Murdering the Cow, a story about Africa

  On my third night in Ghana Nuumo took me along with his second wife, Wendy, and his security chief Do-o to the stockyards at Tema, a city about thirty miles from Accra.  The highway was crowded and driving was competitive.  Nuumo was impatient and drove around the traffic on the side of the road telling the police officers along the way that he was a chief who was late for a meeting.  They nodded and let him pass.  It was just dusk when we arrived at the stockyards.  I waited in the car with Wendy while Do-o scouted among the cattle and the cowboys for a good animal at a good price.  Nuumo, who always wore white robes, a white turban and went barefoot sent him ahead saying he would be charged extra because he was a chief and everyone thought he was rich.

  I learned to wait in Ghana.  I often did not know what I was waiting for or how much time would pass before something happened.  But I had a problem.  I had to pee.  Under ordinary circumstances I would simply find the restroom and take care of myself.  I had no idea of where the restroom might be in the stockyards.  We were parked in front of a small mosque and evening prayers were called.  The mosque was too small to accommodate all the worshipers so several dozen knelt in prayer outside just in front of where we were parked.  It was almost dark and only electric lights made anything visible.  Finally as prayers ended and the faithful scattered I confessed to Wendy I had to pee.  She spoke into the darkness and Do-o immediately appeared and escorted me to an outdoor restroom right beside the mosque.  Concrete block walls about chest high surrounded several stalls.  I stood on two concrete blocks to pee into a trough.  Overhead I could see bats flying low in the light from the mosque.  The sound of cows and men talking were all around in the dark.

  After awhile Nuumo and Do-o came back to the car and we began to drive back to Accra.  They had purchased a white cow and told me in heavily accented English that they would bring it back to the house and slaughter it.  I didn’t believe them and attributed my disbelief to not being able to understand what they were saying.  Nuumo was complaining about how expensive the cow was.  Ghanaians count their money in millions.  I think the cow may have cost $600 but Nuumo said 60 million.  Whatever the price it was a lot for him even though he was a chief who had money,  even though the occasion was his 50th birthday, a really big deal in Ghana especially if you are the paramount chief of your tribe and a high priest.  And especially if you are Nuumo Gbelenfo III, High Priest of Osu, Paramount Chief of the Ga tribe, a self-made “big man” famous all over Accra for chasing away the evangelicals who tried to drown out the tribal rites with their hymn singing, Nuumo, the antithesis of St. Patrick. Even if you were the Nuumo who had a television show that was the tribal equivalent of Judge Judy, the Nuumo who people called out to as he walked down the street.

  I met Nuumo twenty-four years ago when he was not a chief or high priest but just a young man who was an artist and a pineapple farmer.  His name was Joe and we formed a bond of affection that has lasted almost a quarter of a century.  We lost track of each other for over a decade and then Nuumo found me and sent me a shirt and photos of his new wife and their children.  We began speaking on the phone every few months, me not much understanding what he said.   His first wife, Princess, and I became Facebook friends.  I was soon Facebook friends with his two adolescent sons.  A year before Princess had invited me to Nuumo’s 50th birthday party.  I wanted to go but doubted I could.  It is an expensive and exhausting journey.  I couldn’t make up my mind until a couple of months before the party was finally scheduled.  Nuumo and I spoke on the phone and the warmth in his voice resolved my anxiety about travelling nearly 6000 miles.  Besides there were now two sons named after me and I wanted to meet them and his other eight children. And I wanted to return to Ghana which is not only another country but another dimension.

