The cow is an amazing animal. For some (Indian Hindus) it symbolises God. For some, it is a tool for agriculture, for ploughing the fields and for fertilising the soil. For some, it is a means of transport. For others, it is a source of nourishment – providing beef, milk, cheese, butter and leather. I think most people would see a cow as wealth.
As a Fulani girl, I certainly have much love for the cow. As you may have read from my earlier blogs, my infancy/toddlerhood was spent on my granddad’s farm (Benue Valley Farm, Fufore). Although the horses are up there with all the great things in life, I always had a special soft spot for the nursing cows and their calves. The bulls to be honest just scared the hell out of me so I always stayed well away from them but not so the calves. We Nigerians believe that when bulls see red, they charge (I am not sure if this is a wider belief) – because of that whenever I forgot to check my clothes before heading to the farm, I would sit in the car in fear of being gored to death. So the bulls get a bit less love from me although I do admire their huge humps from a safe distance.
I remember the joy when we got to the farm after some time away to find a fresh crop of calves all soft and wobbly on their legs, sticking as close to their mums as they physically can. It was fascinating watching them breastfeed and I remember feeling sorry for the poor mums as the calves violently suckled on their udders. If we went early enough, we would catch the milking and the milkers (they were men!) would squirt warm milk straight into our mouths as we danced around in joy. I loved watching as over the days the calves grew in confidence and started to stray away from their mums in little groups. And it was one of those magic moments to see them run for the first time, venturing out into the big bad world without their mum by their side. I must confess I am not sure if calves run but I don’t think they gallop or do they?
There was one particular cow in the herd that was people-friendly and liked to be petted. Now most fully-grown cows are quite aloof and stately so being petted is not something you would do. The calves are usually quite skittish too so cow-love must normally be from a distance. Not this heifer. The herdsmen would call to her using a strange sound that was neither word nor whistling but a cross between. We would scan the herd excitedly, hundreds of cows milling about soon after coming back from grazing into the pen. Then eventually a dark brown cow would emerge from the group and head straight for us. She would poke her head down and through the wooden slats of the fence to the little people waiting expectantly and we would stroke her warm hide and feel the way her skin vibrated and rippled. That is what stays with me; the warm leathery feel and her large eyes looking at us as if with fondness. She was so patient too. She stayed for as long as our attention was fixed on her and we would stay with her for as long as our mama or granddad would let us.
My other main interaction with cows came around slaughter times. My mum, being from a farm and daughter of a Fulani man, preferred to slaughter a cow when we needed meat and then freeze carefully packaged parcels of meat to use daily over time until we went through it all. Just before we ran out of beef, we would get delivery of a bull and he would be tethered to the tree in the back garden and fed some grass. I am not sure why he was kept for days before he was slaughtered but I would hang about the back door, half afraid and half wanting to make friends. I would take a pace back when he mooed and stared at me. Eventually, I would make my way to within a metre of him and talk to him. I would bring fresh water and grass and watch him eat and drink. I would inevitably ask my mama if I could name him but I was forbidden to do so. My mama explained that if I named him, I would start seeing him as a pet and then it would be haram (i.e. forbidden Islamically) for me to eat his meat. So I would refrain from naming him but nevertheless, I would be his friend for the rest of his life.
I watched the slaughter every time despite the sadness it caused me. I would stand inside the parlour (sitting room) and stare out the window as the men tussled with the cow to get him to lie down. They would tie his legs together and dig a hole beside his neck. Next would come the sound of metal on metal as the knife was sharpened as per halal slaughter tradition. I would whisper prayers for a swift death at this point. Then his neck would be extended and with a prayer, the cut in one swift motion. The smell of fresh hot blood spurting into the waiting hole is an ingrained memory. The bit that followed was the worst bit for me…it was chaotic with blood on hands and the volume of the work to do to clean, parcel and tuck it all away into the meat freezer. My main job was to help braid the intestines which we would cook with liver and kidneys to make the most delicious sauces. Much as I had mixed feelings about those days, I learnt much from them. Not least where my meat comes from and facing the fact that an animal has to die for me to enjoy some meat. So I have the utmost respect for meat.
From a Fulani point of view, a cow is more than just a source of meat, dairy products or manure. To us, the cow is the symbol of wealth and I suspect respectability to some extent. Every Fulani person that can afford it has a cow or 2 somewhere back home. I used to have a herd that started from a heifer bought for me when I was a baby (this herd has been lost in time). A couple years ago, my mama felt guilty about my loss so she got me another heifer and I am proud to say I also have a calf that is about 6 months old today. Beautiful calf too – light brown with intelligent eyes. I feel an inordinate amount of pride for my cows and I know many a Fulani woman (or man) feels the same. Of course cows are a source of security because they do fetch a mint in the market so should you need a lump sum, you have it banked. Also we love our milk, yoghurt and man-shanu (which is like ghee) and in the old days, we controlled the supply of those. Around our parts, there is no better treasure to give to your wife when you marry her than the gift of a young heifer. It warmed my cockles when Roger Federer (the greatest tennis player ever!) was rewarded with a cow when he won the Wimbledon trophy for the first time. Now those Swiss know how to appreciate talent!
It is widely known in Nigeria that the Fulanis have a love affair with their cows. We are proud cow people. The saying goes that a Fulani man would let you steal his wife but touch his cows and you are a dead man. You may have heard of the skirmishes in North-central Nigeria around the Jos area which lead to a lot of deaths (of Fulanis and Josites alike) peaking about 4 years ago. Rumours are that at the centre of this bloodshed was the killing of herds of Fulani’s cows in protest of the Fulani herdsmen letting their cows graze on private lands. Suffice it to say, in a place like Yola which is Fulani central, no one dares steal or harm a cow because we all know how true the fears are. Heads will certainly roll should you mess with this Fulani woman’s cow (in a non-violent way of course because yours truly does not sanction violence). Also cows have free reign to roam in many Northern towns and cities and when they cross roads, we all have to sit patiently in our cars and wait until they stroll off the road before the journey can continue. That is major in Nigeria because as most people know, we are not big on patience.
My husband and I on the face of it have not got that much in common and when people ask me I struggle to come up with more than a couple of reasons. However, last year I realised probably the biggest unifier between us is the cow. He is Zulu you see and they too are cow people. So when I comment on how gorgeous cows are and take pictures as they stroll past my car or graze in fields, he totally gets it. I found an art gallery (Whitewall Galleries on Colmore Row, Birmingham) when in town with my husband last summer and although we disagreed about many paintings on display, we totally fell in love with one. A picture of a smiling cow by a fabulously talented local artist. I still have my eye on it and now that we have bought the house, it is next on the shopping list.