A day with the Inyambo cows

Why would some someone travel all the way from Kigali to the provinces just to see cows? Better still, why would a tourist visiting the country venture as far out of Kigali as Gatsibo District in the Eastern Province, and fork out the proverbial tourist dollar, all in the name of cows?

Why would some someone travel all the way from Kigali to the provinces just to see cows? Better still, why would a tourist visiting the country venture as far out of Kigali as Gatsibo District in the Eastern Province, and fork out the proverbial tourist dollar, all in the name of cows?

Gatsibo is some 124km away from Kigali. Davidson Mugisha, the owner of Wildlife Tours Rwanda, convinced me to tag along on the trip, explaining that the pastoral villages in Gatsibo were a popular fixture on his community-based tour itineraries. On a chilly Saturday morning, we set off from the Wildlife Tours offices in Kimironko.

Rutagarama (left) and Mugisha chat during a break from herding -photos by Moses Opobo

Before this excursion, I had heard a thing or two about the traditional Rwandan long-horned cows, Inyambo; the little I knew is that these were some kind of endangered species, second only to the more talked-about Mountain Gorillas. The only place that came to mind on mention of Inyambo was the former Kings’ palace in Nyanza, where they are one of the major tourist attractions.


Gatsibo District, in particular, and the Eastern Province, in general, are synonymous with the last vestiges of the country’s long pastoral history, thanks to the relatively flat topography here and lush vegetation. The district is divided into fourteen sectors (imirenge), and Gitoki Sector where we visited is particularly synonymous with pastoral families and an abundance of banana plantations –hence the name, Gitoki.


Most families in the area are engaged in either banana cultivation, pastoralism, or both. About seven years ago, Mugisha, through his Wildlife Tours, engaged a few families in the area to harness the tourism potential and opportunities that the pastoral tradition and activities present. The result was a loose community association of pastoralists who have crafted a whole tourism value chain out of the area’s rich pastoral heritage.

“Our company’s approach is more of pro-poor tourism, which means that we develop tourism packages which can help people who don’t have a lot of capital and education but are very proud of their culture, and so we showcase that culture to both our international visitors and locals who are still interested in learning more about this kind of culture,” Mugisha explained as we drove past sporadic herds.

Traditional pots (ibisabo) used in milk preservation and ghee making

“That’s why a lot of the guests we get are international visitors,” he added.

Our drive eventually led us to the compound of Apollo Rutagarama, one of the prominent pastoralists in the area. But getting to Rutagarama’s ranch was one thing, and seeing his herds another. Such is the size of his land, that from the homestead where he stays with his family, we needed another short trek to join the cows, which had huddled at the lower edge of the ranch, where the pasture is thicker and where the watering points are also concentrated.

Before the trek, our host first led us into his house, built of modern construction materials but shaped after the traditional Rwandan hut. For visiting tourists, the pastoral experience actually begins here. We were each given a set of pastoralists’ gear; a herder’s stick, scarves to wrap ourselves in, and gumboots for the rugged terrain.

Our host’s wife then pointed us to a corner teeming with elegant traditional Rwandan milk gourds –Ibisabo. The Ibisabo are used to preserve milk the traditional way, and to make ghee out of it. This is strictly under the domain of the woman of the house.

We descended onto the ranch, and as the cows started to materialise in our view, I was immediately struck by the sheer numbers. I thought there were about fifty cows in my view, but then decided to be sure.

I asked our host about the size of his herd, but his knowing look and mischievous smile informed me that it was a dumb question. I was duly informed that “In traditional Rwandan culture we do not put a number to the cows we own”.

Rutagarama’s herd is comprised of both the traditional Inyambo long horned cows and the exotic variety, and this also got me curious.

Rutagarama explained that traditional cows, for all their advantages, require more space to graze since they are free range by nature, while the exotic breed are more sedentary.

He explained, however, that the local cows are easier to feed and sell, and are more tolerant and resilient to extremities of weather.

“Culturally speaking, Inyambo are more beautiful, especially when decorated for ceremonial purposes. They look gentle and elegant,” he explained, adding that at, a personal level, he derives joy from calling out the Inyambo by name. The cows are “baptised names” either by the owner, or by visitors.

Inyambo cows are a sight to behold.

I further learnt that the ghee from the cows is used in traditional medicine to treat various human ailments, but also to treat abdominal problems in the cows themselves. Ghee is also a good skin care product, we heard.

“These cows bond social relations in the community. When you give this cow to someone, that person’s entire family and friends of the family also become your friends.”

Rutagarama also explained that these cows brought in foreign exchange long before tourism became a foreign exchange earner for the country.

“The first tourists to the country actually went to the King’s palace in Nyanza to see these cows.”

“After the introduction of exotic cows, because of their relatively high productivity, many people forgot the touch and affection for Inyambo. People thought they’d only find them in museums, yet traditionally we have a long connection to our cows which can be seen in our dances, in our traditional poems and poetry (amazina y’inka), and in the traditional introduction ceremony (gusaba),” Mugisha chipped in.

“So we feared that we might lose this rich culture. We wanted to make sure that people are still proud of these cows. Much as what modernisation is bringing is good, we also wanted to make sure that people still feel very proud to own these cows.”

As a tour operator, Mugisha’s role was to create relevant themes hinged on the culture of pastoralism, then develop them into a viable tourism product. The result was a practical and experiential community-based tour.

“Second was to do some kind of guidance and interpretation –how do you interpret this history? How do you interpret this culture so that it can easily be understood by any kind of tourism segment?” he said.

For Rutagarama and the other pastoral families, the role is to showcase this culture, interpret and own it.

A typical tour here also involves a briefing on the taboos and norms associated with the cows, and general cow etiquette like how to hold a milk calabash, or how to hold the tits when milking the cows.

After about three hours with the cows, we returned to our host’s house for lunch. The lunch too was a story of the country’s culinary heritage. We sat on traditional stools and the wife of our guest treated us to a feast of beans cooked with pumpkin, vegetables in peanut sauce, and millet bread served in traditional baskets.


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