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African men’s strange love for livestock

STUDIES
By | December 8th 2008

Ted Malanda

When a retired top GSU officer died two years ago, a policeman friend eulogised the departed warrior with this rather unique anecdote:

"That old man loved his bull. If we were on assignment in the Rift Valley, he always made a point to visit his farm, even if it was late at night. Once, he examined that bull by torchlight in deep silence for up to 10 minutes. Then with a little smile, said, "haya, twende sasa! (It’s okay now, we can go)."

And two weeks ago, I got another illustration of this reverence for livestock from an unlikely quarter. We were having a drink with Benson Riungu when his phone rung. "It’s my workman," he announced as he stepped out of the, uh, bar.

He resumed his seat minutes later, his face furrowed and downcast. But his phone rang once more before we could resume our conversation. He listened for two seconds, said he would call back and curtly hung up.

"Ted, is this guy who has just called crazy? My workman informs me that my cow is limping and even before I digest the devastating news, this fellow calls asking about a book fair. How the hell does he expect me to discuss book fairs when my cow is limping?"

African man

Now, that is a proper African man. I know old men who wake up at the crack of dawn to visit the cattle boma, saying good morning to the cows without bothering to check whether the children survived the night.

They know each cow’s ancestral line and call them by name. Strangely, the cows respond, causing one to wonder whether owner and beast speak the same language. Should the cow die because it ate a poisonous toad, the old men would be too distraught to eat.

If he happens to be your father and you speak on phone, he will spend one minute discussing the weather, another discussing the general state of the village and the reminder of the time musing about the cows. If there is a strain in his voice when you say hello, safely bet that one of the cows sneezed the whole night.

Dowry

That’s why I get tickled when modern women find it offensive that dowry is still pegged to what they dismiss as ‘mere’ cattle. What they forget is that to an African elder, cattle aren’t commodities for trade — they are life itself. Even when the old men demand a million bob in hard cash, a marital deal is never complete until one breathing cow is exchanged.

Cows aren’t a village thing. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Kenyan rears zebus on the fifth floor of an apartment in Umoja. Even those guys teeing off at the Muthaiga Golf and Country Club own cattle which they spend hours bragging about although they are rich enough to pay dowry for their sons using merchant ships and factories.

And it’s not just a Kenyan thing, either. Years ago, while showing guests around a Maasai manyatta, a Zambian scientist suddenly burst into tears.

"It’s okay, brothers, I’m fine. It’s just that this smell of urine and cow dung made me so homesick!" the man with a doctorate in zoology explained amid tearful sobs.

Among the Luhya, reverence for cattle is so profound that some rituals aren’t complete until a cow is led into the house. Of course if that cow does not urinate before assembled elders, the woman who is the subject of the ritual won’t give birth. But that is a story for another day.

It’s a crude call to arms and not honour

Ted Malanda

While I am an avowed traditionalist, I draw the line on three things: Female circumcision, wife beating and walking around with clubs. In this digital age, they are simply out of place.

When the reigning Nabongo called a Press conference some years back, one journalist ribbed him, saying the bodyguards who stood behind the Luhyia ‘King’ were armed with Maasai rungus!

To be fair to him, I suspect the Nabongo — a polished and educated man who spent decades in the corporate world — was just putting on a show. And that’s what rungus are: A show.

TRIBAL ELDERS

Each time a politician wants to make a pitch for high office, he or she is anointed as a tribal elder. There is something very disconcerting about watching fat men in monkey skins jumping up and down the arena with spears, bows and arrows. Aside from being an eyesore, it unnervingly resembles a military call to arms. To fight whom? Other tribes?

You see, Kenyans associate skins and rungus with culture, which is only partly true. We forget that culture is more holistic; values and knowledge — an entire way of life — and that the rungus and other traditional regalia are but an artistic expression of the same. Thus, a ‘cultured person’, according to the Collins English dictionary, shows "good taste, manners, upbringing and education."

If you picked a cultured Maasai elder and placed him in a room with an elder from Punjab, you would be amazed by how similar they are in manner of speech, gestures, general decorum, depth of knowledge and ability to generate that complex thing called wisdom.

The traditional elder of old was a retired war general, a master diplomat and fearsome intellectual who separated warring parties with a proverb. But there is nothing elderly, wise, intellectual or cultured about our ‘anointed’ elders. For them, culture starts and ends with the rungu.

I can’t stand rungus for another reason. Look, other people protect their wives and daughters from perverted rapists with shotguns. Their armies have nuclear weapons.

So why are we still keeping clubs under our beds and standing on hilltops with machetes and blunt spears? Should we still be knocking out each other’s brains with rungus millions of years after the Stone Age?

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