Knowing my relatives and the pain they go to in welcoming visitors, I’ve chosen to always visit without prior telephone warning. And so it was last weekend when I visited my brother in a village near Rwamagana, 62 km from Kigali.
When he saw me, he left the cow he was scrubbing to come and enthuse in greeting: “Eeeh! Uraho Butami!” However, when I answered with equal enthusiasm, he rejected his name: “No, I’m no longer called Kanyarukiko,” he protested, “My name now is Mvuyekure!”
When I asked how so, he told me to go first greet my sister-in-law – the children were all away, some in school, others working in different towns – before he could explain.
A retired driver without a pension, my brother has nine children, the last of whom is entering university. The older children are caring for the young ones and brother and sister-in-law do not get much help from their working children. That is why I never tell them when I’m going to visit, otherwise they’d have to buy some special food or drink.
So, after the greetings, he led me back to “his” cow. “His” in inverted commas because I knew him to hate cattle. When I pointed that out to him, he considered me at length before asking: “Have you heard of something called ‘Girinka Programme’?”
Of course I know ‘Girinka Programme’. It was approved by cabinet in 2006. In the programme, Government offers a dairy cow to a poor family that has been identified by its community. Once the cow calves, the family gives the calf to a neighbour and that multiplier-effect process goes on to form a chain of cow beneficiaries.
“That’s not all!” interrupted my brother, and he went on to expound on the details. First, there was a campaign by government to create awareness of the many benefits of owning a cow. Then people were shown how to keep the cow, how to build a cow shed, how and where to plant the right pasture species and so on.
Kanyarukiko explained how now he and his wife have enough milk, a way to combat malnutrition and even sell some extra to generate income. With cow-dung as manure, they don’t need to buy fertilizer. In a year, they can collect 2 tonnes of fertilizer and sometimes can sell off some.
The pasture is planted strategically on terraces to control soil erosion, in a country where practically every small family holding is on a hillside. The grass also renders the soil more fertile.
Seeing the benefits of the programme, peasants have moved to follow it up with more initiatives. There is a process of producing many cows in the community where the first owner keeps the calf and gives the mother to the next beneficiary. This is faster than waiting for the calf to grow up.
Another initiative is for the owner of a cow to put it in the care of someone else. On the second calving, the owner gives the cow-keeper one calf in recognition of his/her services.
Average families have joined this race to better nutrition by accessing bank loans to buy their cows. However, Government obliges such families to comply with the criteria necessary to keep a cow: a cow shed, pasture species, et al. Even well-to-do farmers offer free cows to poor families so as to expand their source of manure.
Meanwhile, all cow owners are striving to improve their indigenous dairy cows and finally transform them into Friesian and Jersey breeds, by selection of semen. Which is not to say the indigenous breeds are a total reject! They are kept in ranches as beef cattle since they have less cholesterol.
Kanyarukiko was not done. With a flourish, he ushered me into his neighbour’s compound. He was going to show me his neighbour, he said, who gave him the calf. The family received us warmly with an offer of milk but I declined, falsely explaining that I had already had some.
“It’s a lie!” shouted my brother with a chuckle, “He thinks the milk is not boiled!” I had to confess and drink the milk. I apologised, explaining that indeed I’d thought it was not boiled. In my youth, I never for once saw anybody in the village boil their milk.
After they’d seen us off and bid us goodbye, I asked my brother if the neighbours had ever been outside the country. Yes, he explained casually, the neighbours were in D.R. Congo when he appropriated their land. However, when they came back, they gave him the piece he is settling on, since their land had always been more than enough for them.
When I showed amazement at the possibility of this reconciliation, he exclaimed: “City people! Umuhutu, Umututsi, Umutwa, eh? In the village we live together and share everything. Anything else, does it matter?” And, indeed, does it?
Girinka! Yesterday a cow was cause for exclusion and division; today it is a factor in empowerment and unification.
Yes, in Rwanda, everyone is Mvuyekure (Kinyarwanda for “I have come a long way”)!