Our respect for cows

Antoine Mukeshimana, a beneficiary of Girinka programme, feeds a cow that he was given under the scheme at Rweru model village in Bugesera. Sam Ngendahimana.

One Sunday evening during a casual discussion, a man asked me about ‘the cow thing’ with Rwandan people?

After all, in modern economies, you do not need to own a cow to get milk, he argued. You can get milk off the counter or from several mushrooming milk dispensers across the country. And for meat, he added, the nearest butcher will give you beef.

I figured he was talking about Girinka or one cow per poor family—a programme that was established in 2006 by the Government of Rwanda to reduce the country’s poverty and child malnutrition rate. In the process, the cow is seen as a traditional symbol of prosperity. Long live our President, Paul Kagame.

I told my new acquaintance that a cow is a generous, docile creature—one that gives more than it takes from us.

I said cows become beef; milk becomes money—apparently the most important source of monetary income for poor rural communities.

The Rwandan Government supports these families in animal care by providing veterinary services, artificial insemination, vaccination against diseases, seeds for animal feeds and others. With time, the families are able to cater for cows on their own.

Apart from milk, the cows also provide manure that increases crop productivity. With the improvement of their land, families can own a kitchen garden (akarima k’igikoni), plant fruits and intensify their production.

Since families are given cross breeds that produce milk in high quantity, they are able to sell and boost their income.

Milk co-operatives have also been set-up and are being trained in good governance, accounting, and leadership. This has awakened their entrepreneurial spirit and they are able to defend their interests.

Even the poorest of households have benefited from this programme, as the surplus reaped from the cows has allowed families to invest in health insurance, tuition, better housing and the establishment of small businesses.

Most importantly, Girinka is working as a tool in a society that had for long considered cattle as a factor in their division. Before 1994, only members of the political elite had the privilege of owning cattle while they denounced it as a symbol of superiority that one section of Rwandans enjoyed over other Rwandans.

During the programmes, which were driven by the ruling elite, cattle were targeted as much as the targeted Rwandans and it was a taboo to own a cow.

The writer is an aspiring writer and S3 student at Lycée de Kigali.