My family and I moved to what we call home in the late seventies. My siblings and I had lived in Nairobi all our lives, so suddenly finding ourselves in a place with no electricity and mooing cows everywhere you turned was very disconcerting.
It took us a long time to settle down, and learn the ways of the locals.
Most of our neighbours had a cow or two, from where they got their milk.
Being ‘foreigners’, we had none, and even worse, knew nothing about rearing them.
No matter how much I saw someone do it, I always flinched from imagined pain whenever I saw someone milking – it seemed as if the poor cow’s udder would get yanked off.
In our neighbourhood, there lived an old woman who everyone called kogo, Kalenjin for grandmother.
Kogo had a big herd of cattle, which could supply the entire village with milk. It is from her that we bought our milk.
By 6.00am daily, my brothers and I would be seated outside Kogo’s hut, as she busy milked her many cows in the shed.
All of them had names, and each responded when called.
Tilit, an old, thick-horned cow with a sagging udder stood out from the rest. Kogo accorded her special treatment, leaving no doubt that it was her favourite. She drank milk from no other.
When she was done with the milking, we’d follow her inside her hut. It was windowless and dark.
To diffuse the darkness, she would reach for a match box, and light up a tin lamp to reveal painted guards and calabashes dangling from the grass thatched roof.
She would the sit on a hide placed near the fire place and start to measure milk into bottles using a metallic cup.
This procedure always fascinated us. Within reach was always a two kilogramme Kimbo tin filled with water.
Then, one Tree Top bottle was equivalent of 1 litre, while a cup was half a litre. Kogo would half fill our Tree Top bottle with milk and then fill the remaining half with water from the Kimbo tin.
Our innocence told us that this was just one among the many processes of preparing milk.
After all, we had never owned a cow and were therefore clueless where milk ‘processing’ is concerned. We observed Kogo carry out this procedure so many times, we could do it with our eyes closed.
Each time, mum prepared tea, I would here her complain that the milk was too watery, and several times, sent us to other neighbours to buy milk.
After experimenting with different suppliers, mum finally warned us never to buy Kogo’s milk again, but this was after a long time of buying from her.
Much later, we finally acquired our own cow and stopped buying milk. Infected with the excitement that comes with new things and experiences, I volunteered to help mum with the milking, and later, measure it out.
After watching her empty cup after cup into a sufuria, I pointed out that she was missing a crucial step. “Mum, you’ve not added water,” I said.
“Water? Where?” she asked, puzzled.
“In the milk” I replied.
“Why would I add water?” Mum wondered, looking at me with surprise. I explained that when we used to buy our milk from Kogo, she would add water. I have never seen mum as angry as she was then.
Immediately I finished my narration, she gave me several stinging slaps, which took me by so much surprise, I did not even cry out. Mum could not understand why we couldn’t have realised that we were being conned. To mum, ignorance was no defense.
I would later learn that Kogo’s antics were less sinister than others – there are those who even add melted margarine, or flour, to make the milk look creamy and thick.