Living in a generally benign climate, Caribbean people have a close relationship with the creatures of nature, but there’s a particular relationship with dogs (another subject for another day) and, to some degree, goats. In relating these things, sometimes I have an explanation, sometimes not; in this case, while the relationship with dogs can be traced to a number of things, the goat connection is not so obvious.
Mind you, I have some theories: sheep, by comparison, are kind of, well, sheepish. You know – they almost always appear bedraggled, needing a trim and a good washing. Even their colouring is usually a drab dirty brown. Also they emit this mindless bleating – four houses away it can wake you out of a dead sleep – and a sheep on the run is a totally graceless creature.
Goats, on the other hand, even the mature ones, always look like they just walked out of the haberdashery – neat shiny coats, no bits hanging, and lovely colours sometimes with beautiful contrasting designs. In addition to how they look standing still, a goat on the move is fluid motion, athletic, with delicate little hops, and the occasional soaring leap.
I haven’t seen it lately, but a few months ago there used to be a goat herder who would bring his charges down from seawall grazing, in the late afternoon, and they would come across Vlissengen Road heading east somewhere, (must have been about 80 animals) moving in a tight pack following their leaders. Traffic would stop patiently as they crossed, even the minibuses, and it was a delight to see this swarm of sprightly animals, sporting their various colours, in one graceful stream across the road. By contrast, picture a herd of cows, or a bunch of sheep, in the same process. The sheep would be scattered in all directions, and the cows would be moving as slow as molasses going uphill, each on its own flight path, and even stopping to make a delivery in the middle of the roadway. In 5 minutes, the goats are over the roadway, one clean sweep and gone. You have to love that.
I’m not sure about other countries, but in the Caribbean, sheep, cows, donkeys, horses, just wander aimlessly, as if they’re lost. Goats always seem to know exactly where they’re going, which often means the part of your garden overhanging the fence, and they’re also better athletes. A goat will get up on his/her hind legs and reach up at full stretch to grab some high-level plant, whereas a sheep will just take a look, bleat and walk off. In three words, goats are sexy; sheep and cows, well, you know what I mean. Before you bring it up, yes, goats on a hot day don’t smell like a rose, but when you consider all their other attributes, I can deal with the odour.
On the purely practical side, once you get used to the taste, goat milk and goat cheese are wonderful and apparently very nutritious, and goat skin makes excellent drums. (The late Andrew Beddoe, Trinidadian master drummer, swore by his. In a show in Ottawa one time, he told me, “Look na, padna. Dis is goat; when yuh beatin’ it, yuh cyan beat it.”) There is also the ubiquitous curried goat which appears on regional menus. Beloved by Caribbean people, especially the Jamaican brethren, it has also become a favourite with tourists. Restaurant waiters, however, dealing with an American (“Whaddya gat? Any of that goat stuff?”) or an Australian (“Any gowt, mite?”) do sometimes need a translator to get the order right, but in the end curried goat on the menu is a plus.
We sing songs about goats (“The Goat Back-back On Me,” or “Ram Goat Liver,” or “What Sweet in Goat Mouth”; etc). Have you ever heard a song about sheep or cows? Okay, we sing about donkeys a lot, but that’s because they’re so comical and they’re such jackasses.
One myth: Caribbean people will tell you that if a goat bites a plant it will die. It’s nonsense. Leave your plants overhanging your fence, and goats will regularly trim them for you, but the plant doesn’t die. The myth actually is a result of the goat being a meticulous forager (it will eat anything short of barbed wire) and particularly because, if allowed to, it will eat a young plant right down to the ground; cows will eat the top branches and leave a lot of the tree; with a goat, unless you chase him in time, all you’re left with is a stub from which few plants recover. It’s not the actual goat bite; it’s the complete surgery.
Goats also feature in scores of Caribbean stories, including many on the subject of “wearing goat horns” which refers to men being replaced sexually, unknown to them, by another man. But the stories can be diverse. For many years, a group called the Seattle Seafair Pirates participated regularly in Cayman’s Pirates Week Festival. A member of the Pirates Week Committee, by the name of Colin Wilson, decided to treat the Seattle guys to a fortifying goat dish called “mannish water” (the base is goat testicles, but he didn’t tell them that) and drove to East End in the rented Seafair car to collect the goat. On the drive back, not only did the live goat have a bowel movement in the back seat, but the cook in town was incredulous. “How come yuh bring a female goat?” On the return trip from East End, this time with a certified male animal, the rented car’s back seat got another shipment of goat manure. The story ended badly on two counts: discovering they were about to eat goat testicles, the white boys who made up the Seafair Pirates bolted en masse from Grand Cayman. In the process, they left the rented car at the airport parking lot, keys in the ignition, complete with back seat deposits. Wilson did not return calls from the rent-a-car company for several weeks.
I suppose the lesson there is that if someone offers you a goat dish in the Caribbean you should ask for the details.