The New Times (Kigali)

7 December 2012

Rwanda: Bring Out the Fighting Bulls!

It is not the size of the bull in the fight but the size of the fight in the bull that determines the winner in a fight, goes the adage.

Bull fighting, as it is called, gives you a feeling the bulls are high on something. Society Magazine travelled to the western part of Kenya to get first hand information on this game. We were given a detailed account about everything leading to the event, organised by Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.

The culture's light continues to shine in this region, especially on the eve of the big fight in the tiny town of Kakamega. The sound of the Isukuti drum (a traditional music instrument made from a tree trunk and the skin of a monitor lizard) mingled with the metal ring and shakers abound.

The bulls are fed and their horns sharpened. Tension mounts as the area turns into a beehive of activity.

The bulls names range from AK47, Simba, Etoo, Fly 540, Al Shabaab, Toto and Van Persie. The youngest of them, Simba, weighing approximately 350 kilograms was viewed by many analysts as the biggest contender, having fought and won numerous matches in the area easily.

Naturally, we caught up with the owner of Simba and Etoo, the reigning champs of the area to get their views on the game and find out what keeps the bulls alert. Around ten o'clock in the morning, we arrived at the Shidakho Village, in the heart of Kakamega town, also home to Simba, to meet their twenty five year old owner, Peter Sega.

"There are two ways of bringing up bulls, the traditional way and the Christian way," he told us. "I chose my ancestor's way of bringing up the bulls, I think it is a way to carry the family's mantel," he continued as he patted the heavy bull's back.

The bull's diet is normally top secret but he made an exception this time round and told us some of the 'bites' given to the champion. He walked to a room and came back with several tins sealed in a black paper bag. "These are traditional herbs in which ancestors are manifested," he revealed. He opened up another well wrapped newspaper containing dry leaves and to our surprise, it was marijuana. "Marijuana is given to the bull to make it hyper; it is a classical way of making the bull know there is a big fight the next day," he said as folded the 'grass' and fed the bull.

"This is like medicine to the animal. My grandmother chose me to take care of the family's bull," he told us when we asked the inspiration behind this choice of career. "Some people prefer putting the 'grass' in meals, while others smoke it then blow the smoke close to the bull's nostrils," he educated us.

Some of the traditional ways of preparation also call for abstinence. "You are not supposed to come into contact with women, regardless of whether it is sexual or plutonic for that will make you lose. Also, if you are married, then sleeping in the same bed with your wife is not advisable," he said.

Marijuana is illegal in Kenya but in this community, they look at it as fulfilling the will of their ancestors.

Preparation takes months, and communication is by word of mouth or a formal letter written to the bull owners. To our surprise, there was even a stadium for the game and has no 'social status' limit - even the area's Member Of Parliament, Dr Bonnie Khaluale, is one of the competitors!

In the village of Makhokho, we met John Muhatia, a man who has been in the game for the last twenty seven years. He owns more than fourteen bulls, including Toto and Etoo but rears them the Christian way. When we arrived, the crew was busy psyching up the bull. Music and dance dominated the small homestead. Outside, the bulls graze quietly.

"I love this game and have been in it for over two decades," he told us. "I have earned a lot of respect and will soon be leaving it to my son to carry on." For him, the bull's diet is not complicated and feeds it with grass -he also ensures it is sprayed every week. Vitamins are provided to boost its diet.

On Saturday morning, music resonated from the villages, everything came to a standstill and roads were barricaded by fans waiting to watch the bull fights. By the time the bulls arrive at the Graduation Square of Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, the sun is high above our heads.

Hundreds of people filled the ground as different groups cheered for their favourite bull. Losing was not an option, as the bulls were heavily cheered by their crowd. The young and skilled Simba arrived shortly after aggressive Etoo and his entourage.

The heat was vicious, but the bulls were determined. Young Risasi (bullet) and Fly 540 battled it out as a curtain raising performance. The match lasted a few minutes as Risasi lost to Fly 540. Several other matches between Van Parsie and Al Shabaab, Toto and Kogelo set the stage on fire for the match of the day that was slated later that morning.

Finally, the big match commenced and a large circle of fans formed a ring. There was the sound of a vuvuzela and the drum. Silence descended the second the bulls locked horns. The epic fight lasted exactly two minutes, as Simba was crowned the king.

The king, Simba, was accompanied by supporters as the owner received a cash award of up to KSH 4000 - equivalent to RWF 32,000.

"Bull fighting is a game passed on from generation to generation. How it is done now is no different from what our forefathers did," said Dr. Kennedy Otieno, a member of the event's organising committee and a lecturer at the university's Department of Educational Psychology.

Close to fifty bulls fight in a day - however, it is not just about the money, but love of the game too.

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