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This morning I woke up at 5:20 am to walk down to the village center with the rest of our Dragons group. Upon arriving, we sat just outside of a village home, waiting and watching for something to happen. At 7:00 am, we saw as the villagers brought out two huge water buffalo, tying them to a structure made of bamboo. Overhead, a booming voice blared from the speakers, describing the proceedings in rapid Bahasa Indonesia. Only able to understand small snippets here and there, I looked on in slight confusion. We were in the middle of the Langa version of a housewarming party… only this one involved the public sacrifice and consequent consumption of two water buffalo and 50 pigs.

The first buffalo stood, struggling against its bindings as the square swarmed with onlookers. A man raised a machete into the air, bringing it back down with a steady slash into the neck of the fearful animal. He proceeded to chop the animal two more times. The crowd made little noise. As the buffalo sank to the ground, I became overcome with emotion. My stomach churned and I didn’t know how much more I could bear. Feeling the familiar burning in my eyes that meant tears were on their way, I watched as the man with the machete moved from the first buffalo, just barely dead, onto the next. Unable to take any more, I quietly stood up and walked to the side of our building. I reached the semi-private area just in time for my mess of emotions to come tumbling out uncontrollably, tears rolling down my cheeks, my stomach filled with bricks. Facing the wall, I began to reflect on everything that was occurring.

What exactly had caused me to have such a large reaction? This animal had lived a relatively good life, and every single part of its body would be put to use in death. None would be wasted. Yes, there were many other ways in which this buffalo’s life could have ended that would have been much faster and less painful, however this was the culture of these people. These were the tools they had access to. Who am I to pass judgment on the practices of an old culture that has prevailed despite years of outside influence? There are very few areas left in the world in which such old beliefs and rituals have been maintained for so long, and it is extremely lucky to be able to witness a ceremony such as this. In the US, livestock are placed in dirty, packed cages everyday, living a half life. Big industries treat animals far worse than we would ever be okay with, yet many of us eat their meat daily. What makes this ritualistic sacrifice any worse than many of the ways we treat animals at home?

Personally, I was deeply affected by the proceedings this morning, but I cannot say that I am not thankful for the experience. No amount of description or mental preparation can really make you ready to witness an event like this. The 50 pigs that were killed were loud, the squeals sounding almost like human screams as they were tied up and dragged around before finally being sacrificed. Watching an animal in so much pain feels so wrong, yet who are we to tell this old culture that they cannot kill animals for food and spiritual connection? We may not personally agree with the harm of these animals, yet we cannot tell them their way of life is wrong. I have been facing this moral dilemma all day: if I could, would I save all these animals from cruelty, but kill a culture? I don’t think I would.

Saving these 52 animals from suffering here, today, would not save the millions who suffer worse fates than these every day in the US. It would not save the species’ of animals who are suffering due to climate change. It would not save those animals who are illegally poached across the world. These animals here at least have some freedom in life, and purpose in death. The meaning that they have to the people here can never be understood by us outsiders, and although it is unpleasant to watch, it is an important thing to be aware of. Langa is an officially catholic village, but many animistic practices are still very relevant. These practices are incredibly spiritual, and they are used as a way to connect with their ancestors. Many sacrifices happen every year, but ceremonies of the scale we witnessed this morning only occur once or twice a year. We are extremely lucky to have just so happened to come here at the same time as this event.

Coming out of this morning I feel different than I did before. It’s almost impossible not to after an experience such as this. I hear some group members discussing becoming vegetarian, while some of  us -myself included- still feel like breaking down at the mere thought of what took place this morning. But talking to everyone here, not a single one of us regrets being there for the sacrifice. We learned a lot, and I can say with confidence that it made me a better and more conscious person.