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Traditional uses of cattle

Updated on August 29, 2013
A local breed from Western Kenya
A local breed from Western Kenya | Source

All the Uses of a Cow in Africa

The cow has always been very important to Africans. In Ancient Egypt the sky was imagined as a Cow Goddess, with her feet on earth, supported by other deities. Her belly, full of stars was the sky. Sometimes she was depicted as a woman bending over the earth with her belly held up by a kneeling Shu, God of the wind. This shows how esteemed the cow was as a sustainer of life in the whole world. The Kikuyu of Kenya also believed that when they died, they would go to a heaven that was underground where they would have the same wealth in cattle, sheep and goats, and would be joined by their wives.

Many farming and pastoralist communities in Africa take cattle to be a sign of wealth. Among the pastoralists, life revolves around cattle sheep and goats in what anthropologists call the cattle complex. Among ancient Kikuyu, only very few rich men 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. One had to have some sheep and goats, since they were sacrificial animals and ‘the legal tender’ for purchasing other needs. Ordinarily then, cattle were not butchered to supply meat because they were the ‘big notes’ with sheep and goats as the ‘small change.’ In this scheme, a cow is equal to about 10 goats in value.

That said, the cow is still 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 and not 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 6ft long stick for herding cattle. Using any other stick on cattle was prohibited. Special cow bells were fashioned by local black smiths to keep track of wandering bulls or cows.

From the above we have an 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.


When the cow is still alive...

1. The blood

When a cow is still alive, it supplies blood as nourishment to the pastoralist. A leather thong is tied around the animals neck so that the jugular veins will swell up and be visible. Several men hold the bull firmly while another kneels and holds a bow with a special ‘bleeding arrow,’ aiming at the vein. The arrow punctures the vein without causing much injury. The blood that sputters out is directed into a gourd. This is refreshing drink for herders who are caught out in the plains without food or water. LSB Leakey describes how in times of famine, the Kikuyu would use blood that had been similarly acquired by first placing it in vessel over a fire to cause the moisture to evaporate. The resulting cake would be shared out as though it were meat. Other recipes included 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 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 preserve of Warriors mainly and sometimes women. Warriors were called ene iria– 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 a mixture with fresh blood or taken fresh.

· put in a gourd that had been first filled with the smoke of an olive tree. The resulting cuddled milk would have a unique taste from the olive.

3. The urine

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. The dung

Cow dung is a precious commodity. 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 thus treated last for decades.

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

When the animal is slughtered

When a cow was slaughtered for a traditional purpose, nothing from the animal went to waste. All the meat was apportioned out according to tradition. Certain parts could not be eaten by women, while various age grades had their designated parts, according to an oral inviolable ‘constitution.’

1. The blood

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

2. The head and limbs below the knee

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

In the video, see how the Maasai important a cow is in an initiation ceremony

3. Stomach and intestines

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

4. The 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 – as a soup ingredient.

5. Tail

The tail was dried out in the sun and the tip was turned into a fly whisk. Curio makers now buy tails from the slaughterhouse and manufacture flywhisks for the tourist market on a large scale. No visitor to Kenya should go back home without one.

6. The horns

Finally the horns and what to do with them. They made excellet cups. Every Kikuyu old man carried one over his shoulder, suspended on a string. The tip of the cow horn was curved with a know to create a rounded know on which to tie the string. When an old man was invited to a beer party he fished out his horn and got a tot from the host. When cups came into vogue, I actually witnessed the last of the Kikuyu who attempted to carry over the tradition by a string to a cup and walking all over with it over the 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.


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  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

    Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    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 profile image

    Stacy Davis 5 years ago

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

  • profile image

    gogogo 5 years ago

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

  • brackenb profile image

    brackenb 5 years ago

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