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Buying the knife

Buying the knife

Photo by Andrew

I’ve lived in Africa for the past two years—came from suburban America—and the vast cultural differences have led to plenty of new experiences. It’s difficult to look back and pick the most memorable, but I do know that my two-year commitment with OM Africa as a journalist ended with an experience I’m not likely to forget any time soon.

Every Christmas, OM Ghana hosts an outreach called the Hope Visit to the northern regions of the country, where poor (or non-existent) roads and heavy rainy seasons leave the local communities isolated. The past two years, I’ve been able to join the Hope Visit, spending the holiday in a place where Christmas is just another day—a nearly 100 per cent Muslim population doesn’t exactly take the day off to celebrate the birth of Christ. And so, the Hope Visit team doesn’t do any of that either.

But they do slaughter a cow. 

It’s for the youth ministry portion of the outreach—a feast for the children, who don’t often get a chance to eat meat.

Of course, buying an entire cow is expensive, even in Africa’s remotest regions, and so OM Ghana field leader Chris only goes ahead with the purchase if someone on the team provides the money. He calls it “buying the knife”—because whoever pays for the cow gets to slaughter it.

Back in 2016, during my first Hope Visit, a good friend from Germany (a 21-year old guy doing sports ministry in Ghana) “bought the knife.”

This past Christmas, on the Hope Visit again, I jumped at the chance to buy the knife—I didn’t even wait for Chris to ask. I had killed a couple chickens in Africa, but I wanted that experience of killing the cow. I mean, wouldn’t you? No? Maybe not. Anyway, I did buy the knife.

I grew up in the American Midwest; I come from a family of farmers on my mom’s side. But before I came to Africa, I can’t recall ever seeing a slaughtering, up close and in person. I’d seen a couple videos, and I’m not squeamish around blood, but I’d just never had the opportunity to actually be there.

Westerners in general, and Americans specifically, I think, are far-removed from the concept of killing for sustenance. We buy all our beef and chicken and fish in neat packages at the grocery store, usually oblivious to the process that comes before.

In the African context, however, the death of animals is an everyday part of life for humans. In northern Ghana, for example, there are no grocery stores. There’s limited refrigeration—typically, if a family wants to eat meat, they slaughter the animal and prepare it in one day. (Of course, in African town markets there are butchers, who have already killed the animal, but every part of it—literally—is arranged on counters.) From infancy, Africans learn that meat comes from killing animals.

And so what is strange to the westerner is just another daily experience for the African. Death in Africa is not a foreboding mystery waiting somewhere in the future; it’s a reality—often a harsh reality.

I suppose that’s what I wanted to grasp onto—why I was so quick to buy the knife. When I return to America this month, I’m not just taking a bunch of disconnected experiences in a vacuum. I’m taking a completely different outlook on life.

For example, I think missions has a way of making practical applications to deep theological truths. For as long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve always had some theoretical concept of the cross—what Jesus did and how He satisfied God’s wrath on my behalf. But during last year’s Hope Visit, I happened to be reading a book by John Murray entitled Redemption Accomplished and Applied, which covers the atonement pretty comprehensively. I had just read a portion where Murray talks about the Old Covenant sacrifices in Israel—how Jesus’s death was not a mirror of the bloody sacrifices in the Jewish temples, but rather, those sacrifices were a mirror of His work to come. 

It was all deep, profound stuff, and really awesome, but it gained new meaning when I slaughtered the cow. There I was, standing over the cow and watching its life drain from it, and I thought about what it must have been like for the Israelites to stand before the altar, their hands on the lamb of the guilt offering, watching the same thing—a picture of forgiveness of sins. Some of them understood what it meant: that a greater sacrifice was coming.

And so, as I slaughtered the cow, the atonement of Christ was ringing in my ears. A beautiful theological truth made real on the mission field.

It often happens that way. I’ve heard it so much it’s almost a cliché: we who join international missions do so because we hope to be used by God to help other people; but in the end, our experiences change us even more.

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