions, scent leaves, and oil are added to make it a kind of sauce.” It’s also how the women at the restaurant make theirs too. Just before they add the already diced unripe plantains to the brew, Idiong takes a piece of 404 and feeds it to the free dogs. One eats, the other doesn’t.
“Dog eat dog,” I say.
“Really?” Chris looks at me, unimpressed.
“I couldn’t help it, it was right there.”
The aroma now filling the air is incense for repelling canine spirits, and attracting customers. The first two people to arrive are bankers who’d spent all morning walking around Urua Ekpa market, trying to convince people to open bank accounts. They wait with a cold beer. The next person comes with a flask that you can tell belongs to her boss. She’s asking “how many more minutes” every few moments.
The pot’s descent upon us, Idiong opens it and adds some more scent leaves and periwinkles, then he covers for a moment. Then he opens and stirs. Then he waits a little more – about 5 minutes more – before it descends from the fire. Plates are laid out and loaded, the waiting cooler is filled.
“Thanks,” I say after Idiong offers me, “I dey alright.” Chris passes too. I always knew I wasn’t going to have any of it – I just can’t – but I suspect Chris isn’t eating because of me. But Obong asks for a beer to down it with. I watch Obong as he digs in, and it looks like just another meal, except the meat in it is more premium than beef.
“When I schooled in Uyo, it was a mainstream special delicacy,” Inem says, “except it wasn’t served in restaurants, just certain spots.” Bars.
“But where do the dogs come from? Is there a farm?” I ask Inem.
“For some people, yes,” She explains, “I just think the market doesn't have a structure so someone could also say that they have a farm even if they stole the dogs.”
“I go just call person wey dey sell am,” Idiong says, “and e go bring am.” He doesn’t care where the dogs come from, just that they’re healthy.
In Uyo, Calabar, Plateau, and other regions in Nigeria where it’s common, some people eat dog meat for the reasons that people in China or Vietnam do. They believe it gives strength, virility, cures poisoning and other illnesses. Some other people eat it or continue to eat it because it tastes good.
The dog meat debate has two poles. On one end, dog meat is brutal – and as it’s popularly made – strangulation and bludgeoning in a plate. On the other end, dog meat remains popular for a reason.
“It’s delicious,” Inem says when I ask her, “I’ve had it only twice and I loved it on both occasions. It tastes like beef, but better. Eris, who schooled in Uyo, has a better memory of her own dog meat experience.
It starts when a friend takes her to a bar – the hut kind – and orders a bowl of plantain porridge. “The mix of plantain porridge and meat was epic,” she says. She’s downing it with palm wine. Her friend keeps asking, “do you like it,” while she just keeps nodding, “mmhmm”, and asks for another round. His friends show up, and more people are ordering and digging in. And while he’s talking to them, he just casually breaks out of his conversation and tells her, “shebi you know it’s dog meat?” and continues talking. “And I couldn’t gag because it tasted good as fuck. I stopped eating,” then she adds, “but to be fair I was getting full.”
Inem asks me how it tasted when I had it.
“I didn’t eat it.”
“A whole you,” she asks, “why?”
“Ah, I thought it was only pork.”
Dog meat belongs in the Muslim canon of thou-shalt-not-eats, sitting on the side of the hall with other fanged animals like cats, big and small. Would I have eaten it if I didn’t have this filter? Maybe, if I felt the taste was worth the dog’s suffering. Maybe not, because of what I consider to be a humane slaughter. Every animal I have killed for food, I have killed as swiftly as possible to minimise pain. But even the entire concept of ethical slaughter is a subjective line that has shifted for millennia.
When it’s time to leave, lunch hour has passed. The bankers have returned to the markets with more ginger in them. An Oga somewhere has emptied his flask and will lose all productivity for the day. Idiong’s Oga too has just shown up. He’s trusted Idiong to make the day happen without his presence. Maybe because it’s the middle of the week, or because Idiong is just ruthlessly efficient.
Only one of the pet dogs is sitting beside the restaurant – the one that didn’t eat 404. I don’t know where the 404-eater has wandered off too. I wonder what will become of the pets. If, one day, their master grows tired of feeding them, and decides to turn them to food.
Behind the corrugated fence, there’s a ditch with charred sand and a tree that has no name and bears no fruit. Under the tree, there’s a cage with one dog sitting. The next time Thursday’s legs are stretched, it’ll be the moment he dies. I wonder how he ended up there. Was he bred on a dog farm for food, or is there someone somewhere hoping Bingo will return home? None of that matters. By tomorrow, he’ll be porridge. One man’s best friend is another man’s food.