KURASA : The Skill of Bleeding a Cow
Kurasa literally translates as “to shoot”. However, Kurasa is also the name of the process of drawing blood from a cow, especially as a method of treatment for the cow. Although used largely as a means of controlling disease in cattle, bleeding also provides nutrition for Basongora. The blood drawn from the cow is cooked and then eaten. Kurasa remains one of the most distinctive practices of the Songora people.
Whenever the process of Kurasa is performed children are involved as a means of transmitting the tradition to the younger generation. Transmitting the skill and knowledge largely depends on parents and elders passing on the skills to the children.
The traditional cattle-herding lifestyle of BaSongora is notable for its adaptation to dry savanna and scrublands, as well as to rugged mountainous terrain that makes up the Rift Valley in East Africa. Despite the abundance of lakes and rivers, Busongora’s lowland plains were always prone to droughts caused by extreme and prolonged spells of heat and dryness, as well as excessive rainfall and flooding during the wet seasons.
Moreover, because Busongora sits astride a rich and ancient trade route - with plenty of fresh water and lots of wild animals, as well as massive salt and mineral deposits, the region was always subject to frequent invasions which made reliance on agriculture risky and untenable. Maintaining movable herds of hardy cattle allowed the Basongora to survive and thrive in harsh and unforgiving political and ecological environment.
The traditional staple diet of Basongora is cow milk. Cow milk is a highly nutritious food but lacks both iron and vitamin C. Because Basongora never engaged in cultivation of plants - some of which can supply essential trace minerals and vitamins - cow blood used to be a necessary dietary supplement. Unlike milk which is consumed every day, cow blood is consumed infrequently.
The bleeding of cows among Basongora is one of the revered social practices where “enjuba” - the blood collected from a living cow - is used for human consumption. Consuming blood was noticed to cure anaemia, and other human ailments.
Cow blood contains plenty of iron as well as trace minerals. Deficiency in iron leads to anemia, a condition marked by a low rates of red blood cells or of hemoglobin in the blood, resulting in body weakness and a sickly appearance. Ancient Basongora understood and appreciated the curative properties of cow blood.
Bleeding cattle has several advantages for both animals and people. Traditional concern for the welfare of cows caused many Basongora to avoid eating cow meat because it involves killing the cow. Basongora generally would rather simply bleed a cow to obtain nutrition and yet allow the cow to live. Moreover, because meat is hard to digest, blood is preferable and a much more healthy alternative to meat. The blood of indigenous Songora cows is very nutritious and provided dietary supplements - such as iron - which are not found in milk.
However, an important social function of the bleeding is to perform rituals to treat infertility. After bleeding a female cow, the shooter would take the bow and blooded arrow, and drip some of the blood in twelve places along the cow’s back, all the while counting up to twelve and speaking special words, as a means of blessing the cow.
Cow bleeding was meant for treatment for the cow whenever it was infected with disease such as headache, infertility, or lumpy skin [eki-furuuto]. The cow would bleed and get cured. Once the blood was drawn it could be cooked and then consumed by humans without any adverse effects to their health. Humans consumed only relatively small amounts of cow blood, as the blood is extremely salty and causes one to feel satisfied rather quickly.
An important point to note, is that the practice of Kurasa plays an important part in conservation of wildlife by negating the need for meat consumption among Basongora.
Basongora traditionally did not eat wild game meat, and this peculiar disdain for killing animals has led to a noticeable tendency for wild animals to seek refuge near Basongora communities. A particularly glaring example of this relationship with wild animals is the area in Virunga National Park called Karuruma. After Basongora were forced to leave the park the Kururuma area became depleted of wild animals for many years, especially due to illegal poaching by members of other communities. However, when the Basongora were allowed to return to the Karuruma, the wild animals also returned in abundance.
