Part 2: A Very Unique Combination
The primary purpose of the trip to Kenya was to learn more about Mursik, however, I was also interested in experiencing the nomadic pastoralist practice of bloodletting to supplement diet made up almost exclusively of dairy. Milk, especially raw milk, is an incredibly nutritious food. And, nomadic pastoralists groups in Africa who have been historically raising animals as sources of food for thousands of years realized this long ago. In fact, they take an entirely different approach to using animals as factories that convert food we cannot use into that we do - instead of focusing on the animal’s meat, fat and organs which requires killing the animal providing one huge harvest, they rely upon the by-products of the animal as their main food source allowing the animal to live for much longer, the entire time providing food on a daily basis! However, milk needs to be supplemented with other vitamins and minerals, such as iron, to provide a more well-rounded diet that has the ability to more fully sustain adult humans. Their answer...blood! And, I am not referring to the blood of the animal after it had been slaughtered. Rather, they view the blood of the animal in a similar way that they do milk - think of it the same way they (and we) think about milk - as a renewable source of high quality food for humans that animals produce by eating foods that are otherwise inaccessible to us and using their digestive tracts and physiology to transform those foods into foods from which our bodies and digestive tracts can safely and effectively obtain nutrition. And, because the animals are continuously producing blood just like they are milk, so they have developed techniques to continuously harvest it from the animals without harming them.
Certainly, it is all about context.
We modern westerners view blood as something that keeps us alive and should remain in the veins of the animals until death, at which time, depending on where you are in the world it is either turned into one of a handful of traditional dishes such as blood pudding in the British Isles or, as it is not viewed as a real food source at places like the United States, typically discarded for “safety.” What is different in all of these instances is perspective - the blood and the incredible nutritional value it holds for humans hasn’t changed, it is our perspective that has and results in us disposing of one of the most nutrient dense sources of food in animals - it is nutritionally, ethically, sustainably and, financially wrong. I wanted to see for myself what this bloodletting process was like and, most importantly, how difficult it would be for my family and I to attempt to shed ourselves of our modern western baggage preventing us from viewing fresh warm blood as a real source of food and experience drinking the blood minutes after we watched it drain from the neck of a living cow.
Along the Lugga to Find Blood
Delia had arranged for us to visit a group of Somburu to take part in the bloodletting and consumption practice. It required several hours driving from Lewa on a black top road to Sera National Wildlife Conservancy and then several hours more through the “bush” where we set up camp for a few days. Once we pulled off of the main road and drove through the bush we didn’t see another human for days, except, of course for our guide/guard, Jimmy, himself a Somburu, and his partner.
The morning of our visit to the Somburu we loaded up in the vehicles early and drove from camp another few hours through the bush sometimes following faint tires marks in the dirts, sometimes paving our own way and sometimes crossing dried river beds. Eventually, when there was no hope of travelling any further on the ground dodging boulders, acacia trees, and a complex topography the lead car drove down into another “lugga” or dried river bed. But, instead of driving across, the lead vehicle turned and followed once is at sometimes during the year the middle of a raging river! We drove along this lugga for several miles until we came across three young Samburu mean waiting for us on the bank. We pulled up out of the lugga and up onto the bank, unloaded the car, and Jimmy initiated the formal introductions.
These three young men were in full traditional dress, wielded rungus (throwing sticks), and were chiseled models of the human form. They motioned for us to follow them as the turned and walked across the flat, dry, landscape towards their village. We arrived within a half mile walk of the river and as soon as we arrived they sprung into action.
The Process Begins
It didn’t take long for them to grab a cow and walk it over to an open spot near the outside of the village. As one woman held the cow by the ears another one tied a large rope, seemingly reserved solely for this purpose, around the cow’s neck just above the shoulder snugly. In no time its jugular swelled and became an easy to see target and one of the men who met us at the river walked towards the cow armed with a bow and arrow. The bow was simply a branch tied with a cord and looked almost like something a kid would make. But, the arrow, however, was something different all together. It had obviously been used repeatedly for a long time and embedded in the end of a smooth, straightened wooden shaft was a small polished metal point. But, the most interesting part of the arrow was the seemingly excessive amount of cord - made up of what looked like whatever they had available in small bits of leftover string made out of everything from natural fibers to strips of plastic bags - in a way you would never see a hunting or war arrow made. In order for an arrow to take down animals or humans it must penetrate deeply requiring the profile of the arrow to be streamlined as to not impede the penetration in any way. Excessive amount of wrapping to secure the point would prevent this, which is exactly why the Somburu make these arrows this way - they want to prevent the arrow from penetrating any deeper than the centimeter long point. They are not trying to kill or harm the cow, they simply want to harvest some blood. It became obvious very quickly that using a bow and arrow to do this is much more accurate than using a knife. Plus, it provides an added element of safety into the entire process.
