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The prestigious bullfighting in Western Kenya

Written by John Kabaka
2011-08-03 10:45:00
Read 3510 Times
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Bulls lock into each other at the famous bull fighting battle field Malinya Stadium in Ikolomani constituency.

Almost everybody who, having been born and brought up in the rural settings have at one point or other psyched bulls to fight.

Bull fighting has been and remains a major cultural activity as well as a tourist attraction in Kakamega district of Western province for years.


The sport, thought by many to be an unpopular or a primitive activity that should have been discarded or left for young people looking after their parents’ animals, still attracts thousands of fans especially among the Isukha, Idakho and Batsotso sub-tribes of the Luhya community.


Oblivious of the hazards that come with the entertainment sport; the game still attracts huge crowds, most of them drunk while others are more or less possessed by the fanatics that goes with bull fighting.


Unlike the bullfighting in Spain and Mexico where the beasts challenge matadors, the bulls in Western fight against each other.


Ikolomani MP Dr. Bonny Khalwale is a staunch supporter and participant in this sport and owns one of the bulls named Shichenga. He usually attends the events and sponsor prizes for the winning bulls.


Dr Bonny Khalwale being carried shoulder high into the battle field where his bull Shichenga is to fight. 


After many years’ the Government however, seems slowly to recognize the potential in bull fighting as a tourism attraction and a major booster to the Western tourism circuit.


The Government committed Sh12.5 million towards the construction of Malinya stadium in Ikolomani constituency, whose main activity is and will be bull fighting besides soccer and other events.


To demonstrate the commitment its commitment to develop the activity as a tourist attraction, the Government, through the Ministry for tourism has released Sh 1.7 million in March this year for capacity building towards bull fighting.


“The Government has given the Bull Fighting Federation money to foot the cost of a trip by nine federation members to Spain to learn how bull fighters in Madrid have managed to organize the sport in their country,” says Khalwale.


The event, an ancient tradition, is held throughout the year in almost all parts of the province. On the eve of the event, the bulls are prepared for the fight with exhortation and honour, which villagers strongly believe the bulls appreciate.


Villagers would be awake and out of their houses in the wee hours on the day on the day of a fight, especially Saturdays and some public holidays.


Frenzied Isukuti dancers willing and ready to trek for as long as ten kilometers to the venue of the fight, would then, all escort their favoured bulls to the venue of the event with dance and jubilation.


Shichenga the Bull belonging ti the Ikolomani legislator.


More often than not, overpowered bulls would charge at the crowd while fleeing to safety, sparing nobody including the handlers who scamper for their dear lives.


Several people have in the past been injured after being tumbled on by fleeing bulls after being defeated, says Benedicto Mate, the owner of a champion bull named Luchendo in Shinyalu division. 


Mate says triumphant bulls at times kill their opponents if they don’t run away or if the crowd doesn’t separate them.


During World Habitat Day celebrations at Bukhungu stadium in Kakamega a year ago, spectators including Housing minister Soita Shitanda and Assistant ministers Bishop Margaret Wanjiru and Manyala Keya could not be protected by their security and had to flee after the bull went berserk and charged at them


“The bulls have to be psychologically prepared for the fight on the eve of the fight,’ says Bendicto Mate,.


They are also given remnants of a traditional brew (Busaa), known as Amatseshe and a special concoction of herbs to increase their aggressiveness, according to Mate.


The fighting bulls are zero-grazed and prevented from mating with cows. However, a cow is placed at a strategic point where the bulls to fight would struggle to get to it.


“It is during this time that the bulls turn wild and ready to lock horns with any other bulls nearby. At this point, only supporters can control the bull,” says Mate.


“The fights can be fatal if owners of the beasts don’t intervene when one bull appears to be overwhelmed,” he explains.


The victorious bulls are usually escorted back home by villagers, singing praise songs with a wreath of intertwined flowers or leaves put around the neck as a sign of honor.


Crowds with sticks and twigs dance and sing as they escort their favourite bull. The bull is usually in the middle of the crowd. The contest is between villages since the bulls belong to individuals, who in turn belong to the village.


Mate says that the bull fights are meant to bring people from different villages together and not cause disharmony.


 “However, Eto was a champion for sometime but when Luchendo beat it, hatred developed between the two villages,” he avers.


The beasts are bred for battle, fed with molasses-spiked grass and isolated from heifers at the age of three, when they are ready for the ring to prevent them from mating and supposedly preserve their energy.


He says they as well guard the bull all night to prevent foes from bewitching the bull.

At the venue, crowds will cheer and praise their favourite bull as bets begging to be placed. Isikuti dancers will move up and down the pitch as if possessed.


Up to 10, 000 spectators troop to the bullfights to see the spectacle, which usually begins at around 7am.


In a recent fight, Mate says that Luchendo almost killed Eto, a bull from the neighbouring village.


At one point, Wanjiru remarked that bull fighting was not a game for women. “This is not our place. These animals can hurt anyone, despite the fun they come with,” she said.


The ceremony had to be put on hold to recognize the winning bull as it was paraded.

South African envoy to Kenya Tony Gab Msimanga requested that one bull be given to him, so he could take it home for his fellow citizens to experience the same fun.


Surprised how the bulls would fight and emerged winners without using sticks, as is the case in other countries was Deputy Indian High Commissioner to Kenya Ketan Shurtla.


Mate says owners of the fighters sometimes incur huge expenses treating their beasts especially after nasty fight. “I sometimes call the local vet if the injuries are serious,” he said.


Mate said he prepares Luchendo, three days in advance for a fight. He says he gives his bull some traditional drugs and sharpens its horns three days before a fight.


He says the horns are sharpened early so that the bull goes to battle without fresh wounds or pain. “I sharpen the left horn more since Luchendo strikes from the left side,” says Mate.


After a fight, Mate said he cannot allow Luchendo to go to battle in less than a month’s time, to give the bull time to heal.


He noted that there are rules they adhere to as they plan for a fight. “I have to write to my opponent requesting him for a challenge. If he accepts, then we set a date,” he said.


In the letter, the amount of money the winner takes home is indicated. Fans from the village then hold a small fundraiser for the event’s prize.


Bull fights are fast becoming a commercial venture, with the champion bull’s owner winning money.


On the day of the fight, owners will accompany their bulls and will bring along the letters, which indicates that they give consent to the challenge.


“We come with the letters to protect ourselves from any blame just in case the opponent’s bull gets badly injured or dies,” Mate noted. Local authorities are however usually not informed in advance about fights in their areas.


The bulls are not a source of living for many owners but are kept just for pride. The bulls are not used for breeding or farming. They are however expensive to maintain as they are put on a special diet and receive medical attention frequently.


Mate notes that the fights sometimes bring hatred among people from different villages. Khayega, Shinyalu, Ikolomani and Kakamega are common areas where bullfighting is held almost every weekend.

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