The Black Cockerel or Back Rides and a Spiritual Awakening

Religion does not equal spirituality. Get over it.

Barely ten years into my young, promising life, I had the first moment of spiritual awakening. It was a quiet afternoon in the countryside. All afternoons in the countryside are somewhat, quiet, with most of the sounds coming from mother nature. And so it was in the village of Buchirinya, many kilometres away from the great sugar factory of Mumias, where every farmer sent all their sugarcane and had to wait many months for a pay-out.

During the rainy season, violent winds would sweep through the village, and the skies would frantically gather all the pregnant clouds into a thick, dark heap. And the clouds would desperately empty themselves on the village, with the large, silver drops crashing down on the huts and on the soil. The grass-thatched roofs would quietly absorb the millions of small beatings but the few huts with iron roofs would lament with loud, harsh wails. And the rains would come to a sudden halt, relieved as one who’d walked a mile with a bursting bladder. And the clouds would belch, and blow cold, thin air throughout the village.

But during the dry seasons, you’d mostly hear the soft whoosh of the winds, unsure of which direction to blow. The trees and all the vegetation would dance to the winds’ changing directions. You’d hear the rustling and whispers of leaves and branches as the winds rushed between them. Sometimes you could hear the rackety-rack sound of a grasshopper, or the tut tutting of birds or the dark, loud caw of a crow. And when it was too quiet, you could hear the distant moan of the local posho mill, the occasional, loud moo of a bull or the howling of dogs announcing a visitor in the neighbourhood.

When my cousin Austin set the resident dogs upon the biggest cockerel in the compound, I swiftly joined in the fun, chasing the big, blackish, flightless rooster. It had a proud, blood-red, fleshy crown on its head. Thick, flabby wattles hung on either side of its large strong beak which jutted out of its head and it looked like it had a permanent pout.

To my ten-year old eyes, the black cockerel loved to take quick, short, rides on the back of hens. And it seemed to demand the rides, and would chase around any hens that did not yield to its demands, even mother hens with a brood of lovely two-week old chicks. And the chicks would stand back and marvel, astonished at the sight of their mother carrying the large, black cockerel on her back. Whenever the black cockerel captured a resistant hen, it would use its strong beak as a death grip and the hen would have no choice but to submit by laying on the ground for the short ride, which hardly went beyond five seconds.

Subsequent visits to the village led me to one, irrefutable conclusion; farm animals loved taking back rides. Bulls, sheep, and pretty much every other animal. I was stunned one morning as I wandered towards the main gate to find one of our dogs giving back rides to three strange dogs. And the thing pleased me to no end, sending a strange warmth across the length of my things and ending up somewhere around my abdomen. And I felt the same strange warmth in my loins when my uncles brought a large bull into the boma to get a back ride from one of our cows.

The dogs loved the chase because they knew they would be rewarded with some of the unwanted parts of the black cockerel, and that they would lap up the warm blood from the slaughter before the soil could nourish itself by drinking all of it.

I tripped and fell a few times during the chase but quickly picked myself up, determined not to miss a minute of the fun. The tables had turned since two days earlier, a mother hen had sent me running towards my grandmother for protection after I’d tried to help one of its adorable chicks out of a basin.

As we chased the cockerel around the boma, the idea, which I only learnt afterwards, was to run the bird to exhaustion. Even with the compound sealed with a thick, neat bush of lantana outgrowth, it was incredibly difficult to capture the cockerel. The bird ran like hell, padding the earth with its nimble feet and occasionally springing into the air when one of the dogs got too close.

Austin finally captured the bird after about six minutes and I could hear raucous wails, which to my young ears sounded like words. And the black cockerel begged for mercy. “Stooop! Stoooop! Nooooo….” it wailed. The desperate wails petered out as the gleaming, stainless steel knife slashed across its neck. And the rest of the flock stood stock still, alert and craning their necks at the sound of death.

A few hours later, a wide plate was placed before me at dinner time. A neat pile of pale-green shredded vegetable lay on one side of the plate, floating on the thick, gold soup that filled the plate. And on the opposite side of the plate was one the dead cockerel’s wings, hot, steamy, and glistening with oil. As the smell hit my nostrils, my young head spun with nausea for a minute or so. Of course, I ate everything on my plate, not wishing to invite any food-related trouble. Food was such an important part of my community’s culture, and even that’s still an understatement.

Even at ten years, it was still unnerving to watch a human simply snuff out the life of a bird, right before my eyes, and for parts of the birds to turn up on my dinner plate a few hours later. It was quite unsettling to learn that one of the most delicious meals was the result of a brutal murder. I had an idea but to see it in plain sight? Ugh.

Another cockerel took over the flock by the following day, demanding rides from all the hens in the boma from sunrise to sunset, perhaps making up for all the time it had to play second fiddle to the black cockerel. But it was strange to think the black cockerel would never be seen around the boma, and that some of its body parts had ended up in my stomach.

One moment you are here, taking all kinds of back rides, and the next moment, you are gone, six feet under and just a meal for the worms of the earth. So, should you take more back rides while you are still alive? I don’t know. You decide for yourself.

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