  Nuumo has built a compound for his family that includes a number of buildings and some rental units.  He built a new house in honor of my visit.  It is three stories high faced with stone from a local quarry which gives it an ancient appearance.  Inside the floor was made of white marble and a white marble staircase led up to the higher level that looked over the huge empty room below.  On the upper level were two bedrooms side by side, each with a bath, one for him and one for me.  There was a small kitchen and a terrace that overlooked the garden.  My room, he told me, was just for me.  I could come anytime I wished and stay as long as I liked and that no one else would ever stay there but me.  The room became my refuge.  It even had a fan that could be charged when the power was on which it was unpredictably about half the time.  The house was still unfinished, wires exposed where lighting fixtures would be added.  In Ghana where financing is only for the oligarchs everything is always in process.  Another house next door which will enclose four apartments is just in the concrete stage while a third structure was on the verge of being habitable.  Princess and the tree youngest sons lived in the main house with the kitchen and dining room.  The older children had separate quarters.  There was a shrine to the ancestors in the shade between two of the houses with a courtyard and a gate at the opposite end.  Do-o lived just around the corner in another house owned by Nuumo.  I didn’t see him again until the night before the party.

  That morning, the day before the party, as I was walking up the path to the kitchen for breakfast I noticed one of the cats lying dead in the dirt.  A family of black feral cats, all very skinny, lived in the compound.  The only person they had contact with was two year old Franklin who charmed everyone.  The cats did not have names and no one seemed upset about the one who died.  I met fifteen year old Franklin on the path and asked him about the cat.  “Maybe,” he said, “he gave his life for one of us,” and went on to explain that several years ago Nuumo had been taken critically ill while on a trip to the UK.  The same day he went into surgery one of the cats had died.  Franklin said the cat died so Nuumo could live.  By afternoon the cat’s body had disappeared.

  Do-o reappeared that evening after prayers, his prayer cap still on his head.  He and Nuumo and I drove over some of the roughest dirt roads imaginable until we couldn’t drive any further. We got out of the car and Nuumo pounded his white tipped cane on the gate of a house.  We heard dogs barking.  Nuumo opened the gate and we walked through a courtyard and he pounded again on the door of a house.  A man answered the door and we were invited into a small hot room with two opposing couches and an assortment of children’s toys spread around one end.  An older woman came in and introduced herself to me as Helen.  She was the mother of Nuumo’s nine year old daughter, Letitia, whom we had come to fetch for the party.  Time passed, more time than seemed necessary but was perhaps customary.  You didn’t simply arrive and do what you came to do.  Not in Ghana.  There was always a pause.  Were energies aligning? Was it protocol?  Was there never a hurry?  As long as I was in my linear mind none of this made sense.  Finally with Letitia in tow, Nuumo, Do-o and I drove back down the bumpy, furrowed roads to an abattoir near Tema to pick up the cow.

  Nuumo’s sense of navigation and knowledge of the roads in around Accra was simply amazing.  He could find the most obscure location by following his nose.  When we got to the abattoir Nuumo parked the car outside the gate and told me to stay.  “This is not a nice place,” was his explanation.  I saw an open backed truck full of dead cows drive out and assumed that  we had come for another dead cow.  I was wrong.  A cow was put in the back of a truck and the truck followed us all the way back home.  I asked Nuumo if it was the cow he had seen before and he said yes.  I asked him how he knew and he replied he was an artist and he knew what he saw when he saw it. 

  Do-o has told me that he will slaughter the cow the next day.  It seems much more plausible now.  He looks at me directly and asks if I will be there and I say no, no, no.  He looks at me directly and now seductively, reading me like a book and says that he will come get me in the morning.  I don’t admit to myself that I have surrendered to his will but I have.  I will be there.  The cow is pulled off the truck, brutally and I turn my head and look away from what seems cruel to me.  Back inside the compound the children are excited and tell me tomorrow the cow will be murdered and want to know will I watch.  I don’t answer them.  I am trying to catch my breath.  I go back to my room and turn on the fan and give myself up to the night.

  Ghana is near the equator where day and night are always equal.  At six it gets light and at six it gets dark.  This is easy to understand but I don’t have a means of telling time.  I decided against a sim card to make my phone operable in Ghana.  No phone, no clock and most importantly for me no email, voicemail or Facebook.  Not knowing what time it is is a small price to pay for being off the Internet.  I wake up with the light every morning.

