A Proper Maasai Wedding Starts with a Cup of Fresh Cow's Blood
On the morning of my friend's wedding in Nairobi, I watched as Maasai tribesmen wrestled a steer to the ground and slit its throat. It would become the centerpiece of the wedding feast, but not before we drank its blood.
The blood was sweet, and thicker than I expected. A skin had already formed on the liquid seconds after it squirted from the cow's neck. I downed the full cup in one gulp so I wouldn't hold up the line of Maasai men waiting for their own mug of morning blood. It was the first thing I consumed that day and I nearly vomited from the novelty of the experience, but held it down so as to not embarrass myself.
It was my friend Kentai's wedding day, and I was staying on his family's land on the Empakasi plains, just south of Nairobi National Park in Kenya. Across the park stand the skyscrapers of Nairobi, but on this side open land spotted with acacia trees serves as pasture for the Maasai cattle herds, just as it has for centuries. The tribe's creation myth describes how God granted the pastoralists ownership of all the cows in the world, and the Maasai still cling fiercely to their relationship with the animals. In addition to serving as the default source of wealth, cattle have ritual importance for milestone ceremonies, so one unlucky young steer, or castrated bull, had to die that day to feed the wedding guests.
When I woke up that morning, the first thing I saw was the men struggling with a rope to immobilize the animal, wrestling it to the ground with one leg tied back over its head. I rushed over without bothering to eat breakfast so I wouldn't miss the event. When I arrived, a herdsman wearing a traditional red plaid blanket brandished a knife, and I waited for him to slash the steer's throat. Instead, he jammed the blade into its spinal column just behind the head, wiggling it about to sever the nerve while the animal shuddered and groaned.
Only after the steer ceased its reflexive struggling did the Maasai man drop to his hands and knees, cut into its neck and press his mouth against the wound, gulping down the blood as it gushed from the carotid artery. When he had his fill he held a cup under the torrent, quickly filling it and passing it to his assistant to drink, while moving a basin into place to catch the blood that continued to flow profusely. Next it was my turn. Everyone watched, so I managed to not so much as gag as I downed my breakfast. It wasn't bad, to be honest, though perhaps an acquired taste.
After the blood feast, the men got down to the skinning and butchering. They ran their knives between the skin and the wax-like layer of fat that encased the abdomen, keeping the hide intact. Once the belly was open, the herder reached in and pulled out the kidneys, slicing them into small chunks that we passed around and ate raw. He then cut around the anus and removed the intestines, yards and yards of them coiled up on themselves and pulsing with feces. He sliced out the gall bladder and tossed it aside. Out came the liver and heart, which we placed on the grill. The lungs and stomachs soon joined them.
The Maasai man started carving off large chunks of meat, which the other men tossed into a boiling kettle. Cuts that would be sold as T-bones, flank steaks, and ribeyes in American supermarkets were chopped up indiscriminately and thrown into the pot for stew. We munched on the organs when they were ready, and sliced off certain choice pieces of meat from the bone to enjoy. It was tough, stringy, and rich with flavor.
Some dogs ranged around the group, hoping to scavenge scraps. Overhead, two kites glided above the gathering, hovering on gusts of wind 20 feet off the ground. Spotting an opportunity, one swooped down and rose with a chunk of discarded meat in its talons.
A pair of goats had been killed as well, and I helped clean the intestines, pinching my fingers over the gut and squeezing toward the rectum. At first the excrement came out in pellets, but as I progressed further it turned to a mushy goo. Afterward, we fried the intestines and ate them too. I'm quite sure I didn't get them completely clean.
Back at the houses the women spent the morning chopping carrots, corn, and cabbage to prepare the rest of the feast, but the men's work was mostly finished. Throughout the morning Maasai men came and went, greeting each other and stopping to sit and talk and share the morning snack. Some wore Western clothes, some traditional. We socialized, and sliced more meat, and sipped a concoction made from the stew broth and local herbs to promote good digestion.
By the afternoon, it was time for Kentai to get married. Streamers and fake flowers adorned the grounds, and a DJ played the latest Kenyan hits from a generator-powered sound system. Hundreds of guests sat in plastic chairs under rented tents, snapping photos on their cell phones. Pentecostal preachers preached of hell and salvation while the bridal party, decked out in suits and red dresses, drove up the bumpy dirt road in SUVs. The bride wore white and pledged to love and obey her new husband, who promised to care for and protect her in turn. They kissed on the lips.
Once the ceremony was over the guests lined up and filled their plates with rice, meat stew, and vegetables. We downed some Coca-Colas and passed around toothpicks to dig the chunks of beef out from between our teeth.
The wedding might have been a reflection of modern Western influence on the East African tribe, but a steer died in the morning just as Maasai steers always have.