A group of men spent more than four hours butchering one of three cows struck dead by lightning last month. With no way to preserve the meat, it was critical for the men to distribute it quickly. Vanessa Paolella photo

Editor’s note: This column contains images and descriptions of butchering cows. 

When lighting strikes here, as it often does, it strikes to kill.

Such was the case for three cows belonging to a family in the village next to mine last month.

I received enough meat to share with three families in my village. With no refrigerator, the meat here must be cooked immediately after it’s purchased. Vanessa Paolella photo

It was the strongest storm I’ve seen in Madagascar. And as much as I love a good thunderstorm, the strikes were so close, even I was jumping in fright inside my dark, brick home.

After the hour-long storm had passed, I learned about the cows. Not one, which would itself be a tragic loss, but three.

So I did what any good neighbor would do here in Madagascar: I stopped by the next morning and bought some fresh, lightning-struck beef. (As I write this letter on Jan. 16, I’m finishing the last few pieces. Delicious).


When I arrived around 9 a.m., I found dozens of people gathered around a group of men butchering one of the deceased cows. I came at a time when the legs still looked like legs, and the ribcage was easily identifiable. To the side sat piles of skin and innards, opposite of the three cow heads staring blankly ahead. 

I learned that the the owners’ six cows had been out grazing on a mountain slope near a stand of trees when the storm hit. It took just a single lightning strike to kill half of the herd, a small fortune by Malagasy standards. 

After the rain subsided, family members quickly trekked out to the site to cut the cows into pieces and carry them back to the village. The dismembered cows were then stored inside a room in someone’s house overnight.

Three cows remain in the herd after lightning killed three others. The cows are used as work animals to help plow fields. Vanessa Paolella photo

When morning came, two of the cows were loaded onto kingas — small three-wheeled vehicles not unlike tuktuks — and brought to Ambalavao, where they were sold to a butcher at a steep discount. At the same time, the men got to work butchering the third cow at home.

All through the morning, family members and others stopped by to take a share of the meat. With no refrigeration here, time was of the essence, and no one wanted to see good meat go to waste.

When I returned for a second visit, camera in hand, I found that the men had moved on from butchering the cow to stringing chunks of meat for people to carry home.


The men used oversized needles threaded with string made from large, dried leaves. Usually, the needles are used to thread tobacco leaves for drying.

Many people couldn’t afford to purchase the meat outright. Instead, the owner’s son kept a log of people’s names, villages and the amount of meat they received. 

Later, these people will either pay the family back with money, or more likely, in rice. Everyone here grows rice; some teachers even receive rice in lieu of a paycheck. 

Even so, the owners won’t be able to recover the lost value of their three cows. Normally valued at $2 million ariary each (roughly $450), the cows sent to Ambalavao were purchased for half of that, a bargain for the butcher.

My host sister Fanja sits on the floor of my home with her 6-year-old son Faneva as they cut the beef into long strips. Vanessa Paolella photo

It’s sad, but people and animals die from lightning strikes here often. I’m not an expert, but I imagine the frequent storms and lack of trees and tall buildings all contribute to the problem.

The same storm that killed the cows also killed a young man nearby, I was told. My host sister’s father was struck and killed by lightning when she was just 3 years old.


For less than $4, I received several fantastic cuts of meat. Often when people buy meat from the butcher here, the meat includes skin, a thick layer of fat and bones. Mine was, gloriously, pure muscle.

It was too much for me to eat, even with my host family’s help. I ended up giving a couple of chunks away to two of my favorite families nearby.

That night, we ate the tasty morsels along with rice, boiled squash leaves and carrot salad.

It was fantastic.

Generally, meat is sold in my village just twice a year: on New Year’s Eve in December and the nation’s Independence Day in June. Other than that, if you want to get meat here, you’ll have to buy a live chicken and kill it yourself.

Once there was a butcher in my village. But the people here are too poor to afford meat regularly, and the seller went out of business.


Personally, I buy meat every time I head to Ambalavao, about three times a month. It makes me especially happy to share it with my pregnant host sister and her son; protein deficiency is a serious issue here.

A boy stands with his family’s share of meat on Jan. 15. Plastic bags and containers are not common in my area of rural Madagascar. Chunks of meat were instead threaded onto a piece of string made from a large dried leaf to carry home. Vanessa Paolella photo

I’ve learned how to ask for just the muscle alone.

Even so, the next time lightning strikes and kills livestock here, you can be sure I’ll be there bright and early with money and a container in hand. It’s the least I can do.

A reader asked:

How has your personal diet changed since moving to your village? How has that adjustment been? — Alex Brovender, Boston

I’ve always been a picky eater. I ate my first salad on a plane to China in 2019, and only started eating eggs and vegetables soon after. It’s a good thing, too — just about everything I eat here is rice, vegetables and beans. I’ve never eaten so much zucchini in my life. Frankly, my diet has never been better. The transition was challenging, especially the first couple of months when I couldn’t cook for myself. I struggled to finish all of the rice on my plate. Meat was difficult because it was often attached to skin and bones. The fish still had its head, skin and fins. I know for a fact the old me would have starved here. At the same time, I’ve discovered some new favorite foods. More on that (with recipes!) in a future column.


Have questions? Send them to van.paolella@gmail.com or by mail to the Sun Journal at 64 Lisbon St., Suite 201, Lewiston, ME 04240.

Vanessa Paolella

On a personal note:

Slowly but surely, my personal garden is growing. I have beans, carrots, lettuce, squash, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, radishes and bok choy planted. The aim is to inspire other women to create gardens and grow their own vegetables. By the time this column runs, I will hopefully have started a community garden project with a local women’s group. Wish me luck!

Vanessa Paolella is a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar, a former award-winning staff writer for the Sun Journal and a Bates College graduate. The views expressed in this column are hers alone and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, the Peace Corps, or the Madagascar government.

The three cows were struck by lightning and killed near the stand of trees on the mountainside on Jan. 14. The cows were out grazing when the storm rolled in. Vanessa Paolella photo

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