THE PROCESS OF KURASA
A suitable cow for bleeding is identified, and held with the help of a sizeable number of men in order to keep the cow very still. An experienced shooter is called and given the bow and arrows to use. A person who is not skilled at bleeding cows is not allowed to hand the lancing equipment to the more skilled person. He must place the equipment - collectively known as “Ebiraso” - on the ground in front of the more skilled shooter so that the skilled shooter picks them up off the ground.
The shooter picks the bow [Obuta] and specially shaped but sharp-edged arrow. The arrow used for shooting the cow is spoon-shaped or rounded rather than pointed. The special rounded arrow used to lance the vein is called “aKarunguru”. The arrow is meant to open the vein but not to sever it. If a pointed arrow - called “oMwambi” [pl. eMyambi] - were to be used it might go through the vein and cause the cow to bleed internally and the die. The aim of the shooter is simply to make a small opening on the outer side of the vein that will close as soon as the cow is let go.
The bearer of the bow and arrows starts by cleaning them, collects ropes – one short rope for tying the cow’s neck, and one long rope for tying the legs - as well as a wooden bucket. The long rope [oMuguha] run tightly between the legs is used to still the legs. The second and shorter rope, called “eBohera”, is tied around the neck tightly in order to pop the blood vessels the cow. The cow’s horns are held firm in order to immobilize the head. One person tightens that short rope to strain and pop the veins in the neck, and identifies a good spot to shoot the arrow. The chosen spot to shoot along the vein is called “obwamata”. The spot is then shot hard and blood spurts out. While all this is done the cow has to be standing.
The cow is always shot on the right hand side of the neck. A cow that is chewing the cud is not bled until it has finished. The right eye of the cow - on the side of the shooter - is covered while the lancing is taking place so as not to frighten the cow.
The bleeding lasts for a few minutes and draws about 2.5 litres of blood from the cow. Bleeding stops as soon as the ropes around the neck are loosened. The cow is not harmed by the process of kurasa and is able to walk and resume its normal activities immediately after the bleeding. If the bleeding fails to stop immediately upon loosening of the ropes, the cow is fed water, and after a few minutes the bleeding will stop.
Icuba - a small bucket traditionally made of wood - is used for collecting the blood as it flows out of the cow’s vein. The collected blood is known as “Enjuba” - a special name to differentiate blood from a live cow from other kinds of blood.
The collected blood - Enjuba - is stirred immediately after the small bucket is full. The clotted blood is divided into small portions and the portions are put in a saucepan for cooking. In the past Basongora used baked and glazed clay pots and bowls for cooking, however metal saucepans are more readily accessible and have taken the place of clay saucepans. The collected and clotted blood is then given to women to cook, and later it is served for eating.
Cow blood is cooked in three different methods:
One method of preparing the blood is called “entuguta”. The freshly collected blood is stirred and then when it clots its broken into pieces then mixed with thick stirred gee [kyitaama], a cup of milk, and half-a-cup of yogurt. After cooking for about 30 minutes, it is ready and removed from the fire and the saucepan is set down on a pile of cow dung in order to cool it down. When it has cooled it is served. When eating it they dinners us “engamba” - snail shells as spoons. These days they use metal spoons instead of shells.
A second method of cooking called “eyobukaba” involves washing the hands thoroughly and then using the hands to separate and pull of bits of the congealed blood off the stirring stick. Gee sauce [eshabwe] and clarified butter or gee are mixed-in with the caked-blood and then the mixture is cooked in a saucepan for about 30 minutes before serving.
In the third method of preparing cow blood - the clotted blood is mixed-in with some salt and gee and then covered with pumpkin leaves and then it is left on the ground to be cooked by the heat of the sun. This kind of cooking is known as “kujumika”.
