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Week of the oily ram

Every medical doctor in Nigeria will grimace on hearing this but with one week today to Sallah, the scramble is on for millions of people…

Every medical doctor in Nigeria will grimace on hearing this but with one week today to Sallah, the scramble is on for millions of people to find and buy very oily rams. Whole ram markets have sprung up in recent weeks in every corner of Nigerian cities, towns and villages. Rams from as far afield as Chad and Niger Republics have joined millions of others grown in Nigerian homes and farms, ready for their owners to make a killing in this Sallah period.
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 on my own steam 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 and 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 above a ram’s tail that tells anyone that it has oil? I took several courses in animal anatomy and 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 balance the mammary glands protruding out in front. I cannot observe 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 tailor 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 but that never deters anyone. 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, until our mother said, “They are from Zaria. 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. Our   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, a very tedious job. The rest of the meat will be fried and shared to family members. Our grandmothers had a way of preserving it for weeks until some absent grandchildren come home.
Since Sallah Day is Monday next week, most rams will be bought between today and Sunday. Watch out for this story in the newspapers, on radio and television: “Prices of rams shoot up; most people cannot afford them.” 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. The claim will however have a ring of truth this year because we are officially in a recession. Some states, local governments and many private firms are not paying salaries, contractors are stranded, treasury looters are on the run and even banks are short of money.
Still, most of the rams will be 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 this be so when the Islamic injunction is clear, that one should only slaughter a sacrificial ram if he or she can afford it? The recently departed 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 but Dikko Chanda retorted that he should be ashamed if people see that he did not slaughter a ram. This week, many people may unwittingly be heeding Dikko Chanda’s advice.
By Tuesday next week I am likely to get a big dish of fried ram meat in my bedroom. I was just thinking; how much ram meat does a man need? Since 2012 a doctor has restricted me to eating fish and chicken, though he did not provide the money. He will have a fit when he sees me with a big dish of very oily ram meat.

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