September 4, 2012

Drinking the Blood of the Bull

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It is said that Maasai warriors can survive on the blood and milk of cattle alone. What better way to start a semester of research in East Africa than by having a taste?

One evening, Ndinini Kursas, a Maasai elder and spiritual leader, invited me to his boma, a traditional homestead made of mud, dung, branches and grass. The elder explained that in Maa (the language of the Maasai) a mixture of milk and blood is called osarge.

Ndinini then asked if I wanted to take a sip from a calabash of the cattle swill. He said he would give me his blessings. Sidai pii! (Very good!)

Two of his sons caught a young bull by the hindquarters and calmed the animal. Ndinini used a blunt arrow to just slightly pierce its jugular, so the blood began to trickle out, rivulets falling into a bead-decorated calabash held by one of the elder’s wives.

Ndinini then instructed me to crouch before him in the middle of the cattle pen. He gave his blessing. No need for milk, I guess. Straight up. No chaser. Still warm! That was what washed over my mind as I downed the vital fluids. Salty. Whiffs from the calabash, aged by years of wood smoke, whirling up until I finished the last drop.

Perhaps reading about drinking blood fulfills your Western-driven image of wild and primal Africa. Of course, many of my African friends in cities, including some Maasai, live off pizza, French fries and daily doses of reality TV and English Premiership soccer. Such a bloodcurdling practice might offend some of them more than it would American vegans and PETA foot soldiers. To add to the fluidity of culture today, I have Maasai friends in villages who always go into the wild armed with clubs, short swords, spears — and smartphones.

In truth, animal blood has long been consumed in various forms in cultures throughout the world. Think of black pudding in merry ol’ England. Worshippers of Christ should not forget the full meaning of the Eucharist.

Among the Maasai, a woman takes osarge after she has given birth, with blood from a bull if the baby is boy and from a heifer if it is girl. During male circumcision ceremonies, when boys officially become warriors, a leading initiate will be the first to drink the blood of a slaughtered bull. Beyond such rituals, blood, which is rich in proteins and lipids, can also provide general nourishment, especially in times of need and drought.

When warriors come home after being out in the wilderness, they sometimes drink blood before being allowed to eat other foods and to carry out their duties. As a grad student research fellow, I have left my home to come into the wilderness of East Africa.

The Maasai elder, Ndinini, might as well be my professor this semester. The Maasailands are my classroom. Let the journey begin.

J.D. O’Kasick is a Cornell graduate student currently in Tanzania conducting research through a fellowship with The Nature Conservancy.

Original Author: J.D. O’Kasick