THE TERMINOLOGY OF KURASA
The Rusongora language has terms that specifically apply only to cows and not people, and also words unique to items associated with cows. Both human blood and blood from a slaughtered cow are called “orwamba”. Basongora beliefs prohibit people from consuming “orwamba”. However, fresh blood lanced from a living cow is called “enjuba” and can be consumed if that cow is not injured or killed in the process of bleeding it. If the cow accidentally dies during the Kurasa process, its blood - which becomes “orwamba” - and its meat cannot be eaten.
Moreover, some terms are used only during the enactment of the Kurasa. Such words include okumosa, okubar’ra ente, and others. Names for items used during the lancing, and also during the cooking, are special and only apply to the processes involved in kurasa.
Kurasa requires intangible special skills and knowledge. One needs to be able to shoot an arrow into a cow with just enough force to nip a vein but without injuring the cow permanently. Moreover a shooter has to have the skill of identifying suitable blood vessels for lancing, as well as the skill to “Kumosa” - to manipulate the cow’s head and throat in order for the vessels to properly fill with blood, and in order to prop the cow properly for lancing. Cows are powerful animals and a slight error can cause injury or death to the cow or to its human handlers.
Lastly, the skill of “kubar’ra ente” - which means to do the count that involves measuring the cow’s length, and to bless the cow - is performed by people who have a special understanding of cows and vast experience in caring for and treating cows. Kurasa is only one of the methods used to cure cows that become ill. There are many other traditional forms of treatment that are used, alone or in combination, by Basongora in order to cure cows of a range of ailments. Treatments range from massage, to special herbs, to using hot irons to lance wounds or repair nerve damage or broken bones.
Usually cows are handled gently from the moment they are born, so as to teach them to remain calm during stressful situations. Cows that are not properly trained by kind owners can be easily terrified and can cause injury to themselves or to their handlers when they are stressed. A lot of time is spent by Basongora talking and singing to cows, caressing them, and making sure that the cows are healthy and happy.
VIABILITY OF OKURASA
However, although BaSongora have a culture that is deeply connected to cattle, increasingly religious beliefs introduced during the colonial era by the Europeans and Arabs have discouraged the consumption of cow blood. If Kurasa is alienated the traditional treatment of cows and the encompassing cultural norms will be extinct if they are not safeguarded.
Moreover, the introduction and promotion of new foods by the modern economy have caused many Basongora to abandon their traditional dietary habits. Fried junk foods and highly processed such as refined maize flour, as well as beans and cassava are readily available in shops, and now have become the staple food for many Basongora. Many of the new dietary habits are quite dangerous for human health. Increasingly Basongora are suffering from diet-induced diseases such as diabetes, cancer, gout, obesity and adult malnutrition.
Cattle medications and new cattle diseases [e.g., Rinderpest, brucellosis, nagana, etc] have also made consumption of cattle blood unsafe. In addition, cattle are increasing lacking nutrition, and so the quality of their blood is low. Cows no longer have access to good and nutritious grass for grazing. The cattle have been restricted to grazing in urban corridors that contain hazardous pesticides, plastics and other forms of garbage and waste. Access to rich grazing ranges traditionally owned by Basongora, has been restricted as these ranges are all now in the national parks of Virunga, Queen Elizabeth, Katonga, Kibale and Maramagambo.
Other grazing ranges outside of the parks that were formerly owned by the Basongora have been turned into cotton and maize plantations. These plantations are largely owned by large private corporations and government agencies, including Uganda Prisons, Uganda People’s Defence Forces, Toro (kingdom) Development Company (TDC which wound up in 1970) , and by Mobuku Irrigation Scheme.
More grazing lands that were traditionally home to Basongora have also been taken over by Konzo peasants, and by members of other ethnic communities, who are mainly engaged in cultivation. Cultivators are hostile to Basongora because cows occasionally stray into the gardens and cause damage to crops.
The most important threat however, is the loss of skills involved in the enactment of Kurasa. Fewer and fewer Basongora have experience in bleeding cattle safely. It is a delicate operation that needs a great deal of practice, in order to avoid causing injury to the cows and to maintain healthy herds.