Cow is an object of worship but not just in India. At a recent conclave of tribals from across the world, representatives from one particular tribe, the Maasai from East Africa, talked about cow being a symbol of reverence in their culture like a motherly figure. Even though cow is slaughtered and consumed in these parts, the tribal representatives said, it is central to their everyday beliefs and rituals.
“All tribes in Africa slaughter cows. [And yet] cow is integral to our rituals. Rituals are performed on the slaughtered cow,” said Elijah Sereuelijah, a representative of Maasai tribe from Kenya.
The community leader was in India for Samvaad, an international tribal summit. The Maasai is one of the Nilotic tribes of East Africa, occupying Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania areas.
“We eat cow’s meat and drink its blood. The ritual is important as it recognizes the age-groups,” Sereuelijah said. Traditionally, the Maasais who were pastoralists would exclusively eat cow meat and drink cow milk as there was no other source of food. “In contemporary times, we still eat meat with many options—we can mix with vegetables or other food items.”
The Maasais savour their cow meat and eat without any accompaniment as well. Sometimes it is boiled and consumed with soup. “It is also fried and mixed with blood. Different people prefer different flavours,” Sereuelijah added.
Nemarrah Lonkoi, another member of Maasai tribe, said, “Cows are as close as mother — they cover every segment of our life — personal and public, food and compensation etc.”
Some other interesting facts about the relationship between cattle and the Maasai emerged from Sereuelijah’s address.
Cattle are central to Maasai economy. They are accumulated as a sign of wealth, traded and sold to settle debts, pay school fees and fund development projects among other things.
If a person is aggrieved then the culprit will pay nine cows to his family and culprit’s clan will compensate by giving 49 cows.
Religion, Rituals And Resolutions
The cow is also slaughtered to perform rituals like rain-making, dispute resolution, and peacemaking. The whole Maasai life is ritualised and most rituals are accompanied by slaughtering or donating of sacred cows—a sacred cow is one with only one color and has no deficiencies and enjoys good health.
The cow is used to classify people in the society. The more cows one has, the more respected one becomes. It is considered wealth. Most families would be willing to marry off their daughters to people with cows because some of the property would be extended to them.
No Cow, No Culture
The Maasai community has rituals performed by each individual from circumcision, marriage, death and birth. At each stage cow has a central role to play. During marriage at least five cows are provided by the bridegroom family to the brides’ family. On the day of the wedding, the bridegroom’s family would donate cows to the bride to start ownership of cows as property for her — she would brand the animals and that would be the sign of her life.