  Do-o did not have to come get me.  The children were up and excited and the cow was being fetched.  I saw Nuumo’s oldest son Andrew being taken by his older sister Susanna to the doctor.  He had woken up with intense anxiety and she was taking him out of the compound just in time to miss the cow’s demise.  I saw him briefly after he returned and he showed me his medication then disappeared until the family promenade into the party that evening.

  The two youngest, little Franklin and baby Kenneth, were not part of the morning’s ritual.  All of the other children including 6 year old Prince were there (minus the sensitive Andrew and his caring sister Susanna) and quite excited.  Nuumo was there and his two elder retainers Mr. Nunoo, a sub-chief from a nearby village and Ataaobilril, a septuagenarian papaya farmer and goatherd/jack-of-all-trades were in attendance.  We all watched as Do-o and his assistant, a dark muscular young man, hobbled the cow. 

  You can’t murder a cow that is standing up.  And a cow isn’t just going to lay down on command.  You catch one of his legs with a rope and bring him down.  You bind his feet so he can’t stand up.  And that is what Do-o and his accomplice did with help and encouragement from Mr. Nunoo and Ataaobiril.  Once the cow was down the children were even more excited and enjoined me to, “touch the cow, touch the cow!”  I did as they pleased.  I placed one hand on the cow and hoped my touch would bring a moment of comfort.  I imagined the cow in that moment breathed easier.  I couldn’t save him from his fate but perhaps though kindness I could ease his terror.  The knife would come soon.  Mr. Nunoo made a ceremonial cut and handed the knife to Do-o who slashed the cow’s throat.

  I sat with Mr. Nunoo and watched the cow’s slow death.  We heard a gurgling gasp and Mr. Nunoo said that was the cow’s last breath.  It wasn’t, minutes passed, more gasping, moaning and finally silence.  Mr. Nunoo was teaching me an elementary greeting in the Ga language, “Mr. Franklin, Miba Omaiiye.  Mr Nunoo, Omayeaba.”  Mr. Franklin, blessings upon your home.  Mr. Nunoo, and blessings upon you in return.”  Meanwhile Do-o and his accomplice were preparing the blow torch.

  When the cow’s throat had been slit copious amounts of ruby red blood had flowed out of the cow and down the cobblestones into the street.  The gate had been opened for the community to bear witness.  A cow had been sacrificed for Nuumo.  Only a big man was worthy of such a sacrifice.  Only a chief, a high priest, a paragon, a warrior would be worth the price of a street run red with the blood of a cow.  The gates were closed and the cow now carcass was cleaned and carved.

  Nuumo explained Do-o to me earlier saying he had once gotten him out of bad trouble.  Do-o, a boxer, had nearly killed a soldier in a fight and would have faced years in prison had Nuumo not intervened.  Do-o was a tough guy for sure.  Not tall but all muscle and with the instincts of a killer.  I asked Nuumo why he would need security, why he would employ Do-o.  Nuumo told me, like I was a child, that there were people in this world who were not so nice.  The child in me understood and was fascinated by the brutal, pugnacious Do-o.  Mr. Nunoo told me that torching the carcass of an animal was not original to Ghana but had been brought by foreigners.  It was an efficient way to clean an animal right down to the skin.  A diesel powered blowtorch was used to burn away the hair.  A sharp knife scraped the charred hair off the animal’s corpse and the animal could then be hacked into pieces.  The skin, muscle, bone and viscera were all placed into a stewpot boiling over a charcoal brassier.  Tomatoes, peppers, garlic and ginger were added.  A rich soupy stew was ready hours later to be served with rice, fufu and kenkey.  This was the epitome of Ga cuisine.

  Do-o was down to one layer of clothes it was evident that he was only made of muscle.  His accomplice while less muscular was shirtless and glistening with sweat.  They worked all morning cutting up the carcass.  I never saw either of them again but I assume part of their pay was meat.

  No surprise I didn’t have much appetite for lunch.  Lunch was the only meal I ever had that was imported from the outside.  My lunch that day was noodles, sauce and what appeared to be chicken.  I didn’t like the way it smelled and only ate half of it.  I secretly wondered if the cow was a part of it.  I left most of it on my plate. In a country where food is wealth and a precious gift it is hard to leave any morsel uneaten.  I always apologized when I couldn’t finish a meal.  The leftovers were never discarded.  Someone always ate what I left behind.

