In an Igbo household just by looking at an animal standing, before it is slaughtered, one would know what part belonged to what member of the family. The head belonged to the Opara first son. The thighs belonged to Ada; the first daughter. The titled man Ichie; receives vital organs like kidney. Igbos are known for speaking in riddles even when they speak of Cows.
The day my grandfather was to be buried, the kinsmen gathered in the centre of the house debating many important family matters including who was to receive leftover Cows. My father was summoned to preside over this delicacy matter. I was sitting somewhere close enough to observe, but far enough not to be sent on an errand. I was paying attention until I was startled by the most furious moo. The Cow was bold, majestic, and unafraid of the imminent danger it was in. Or maybe, it was reconciled to its’ fate. What great stories it would recoil from its belly if we could hear it sing.
“Kilishi is what fire would taste like if it was seasoned with pepper. Suya is the only thing that can make a Nigerian man cry in front of his children.”
The Aboki I grew up around play with cows the way Susan and Bob play with trucks and Lego. It behoofs me how some of these nomadic-header cultures are described by international indices to be living in poverty. But look at their cows! How can a man with 100 cows, and 10 sons be poor? This too is a type of currency.
A Cow never dies. This is a saying from the greatest cattle-rearing people of Great Zimbabwe. If a Cow dies a “natural death” or “old age” indeed it belongs to a foolish person. The folk people of Zimbabwe have a tradition where a person has been identified to be in need, a wealthy cattle rarer will discretely send them a pregnant Cow. This person in need will take care of the Cow until the calf is born. They keep the Calf as their property, the Cows is returned and the cycle of virtue continues. A Cow never dies. Its uses are abundant.
From the Igbo, the Hausa, the Shona, the most inspired cultures of the world have come to know the cultural significance of the Cow. In Nigeria, this appreciation for Cows is never more apparent than during Ramadan. Our streets are abundant with these majestic beasts. If you go to the right market, you can get so close; you can smell the silence on their breath. In our mouths, they explode with peppers and onions. If this was the reward for fasting, every month should be Ramadan! Our Muslim and Hausa brothers and sisters prepare the table for us! Kilishi is what fire would taste like if it was seasoned with pepper. Suya is the only thing that can make a Nigerian man cry in front of his children. When Ramadan meat is involved, there is no man, no child, no Hausa no Yoruba, there is just, sweat, tears, pepper and milk.
As much as we eat Cows in Nigeria, we drink more milk. Milk in Nigeria is our first taste of hypocrisy. Cowbell powdered milk is found on every dining table across the country. Advertised through lush commercials of children going to school fully energised and a post-modern Nigerian family opening up a sachet and mixing it up with water. Oyibo Cows ski down avalanches and break into poses. I was inundated with these styles of commercials when I was a child. These commercials serve as loci for cultural commentary. If for nothing else, but because In one of the hottest countries on earth, our most popular product is sold with a commercial of a ski trip, and a Cow an Aboki’s mother will not recognize.
The socialization of a Nigerian child is such that despite the abundance of culture we live in, our desires are still foreign. Our imaginations are cultivated so when we dream we are always on a flight to America or England. When I am on my bed counting sheep, or Cows, they looked like the type I saw on the Cowbell packaging. They were plump, and polka-dotted, and went on ski trips, wore cowbells, and lived in houses. I have never met a Cow with a bell!
Chimamanda in the danger of a single story spoke about how she grew up reading about winter and plucking apples from trees when her reality was harmattan and udara/agbalumo falling on our heads. This is a similar truth. That these Cows on our streets and the Cows in our imaginings were so disconnected. Is Cowbell really our milk?
My beef is not with Cowbell; to be honest, I am lactose intolerant. As a company, Cowbell has come to be one of the most successful brands, business, and charitable organisations in Nigeria and Africa. But I can not reconcile the subtext of the images with our lived realities.
“But Chukky, Why does it matter what type of Cow is on the cover of a commercial? Don’t you have better things to do with your time? Write about corruption or poverty !” Of course, it doesn’t matter what Cow is on the front cover of Cowbell milk! But of course, it does. It matters because consumer products are cultural artefacts. The things we purchase, at best the things we desire are a reflection of the people we are. Consumer products and commercial advertising showcase the desires and beliefs of people. They sell back to us a more sanitized version of who we think we are or want to be when we use these products. On the other side of the kobo, despite how foreign these Cows may seem, these products are used in ways that are localized and re-contextualized for our families.
“Igbos are known for speaking in riddles even when they speak of Cows.”
As Nigerians, we need to do much more to appreciate our Cows. Why shouldn’t we? They are exceptionally well adapted, strong, and masters of every field. They have been adapted to survive desert towns and forests. They are as fancy as they are furious, elegant, graceful and violent. Their horns inspire fear and elegance. They are a source of great suya, kilishi, metaphor, currency, culture and great pride. If we cannot accept the best of who we are, then surely the worst of who we are presents itself.
But as with many things, it is difficult to know the value of a thing when you have an abundance of it. Cowbell is still awa milk, but that Oyibo thing is not awa Cow. I know this, because somewhere in Abuja, there is a Cowbell truck making way for an Aboki and his Cows to cross the street. I suggest you should too.
My friend, you should know that this story is not about cows. Igbos are known for speaking in riddles even when they speak of Cows.