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Last Man and cow with a name

By Makau Kitata

While growing up in my village, father’s female cows had names: Kailu was the black one; Katune, the red. The bulls didn’t have names except the biggest and most dominant. Ours was Ndewa. Goats did not have names either. They were all restless browsers, sprinting from ridge to ridge to browse at a leaf they had left in the ridge behind – a herds boy’s nightmare.

But there was one cow whose name haunted me. Katiwa, a name given to people orphaned in infancy. People called me Kindu. In Kikamba, it means “something”; a creature that is not yet somebody – yet some cows had names. Only father called me by my name. But he was far away in the city.

The family story was Katiwa’s mother died in her infancy and my mother bottle-fed the little cow. She had brown and white patches on her glistening skin and was fond of people. We considered her part of the household.

Mother would say, “Kindu, make sure Katiwa gets water. Make sure Katiwa doesn’t fall off the cliffs. Make sure Katiwa doesn’t stray to people’s farms.”

The cow was pampered like a real person. It even shared food with us. Mother would sieve soup from boiled maize and beans and give it to her. Some goats had developed a taste for the soup and usually stormed mother’s kitchen to dip their heads into pots. Mother had lost many earthen pots to these binge eaters. Meanwhile, Katiwa gnawed majestic in the pen and waited for the soup treat. In time she got calves and survived to be the matriarch in the herd.

My elder brother had joined the University of Nairobi and learned how to use a sling against the police. He brought that stone-throwing technology home and I quickly learned how to manufacture missile launchers. It gave me power to transform a stone into a bullet.

One day I swung the sling, like a powerful extension of my weak hand, and listened to the zooming sound as the stone flew towards banana trees on our neighbour’s farm. I saw a whole banana tree fall, sliced in half. I tried another slingshot at the granite rocks around home. Sparks flew as the missile exploded to pieces.

As I was the herds boy during the December holidays, I swung my sling and released it on the herd. I was aiming at the restless, nameless goats.  I heard a bang and Katiwa went down. Panicking, I watched as the family’s favourite cow writhed in pain. I had broken its horn.

When I returned home, mother noticed the missing horn and the bloody head.

“Kindu, what happened to Katiwa’s horn?” she asked.

“I have no idea. I think she knocked it against a tree,” I lied.

“And what have you been using the sling for?” wondered my sister.

“I use it to hunt birds.”

“Kindu, you are lucky Katiwa came back alive. I will use my own fingernails to slaughter you if anything happens to Katiwa.”

That year, the drought in Ukambani was severe. Cows were fed on the few surviving banana stems. There was nothing to graze.

My father’s herd turned into a bony gathering. Some nameless cows would drop dead and be buried away.

“If a cow dies, you don’t eat it. You have to slaughter it and let the blood flow for it to be edible.” mama said.

As the drought took more cows, mama announced to the villagers who liked visiting us that we were to slaughter Katiwa before hunger and thirst took her. My uncle dashed to the local brewer and stabilised his shaky hands with a tin of the village brew. Calling my cousin Musyoki, they spread eucalyptus leaves on the ground to make a slaughtering platform. Then uUncle walked around, sharpening a machete on a block of stone. I couldn’t watch the slaughter. I walked away and felt a curious pain, as though I had lost a pet.

Mother let the village share out the meat. Only a small portion consisting of the liver and mat-like offal was left as a meal for the slaughtering party and enthusiastic attendees. I couldn’t eat the meat.

As they relished the drought-time feast, I heard my cousin Musyoki say, “Katiwa has sweet meat.” Others agreed she had been a dependable provider to her last breath.

Uncle went off with the head. He planned to call his jolly buddies for a head soup party the following day.  Mum took the hide to dry and show dad when he returned from the city. When he did, he found me in tears and asked, “Makau, what happened?”

“They slaughtered Katiwa,” I replied, accusing everyone else to cover up my sling crime.

But I sure was happy that he called me by my name.

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