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Traditional Uses of Cattle in Africa

A local breed from Western Kenya

A local breed from Western Kenya

The Uses of the Cow in Africa

The cow has always been very important to Africans. The Kikuyu of Kenya, for example, believed that when they died they would be rewarded in heaven with wealth in the form of cattle, sheep, goats and their wives.

Many pastoral communities in Africa view cattle as a sign of wealth. Among the pastoralists, life revolves around cattle, sheep and goats in what anthropologists call the cattle complex.

Among ancient Kikuyu, very few could afford to own large herds of cattle. The majority had a few cattle and many goats, while the poor maintained small herds of goats. Sheep and goats, since they were sacrificial animals and ‘the legal tender’ for purchasing other needs, were a necessity. With this system of value, it followed that cattle were not butchered to supply meat because they were expensive, while sheep and goat were cheap. For perspective, a cow is equal to about ten goats in value.

The cow continues to be treated with a lot of respect by African farmers and pastoralists alike. Indeed, the Maasai have traditional remedies for most cattle illnesses, while the Kikuyu are more likely to spend money for veterinary services for a cow, something they would never consider for a donkey. Striking someone else’s cow with a stick is a great insult to the owner, and the Kikuyu even had a special six-foot long stick for herding cattle. Using any other stick on cattle was prohibited. Special cow bells were also fashioned by local blacksmiths to keep track of wandering bulls or cows.

This should give the reader some idea of the importance of the cow to many communities in Africa. This importance extends also to cattle products in their entirety. Below is a treatise on the use of cattle products in Africa.

Uses of Live Cattle

1. Blood

When a cow is still alive, its blood is used as nourishment for the pastoralist.

A leather thong is tied around the animals neck so that the jugular veins will swell up and become visible. Several men then hold the bull firmly while another kneels and holds a bow with a special bleeding arrow aimed at the vein. The arrow punctures the vein without causing pain to the animal. The blood that sputters out is directed into a gourd., which serves as a refreshing drink for herders who are caught out in the plains without food or water.

L.S.B. Leakey describes how in times of famine, the Kikuyu would use blood that had been similarly acquired by placing it in vessel over a fire to cause the moisture to evaporate. The resulting cake would be shared as though it were meat. Other recipes included the combination of animal fat, honey and milk.

One can therefore understand why pastoralists are reluctant to slaughter their animals in times of draught. The animals can eat grass, which man cannot eat. The grass is then converted into blood and milk, which man can use.

2. Milk

A Kikuyu married man was not allowed by tradition to milk a cow. This work was the responsibility of warriors mainly, and sometimes women. These warriors were called ene iria, or "owners of milk," as a tribute to their enterprise in raiding other communities to acquire more cattle.

Besides fresh milk, there are many recipes for curdled milk using certain herbs that are unique to specific communities. Milk could be:

  • Used in a mixture of fresh blood or taken fresh
  • Put in a gourd that had been first filled with the smoke of an olive tree. The result is a curdled milk with a unique taste from the olive tree smoke

3. Urine

As odd as it may sound, the Kikuyu used the cow’s urine to sterilize the inside of the gourd that would carry the milk. The urine was also used to sterilize the hands that would do the milking. Some communities have a recipe that includes a cow’s urine in the milk.

4. Dung

Cow dung is a precious commodity in Africa. When mixed with ash from the cooking hearth, it is a good plaster for a mud hut for both the wall and the floor. A well plastered hut is a very neat dwelling indeed. The mixture also acts a termite repellent and huts have been thus treated for decades.

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Dried cow dung can also be used as a fuel just like any dry timber. It has also been found to be a veritable insecticide.

Uses of Slaughtered Cattle

When a cow is slaughtered for a traditional purpose, nothing from the animal goes to waste. All the meat is portioned out according to tradition. Certain parts cannot be eaten by women, while various age grades have their designated parts, according to an oral and inviolable constitution.

1. Blood

The blood can be mixed with potatoes and other bits of precooked pieces of meat to stuff the intestines. Well seasoned, the resulting sausage is very tasty.

2. Head and Limbs Below the Knee

The head and the lower limbs below the knee are singed over a fire to get rid of all the fur. They are then scraped clean and thrown in the soup pot. After boiling the contents of the soup pot continuously and after adding a bit of seasoning to taste, the soup is a very good tonic. Once all the nutrients have been drained out of the head and limbs, the legs were given to uncircumcised boys to nibble on while the old man invited his friends to share the head.

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3. Stomach and Intestines

The stomach and intestines are stuffed with meat, potatoes and the coagulated blood to make puddings and sausages. Since the stuffing is pre-cooked, they are roasted over hot coals and the result is a culinary pleasure.

4. Skin

Needless to say, in the old days, the skin was the fabric for haute-couture. All kinds of fashionable items could be made. Since the cotton and synthetic fabric has relegated traditional leather items to museums, some people treat the skin the same way as the head and lower limbs: that is, as a soup ingredient.

5. Tail

The tail was dried out in the sun and the tip was turned into a fly whisk. Curious makers now buy tails from the slaughterhouse and manufacture fly whisks for the tourist market. No visitor to Kenya home without one.

6. Horns

Finally, the horns. The make excellent cups. Every Kikuyu old man would carry one over his shoulder, suspended on a string. The tip of the cow horn is curved to create a rounded notch on which to tie the string. When an old man is invited to a beer party, he fished out his horn and got a tot from the host. When the cups came into vogue, I actually witnessed the last of the Kikuyu who attempted to carry on the tradition by a tying a string to a cup and walking all over with it over his shoulder. The fashion never made an impression on the post independence generation.

So there you have it. Long live the cow, whether it is a Boran, or an Ayrshire, man will never learn to live without cattle.

Questions & Answers

Question: Why were cattle important to farmers?

Answer: They were not only a sign of wealth, but also currency to pay for goods and services.

© 2012 Emmanuel Kariuki


Emmanuel Kariuki (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on May 25, 2018:

Welcome Kevin. I am glad you found the article useful.

Kevin Kerto on May 25, 2018:

Thank You Sir. Learned a great deal from this article!

Emmanuel Kariuki (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on July 18, 2013:

brackenb, gogogo, Stacy Davis - sorry for responding late. Thanks for taking time to read my hub. Cows are very important in Africa. I will soon be updating to give the uses that were missed out.

Stacy Davis on August 05, 2012:

Very interesting! I learned quite a bit from this hub.

gogogo on May 02, 2012:

Very interesting, I learned a lot it seems the cow is very important

brackenb on May 02, 2012:

I learned a good deal about cows from this and we have a few them at home! Interesting stuff, voted up and interesting.

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