Words from Kenya

An Evening of Cattle Branding with the Laikipiak Maasai

Catching Cattle

It’s 6 o’clock, the late afternoon light is softly yellow and a hazy sun is dropping onto the western hills. The cattle are returning to the manyatta, peaceful and relaxed, there is still grazing and water for them at an easy distance here. They calmly make their way through the gap in the thorn hedge; the hedge, protection against wildlife, encloses the circle of mud huts that makes up this homestead. Watched carefully by the senior men, they pass into a second, inner, circle of thorn. Their own night enclosure at the heart of the homestead.

The cattle have been herded home by 2 young warriors but they needed no direction or encouragement. They know where they are going and several of the female cows have young calf’s to return to, it is a journey of mutual consent.

Some of the cattle are recent purchases and today they need to be branded with the new owner’s mark. Cattle rustling is endemic in the area. If stolen, skilled trackers from the community will follow their trail, but without clearly distinguishing marks it would be all but impossible to claim the animals back from their new ‘owners’.

A fire has been lit just outside the cattle enclosure and the metal branding rod is laid in the red hot centre. The cattle, 70 or so, are standing quietly, ready for their calves and the milking and the night. But this evening 6 warriors move purposefully through the herd, one has a stick and a rope in hand. They come close to one of the cattle, a young male, and using the stick the warrior flicks a noose around a back leg as the animal moves off. He pulls the rope and the noose tightens just above the hoof.

Now the other warriors close in on the young bull, it almost pulls the warrior holding the rope off his feet, the animal is strong and it takes all six of them to hold it still and bring it to the ground. Once pinned down it is remarkably quiet and still, it does not struggle, it seems to know the game is up.

The brand is brought, red hot from the fire, and pressed against the animal’s hind quarters. Smoke billows from the branding. Then it is over. The warriors release their hold on the young bull; the animal rises and sedately walks away. It doesn’t seem to be in a panic, nor displaying any signs of pain, though the brand surely hurts. If anything there seems to be a glint of contempt in its eye.

This process is repeated for all the new cattle as the light fades. One fiery youngster drags the warriors half way through the thick thorny fence before it can be tamed, others submit with less resistance. Some of the excitement spills over into the other cattle in the enclosure and they become restless. Two large males suddenly start a fight, throwing their huge weight against each other, forehead to forehead. But the fight is short lived and not serious, they are castrated bulls with little thirst for real battle left in them. Thankfully the one breeding bull in the herd remains quiet throughout.

Finally the branding is finished. The daylight fades completely and is replaced by the thin white light of a crescent moon. The women of the manyatta come amongst the cattle, calling softly, and start milking, filling their decorated and smoky gourds. Children drink cups of the warm smoke flavoured milk for their supper, then fall asleep on cow skin hides under the sparkling stars, as another pastoralist day in northern Kenya draws to a close.

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