A bull-fighting event scheduled for December 13, 2008 at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, in Nairobi was cancelled following sustained pressure from animal rights activists. But, FRED MBOGO argues, all the arguments floated by these activists betrayed their ignorance on the socio-cultural roles of bull-fighting.
Bull-fighting is well established in Western Kenya as a sport and owners of bulls invest a lot of money and resources in preparing them. There are bull-handlers who are close to the bulls and who “talk” to, counsel, encourage, or generally “feel” or feed the bulls with the necessary material that enables them maintain a favourable mental frame in readiness for fights. There are spectators whose role does not merely end in giving empty support to a bull from their village but in creating and sustaining a socialisation point during these events. There are politicians who use these events as points of rallying their supporters towards preferred causes. Bull-fighting events are in themselves an industry.
Animal rights activists have missed the point and instead are intent on clipping the wings of a growing industry. Instead of fairly investigating the activities of the bull-fighting industry, these activists are quick to issue misinformed warnings. Their major argument is that bulls are treated inhumanely in these events. They further assert that these bulls are drugged with such drugs as bhang and traditional alcoholic brews to fight. Further, they say, the bulls are ill-treated by being transported in sub-standard means to their fighting destinations.
None of these activists mentions the myths created around the bulls engaged in these fights. None of them mentions the colourful and often ceremonious treatment accorded to these bulls on their way to the bull-fighting events. No mention is given to the reverence accorded to the bulls that win and also the expensive treatments that are given to the bulls that may get injured. But there is also the community that participates in these events and what its gains are that is never discussed.
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For over a century now, bull-fighting events in the Western part of Kenya have created a culture of their own. They are held every month in the small towns surrounding the western provincial headquarters of Kakamega. Lubao and Khayega markets are two major arenas for these fights. The theatricality of the events is such that it creates room for the participants to nourish their aesthetic interests. The isikuti, a popular dance of the Isukha and Idakho clans of the Luyia community that enthralls in these events, contributes majorly to the heightening of the contests between the bulls.
No other Luyia cultural practice has stood the test of time as bull-fighting. Whereas many of our cultural practices have been shaken by modernity, bull-fighting has continued to prosper. A carnival mood engulfs the spaces where these events take place. There is a lot of music and dancing. Musical instruments range from large drums to horns and the occasional litungu lyre. All these come as part of the repertoire that tells the story of the members of a clan, family, village or community. The performance is not restricted to the ring around which the bulls fight but is larger than life in the sense that it brings out the best of the “performative” elements of the Luyia culture.
There is also the symbolism that comes with a win or a loss of the bull one supports. Since these are bulls then a sense of masculinity is attached to the whole event. There are expressions that are of the machismo nature. Winning is associated with the possession of a higher masculine character that is important in negotiating respect and winning over others when partaking of the pleasures supplied by the female character. Losing, on the other hand, renders one impotent and should lead one to re-inspect his masculinity. The cheering and jeering that come with a win or loss is always in good faith and for the community it is a time to recapture a humane spirit that makes survival possible.
Many members of the audience that attend these events engage in humble and back-breaking work in the process of eking out a living. They often don’t have the financial wherewithal to attend other forms of entertainment that animal rights activists are prone to suggest as alternatives. If entertainment were to be democratised then these bull-fighting events are an enchanting starting point as they are all inclusive. The entertainment is not restricted to the fight but opens up to a carnival mood that includes all forms of performances. How could one fight against the colourful costuming, the loud and rhythmic drumming from opposing groups of performances that seem to suggest a conversation between the contesting bulls?
It is hypocritical of the animal rights activists to zero in on an aspect of Luyia culture that gives a sense of pride, belonging and identity while not starting with the butcher. If as the activists claim, there is no humane way of letting the bulls fight; is there a humane way of slaughtering them as the butcher does? These activists seem to suggest that animals and humans are equal in status. Who should serve the other? Are the animals to be served by mankind to the point of empty reverence where the animals gain greater significance than humans?
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The vitriol served by the right activists is condescending. It looks down on a peoples’ approach to life. It seems created to marginalise and push to the rear or kill the pride of place that a people have on their own practices. These activists should face reality and select worthier causes to champion rather than be seen to be contributors to the demise of cherished practices. And, by the way, those with entrepreneurial spirit are catching up fast on this cherished Luyia sport. Those who planned to bring it from Luyialand to Nairobi, almost 400 kilometres away were in a way trying to commercialise it. Shouldn’t such commercial exploitation have been part of the grievances of these activists, if, indeed, they are well meaning?
The father of US-elect president, Barack Obama, comes not from Luyia-land but from the neighbouring Luo-land. So trying to associate Obama with bull-fighting would be tantamount to forcing it on him in order to cash in on heightened interest of foreign tourists in the US president-elect’s ancestral land.
A group calling itself Target Africa has developed what it calls an “Obama circuit” tourism promotion plan in a bid to make money from the soon-to-be-sworn-in 44th US president’s Kenyan roots.