The man notched the arrow, walked right up to the cow, raised the bow and drew it a few times to check his aim. The tip of the arrow was so close to the next of the cow that every time he released his draw it seemed to touch the jugular. After drawing a few time he let loose the arrow and, in an instant it punctured the jugular and bounced back. The entire thing happened within a few centimeters and, in fact, the arrow never left the hand that held the bow in such a way that it also anchored the arrow against the side of the bow. He stepped back out of the way, his job complete, and another man swiftly placed a gourd under the blood that flowed out of the neck of the cow. Once the gourd was filled with a little more than a liter of blood, the rope was released from the cow’s neck and another man reached down and picked up some dirt which we threw into the small cut on the cow’s neck and, the combination of those two actions stopped the bleeding. I don’t think a drop of blood was spilled at any time! The cow then walked away as if nothing had happened. It never even blinked - almost as if it didn’t feel anything happening.
The boy who collected the blood then picked up a stick off the ground, knelt down with the gourd on the ground and began to slowly stir the blood. After about five full minutes of stirring I asked what he was doing and he lifted the stick out of the blood. It was covered in one continuous, stringy blood clot. Jimmy, who was translating, informed us that this blot clot covered stick was fed to the dogs and the rest is consumed by humans. I asked him if it was a special stick, perhaps one that contained a low pH since it is common on other places to add vinegar to fresh blood to prevent clotting and, he replied, no, just any stick off the ground would do!
Another person grabbed a similar sized gourd to that which held the blood and quickly milked a cow into it and brought it back. Jimmy then took the two gourds, one filled with warm fresh blood and the other with warm raw milk and began to pour one into the other back and forth in an effort to mix the contents together. When he was finished he offered it to me and I drank, hesitantly, but I drank.
What bothered me the most as I swallowed my first taste fresh blood was how much I liked it! Everything about it, the texture, the temperature, and even the taste was oddly welcome. And, perhaps most importantly, it was satiating. It tasted like a thick, rich, chocolate milkshake with a little iron and salt thrown in for good measure! I passed the gourd around to the rest of the group and almost everyone tried it with a very similar reaction. When it eventually came back around to me I drank more to make sure my initial reaction was the correct one - and it was. I didn’t even have that much and my body felt full and satisfied - it is almost like it knew that it had just received a huge dose of nutrients that is could really do something with!
It was only through actually witnessing the process and experiencing it in context with people that still engage in this traditional dietary practice that I realized what it really meant. The cows were not harmed and, given that the cow didn’t even flinch once during the entire process, probably did not feel any pain whatsoever. The process did not take very long and, from start to finish probably required significantly less active time than any of us would need to prepare a meal of comparable nutritional value - even with today’s modern food processing technologies and access to ingredients from all over the world!
And, it was great to see that this was not just a carry-over ritual from the past. Instead, it is still an active part of their regular diet today. Jimmy informed me that during the dry season, when the men and boys leave to tend their herds of cows or goats grazing throughout the countryside they could be away from the village for months. During this entire time they bring only what they can carry very, sleep directly on the ground, and maintain a diet that consists almost solely of the fresh blood/milk mixture twice a day - about a liter in the morning and another in the evening! That’s it!
And, back in the village they consume the milk and blood on a somewhat regular basis and, as they believe that blood makes someone stronger, they feed it to people that are recovering from an injury or illness, pregnant, giving birth, or lactating. Now, that is testimonial enough for me - you don’t need fancy lab tests or nutritional breakdowns to determine whether these are food appropriate for humans - the Samburu and other groups relying upon blood and milk for thousands of years, eeking a living out of such a marginal environment and producing chiseled, healthy, happy bodies is testimonial enough for me.
A disorder or a forgotten panacea?
When you peel back the layers and take an informed, contextual look at the consumption patterns of people all over the world what would initially seem odd takes on new meaning. In fact, the more I learn about traditional eating practices in other parts of the world the more I come to the realization that it is actually our own modern western diet that is strange. We label the consumption of earth as pica, a disorder, but it is perfectly “normal” to consume massive quantities of nutrient-free “food” that is full of sugar, chemicals, and preservatives. We wouldn’t consider eating ash or charcoal, but have no problem spend significant quantities of our paychecks at the health food stores on artificial supplements and medicines to supply the minerals lacking in our modern diets, control the pH of our blood, and settle our fragile upset tummies. We consider drinking blood taboo even though it has the ability to nourish us far beyond almost anything we do eat on a regular basis. And, saving the blood and using it as a source of food from the massive quantity of animals we slaughter has not only dietary but also ethical, sustainability, and monetary implications.
We can learn a lot from watching how others eek out a living in marginal environments. In fact, if we take an honest, self-reflective look at our own environments who actually live in environments with less food resources? Is it the people of West Pokot that rely on nutrient and probiotic dense ash yogurt that has fermented for several months to make it through times of hunger or the Samburu who rely on rich blood and raw milk twice a day for months at a time as they follow their animals on pasture? Or, is it us who live in artificial cities with, except for the wild plants sprouting through the cracks in the sidewalk or the pigeons living in the city park, absolutely no remaining naturally occurring food resources anywhere and the millions of inhabitant subsist on food that is shipped in from the outside? We need to take a close look at what we consider “normal” and reconsider from whom we should take lessons about how to feed ourselves.