The other day someone asked me what the hype was in Rwanda about ‘this cow’. After all, in modern advanced economies, you don’t need to own cattle in order to get milk.
You can get milk off the counter for a song in the smallest kiosk by any roadside. Even the poorest peasants can sell some of their meagre produce and buy milk. That way they’ll avoid the pain of tending a cow.
The person, of course, was referring to ‘Girinka Programme’, or ‘One Cow per Family Programme’, the Rwandan government programme to offer cows to poor families. Until I fell upon a small document that explained its benefits, I’d not thought much about the programme either.
Consider a poor family in a remote part of overpopulated Rwanda. The man and his wife toil on their small, unfertile piece of land every day but are hardly able to make ends meet. They are barely able to feed their many children and so will laugh in your face when you talk about the problem of malnutrition.
Their concern is ‘nutrition’ and they have no time to think of it as being ‘mal’ or ‘bene’.
Enter ‘Girinka’. The programme was put in practice in November 2006 and it was supposed to benefit 257,000 poor families that had been identified, on a rotational basis. That means one family is given a pregnant cross-breed and after weaning its calf it is passed on to the next family. This has caught on and many organisations have joined the government to thus distribute such cows.
The government supports these families in primary animal care by providing veterinary services, artificial insemination, seeds for animal feeds, vaccination against diseases and others. With time the families are able to cater for the cows on their own, as they get empowered by the benefits accruing from that ownership.
Apart from the better nutrition from the milk, the cow provides manure that increases crop productivity. With improvement of their land, the families are sensitised on how ‘Girinka Programme’ can be complemented by other efforts like owning a kitchen garden, planting fruits and intensifying their crop production.
Since the families are given cross breeds that produce greater amounts of milk as opposed to domestic breeds, the families are able to sell excess milk and boost their incomes. In that regard, the government continues to set up Milk Collection Centres where peasants can sell their milk. Other livestock infrastructures are also being put in place and feeder roads are being built to facilitate access.
With the overall increase in milk production, the government is now starting a programme to provide milk to school children, free. So far, six districts with a high level of malnutrition have received priority and children in first, second and third year of primary school are benefitting from the programme.
To empower the families further, many other programmes in animal care and milk production are being offered. The families are being taught ways of properly feeding a milking cow and how to improve the quality of milk. Veterinarians at local and national levels are giving the families information on disease control methods and all other necessary information.
Milk co-operatives have also been set up and are being trained on good governance, accounting, leadership and others. This has awakened their entrepreneurial spirit of these cow owners and they are able to defend their interests.
Apart from supporting those who are very poor, ‘Girinka Programme’ has brought many benefits to the vulnerable groups of the Rwandan society. These include people living with HIV/AIDS, sole women-headed households, orphans and other disadvantaged groups or individuals.
The children of the poor now get a balanced diet and can enjoy the compulsory primary education that would otherwise have meant nothing to them. The families can easily afford health insurance and get other odd tasks performed, like getting their houses rehabilitated or new ones built. This way, communities have been strengthened, with some families saving money and starting businesses.
Families have been able to move out of poverty and hunger. In fact, some families that managed their cows well have already got a number of calves and, therefore, a lot of manure. With that, some have even been able to install biogas facilities. Where they thought electricity was for the select wealthy of the country, now they can enjoy seeing their children reading in the evening under the light of an electric bulb.
Most importantly, ‘Girinka Programme’ is working as a uniting 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 ‘a cow’ (cattle were called a cow, whatever the size of the herd) while they denounced it as a symbol of the superiority that one section of Rwandans enjoyed over other Rwandans.
During the pogroms that were driven by the ruling elite, cattle were targeted as much as the targeted Rwandans and it was taboo to won a cow. Yet, paradoxically, these rulers turned around to milk the benefits of cattle-ownership for themselves.
Today, a cow has become a symbol of self-empowerment, equality and unity.
Twitter: @butapa Blog: butamire.wordpress.com