  The afternoon was a whirlwind of getting ready for the party.  The women were down near the shrine making the stew.  Tables were set up in the courtyard which had been scrupulously cleaned by the children.  The tables had white table cloths and the chairs had white slip covers.  It looked like a wedding was going to happen.  Our special clothes had arrived.  I had gone shopping with Nuumo and his daughter Susanna for the material.  I had not realized that the pretty white fabric was completely synthetic.  I had been measured by the tailor for pants that tied at my midriff and a long sleeved tunic that covered me to my knees.  The outfit arrived startched and while the white fabric and gold embroidery were beautiful (all of the children and I were dressed in the same costume) it was as if I were wearing two large plastic trashbags.  Heat was sealed in and although I might be able to find a breezy place to sit I would be in constant concern of losing my pants which were tied around my greatest girth or simply fainting from heat exhaustion.  To make matters worse I was beginning to feel queasy after lunch.

  I was still in civilian attire when guests began to arrive and I took my assignment as cameraman seriously.  I photographed many of the early arriving guests before doning my evening wear.  I told Princess confidentially that I wouldn’t eat or drink for awhile because I was worried about my stomach.  I managed to process into the party with Nuumo and family to the applause of all the guests.  I sat with Nuumo at the head table with the King of the Ga’s and the Chief of Pokuase behind a stockade of expensive liquor.  I told Nummo about my stomach and he ordered liver salts which fizzed like Alka Selzer and tasted a little like citrus.  I downed the concoction and a minute later knew I needed to leave.  I touched Nuumo on the arm and began slowly walking back to my room.  I unlocked the downstairs doors and walked slowly up the marble spiral staircase.  As I put my key into the door to my room I realized I was not alone.  Nummo’s oldest son, the sensitive one who had avoided the murder of the cow, was right behind me.  He said, “My father sent me to comfort you.”  We entered the room and I pulled off the white tunic and trousers and fell on the bed.  I began to shake from chills and I asked him to pull clothes from my suitcase to cover me and he did.  I continued to shake.  My lunch had poisoned me and he found my Cipro tables and gave me one with a bottle of water.  I knew this would have to run its course and persuaded him it was okay to leave me.  Sweet fellow, he was torn by his need to know I was okay and his shock to see me so sick that I could not stop shaking.  He left and I shook.  I hoped it wouldn’t last so long.  Princess checked on me and after a time Nuumo came with his doctor.  The doctor sat on the foot of my bed and confirmed my diagnosis.  I told him I had Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat food poisoning, and he asked why.  I said I had prior experience and travelled with the drug.  He smiled.  After awhile the chills relented and I could make my way to the toilet and do what I knew I had to do.  There was music all night and I was delirious.  Even in the morning the music came back, the party never stopped.

  It wasn’t until late the next afternoon that I got up and went to sit in the breezeway.  Princess told me the party had gone on til four in the morning and started again at ten the next day and lasted until all the food and booze was gone.  At that point Mr. Nunoo and  Ataaobiril were stumbling down from the main house into the courtyard.  They were just waking up from a long night of drinking and reverie.  I sat for awhile with Princess and the children.  Nuumo checked on me to make sure I was okay.  I went to bed early and spent the night sweating out the rest of the toxins. I was weak the next day but by afternoon ready to ride out into the dust and smoke and heat of Accra with Nuumo who told everyone I was his elder brother. 

  I wondered then as I wonder now if my getting sick was about touching the cow.  Not that the cow made me sick but maybe like the cat who died for someone else I took on a part of the cow’s suffering.  That maybe the cow’s terrible death was somehow expiated by my terrible night.  It sounds crazy when I say it but I can’t dismiss how pain connects us all from our first breath to our last.  And I am still pondering the question of sacrifice.  Whose blood and how much is ever enough?

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