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Big Bowl of Oily Meat

Big Bowl of Oily Meat


Medical doctors in Nigeria are grimacing this week at the prospect that many more patients will come in complaining of chest pain, high cholesterol levels, irregular heartbeats and the danger of heart attacks. Doctors have already ordered their pharmacists to bring out coated aspirins, Lipitor and other statins in readiness for the deluge.

The doctors’ ache is the ram sellers’ gain. Throughout last week, there was a Berlin Conference-style scramble by millions of people in Nigeria to find and buy the oiliest rams. As Eid el-Kabir approached, ram markets sprung up in every corner of Nigerian cities, towns and villages. Parks, open spaces and roadsides all became emergency ram markets. In millions of Northern Nigerian homes, especially in the rural areas, rams are specially bred throughout the year with the aim of making a killing during the Sallah period. These are however not enough to meet the Sallah need, so rams from as far afield as Chad and Niger Republics are imported into the country.

Ram sellers are expert salesmen who guide buyers to the choicest rams. They have one unchanging admonition, “This one is very oily. Buy this one.” I had been accompanying my grandparents and uncles to ram markets for two decades and have been going to ram markets myself for two decades now, but I have never been able to figure out how to determine which live ram is oilier than another. At first I thought it was correlated with fatness. You see a ram bulging with meat in the tummy, neck, shoulders and thighs but a ram seller will overlook that one, go for a leaner ram, grab its tail, feel for something just above its tail and say, “This one has more oil.”

What is it located above a ram’s tail that tells anyone that it has oil? I was a university lecturer in Zoology for seven years, and I took several courses in animal anatomy before that. I did not see any large layer of adipose tissue above a ram’s tail, such as you see in a human’s hind section. A ram does not need much fat around the tail because it does not sit on its behind the way a human does. A ram’s behind also does not serve purposes of aerodynamic balancing, since it does not walk around on two legs. My Polish Physiology professor Robert Miodonski once said that human females tend to have more adipose tissue on their behind because of the need to aerodynamically balance the mammary glands protruding out in front. I cannot see any such need in rams because the ewe carries its mammary glands at the bottom of the abdomen, quite close to the tail.

While buying a Sallah ram in Kaduna some years ago, I came to the conclusion that ram sellers tailored their claims of a ram’s oil to the suspected depth of a buyer’s pocket. They will first ask you the price range of the ram you are looking for. It is within that price range that they will tailor their claims about oily rams. If you mention a low price range, the seller will walk right past huge rams, which obviously have a lot of oil, and direct you to a smaller ram and claim that that one is oilier.

In the end you get to know which ram is oilier only after they are slaughtered on Sallah Day. The butchers will skin, wash and lay the rams out to dry in the sun before they are hacked into pieces, ready for the huge frying pans and pots. Even at that stage you can see which ram has a lot of fat under its skin. Some rams have so much fat that the flesh looks white, instead of the reddish colour of real flesh. By the time the meat ends up in the pot, some rams can almost fry themselves in their own fat.

Now, in the Sokoto area [which for this purpose includes Kebbi and Zamfara states], Sallah meat is handled differently from all other places. After the rams are slaughtered, skinned and washed, they are not cut into pieces but are hung face down on huge racks. Usually, neighbours will pool all their rams together for the tareni, a collective barbeque. A very hot fire made from specially chosen logs will be set in the centre, with the slaughtered rams surrounding it. The tareni lasts from midday until sunset with the caretakers adjusting and replacing the blazing logs every now and then. At this stage you really see which ram is oily. As kids we used to place containers under each ram to collect the dripping oil. From my observation at that stage, the biggest and fattest rams are always the oiliest, never mind what the ram sellers say in the market.

The tareni is removed from the fire in the evening and guarded in a secure room until morning. Guarded from dogs and rats that is, but kids and the men in charge of the barbecue have the license to cut and eat oily portions of the rams called rebu. The oiliest portion is usually around the waist. Almost without fail, whoever eats a lot of rebu will have running stomach the next day, even though a medical doctor later told me that it is because of microbial contamination, not the fat. Besides rebu, kids and the men handling the barbecue are also entitled to many portions of the rams such as neck, gonads, kidneys and a small portion of the intestines.

The first time I knew that people in other parts of the North did not do tareni was in 1970 when the Lukman family moved into our Clapperton Road neighbourhood in Sokoto. I thought it was scandalous when they sent raw ram meat to our house on Sallah Day. But my Mum, who lived at Kongo in the 1950s, said, “They are Zaria people. They don’t do tareni there.” Tareni is quite wasteful in energy terms and I hope the Energy Commission of Nigeria will teach Sokoto people how to do a barbecue with much less fire.

The day after Sallah is devoted to sharing of meat. Back in those days, my grandfather will assemble his barbecued rams, usually four, and have them cut into pieces, separating the thighs, front legs, ribs and large pieces of flesh. Magatakarda will have a long list of names in a notebook and will assign a piece to each name. His brothers and closest friends will get as much as a thigh, and he will send us kids to go round and distribute it. The rest of the meat will be fried and shared to family members. Some uncles sat in their houses and when we took the meat to them, they also cut pieces of their rams and sent us back with it to Magatakarda, so we often returned with as much meat as we went out with. Our grandmothers had a way of preserving meat for weeks until some absent grandchildren come home.

Throughout last week, Nigerian newspapers, radio and TV stations had one standard headline for their Sallah stories, “Prices of rams shoot up.” The stories alleged that most people could not afford to buy rams. Trouble is, newspapers have been saying the same thing for decades and yet, every year, most of the rams vanish from the markets into people’s pots. Even though many Nigerians were struggling last week with high food prices, fuel shortages and in some cases unpaid salaries and pensions, most of the rams in the markets were sold.

That is because millions of people will cough out, save, vie, borrow, beg, blackmail or even steal in order to get a Sallah ram. Why should that be so when the Islamic injunction is clear, that one should only slaughter a sacrificial ram if he or she can afford it? The deceased singer Gambu, praise singer of thieves, best summed up this dilemma when he told the story of how the notorious thief Dikko Chanda brought two stolen rams to him for Sallah. According to Gambu, he complained that God will not accept such a sacrifice. Dikko Chanda retorted that he should not worry about Allah’s reward but should worry about the shame he will feel if neighbours see that he did not slaughter a Sallah ram.

On Sunday, the day after Sallah, I found a big bowl of fried ram meat in my bedroom. I was in quandary. The aroma is very sweet but since 2012 when I experienced sudden chest pain, a doctor ordered me to cut red meat consumption and stick to fish and chicken. He did not provide the money, which made it difficult to adhere to his costly prescription. Please advise me. Should I leave this meat on the say so of a doctor? 

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