Apart from milking them, herding them, and delivering salt to the cows, there were two other interesting stories from my time in the west of Kenya that pertains to cows.
One of the traditions of the Luo people of western Kenya (at least where I was residing) was the use of cows as part of a funeral procession. I was told that there were two mainstays of the Luo funeral procession – only one of which I was witness to – and those are cows and mourners, both of which can be hired for the occasion. In the west of Kenya, cows are a mainstay of assets, and the procession of cows is a way to honor the deceased. When it comes to death, it has been a long tradition that evil spirits can play a role in someone’s passing. Mourners may wail, sing, and dance to scare away the evil spirits. To be fair, I have not done justice to the Luo death and funeral rituals which are far more traditional and extensive than the other tribes in Kenya. Still, it was a sight to behold in the one funeral procession I observed.
The other tale is far more light-hearted. To the west of the traditional Luo lands are the lands of the Kuria tribe. Their lands span the countries of Kenya and Tanzania. On the north the lands extend to Lake VIctoria, the south the TransMara of Kenya and Serengeti of Tanzania. They are pastoral people with one of the clans being especially possessive of cattle.
I was invited to visit the home of one of the high school students during the break between semesters who was from a Kuria family living near the border with Tanzania. Apparently it was considered quite the honor to have visitors and a large meal/feast was planned. I was seated near the mzee (the elder) of the clan with the student at hand to translate.
There is a ritual sequence of welcoming and being welcomed that (with the student’s help) I was able to navigate. When the elder asked about my family I replied and in the telling mentioned that my father had passed away many years before. The elder was quite interested in which of his brothers then married my mom. The Old Testament law of the levirate was active among his people! I explained that such was not my tribe’s tradition. Upon which he asked who then took care of the family cattle since I was the only son and here in Kenya. I explained we did not own cattle, but instantly segued the discussion to a family friend, Maston O’Neil, who owned a large number of cattle in the Kissimmee, Florida area.
The elder then explained that by right, all cattle in the world belonged to the Kuria. He politely asked me to inform Maston that the mzee would be coming to claim his cattle. I think he was serious.
As the conversation continued I asked him how many children and grandchildren he had. The student did not translate the question. Assuming the young man had not heard, I asked again. Again, the young man did not translate. Sensing a cultural faux paux, I let the question pass. But at some point it seems the question was passed along to the mzee, who gave his answer.
As best I can recall, he said: “I have many cows. I always count my cows. They are the wealth of the family and the way I support my own. I work hard and have earned the cows that I have. So, I keep track of them and always know how many cows I have. Children are a gift from God. It is not polite to count the children. Mine is only to be grateful.”