Rwandans and their attachment to cows

On the outskirts of Kigali, somewhere in Masaka, Alphonse Karangwa, feeds his two Friesian cows. They black skinned animals look quite healthy. As the owner provides water to them, he seems very concerned and asks the little boy next to him why the cows don’t seem so interested in the water.
Considered Rwandan cattle
Considered Rwandan cattle

On the outskirts of Kigali, somewhere in Masaka, Alphonse Karangwa, feeds his two Friesian cows. They black skinned animals look quite healthy. As the owner provides water to them, he seems very concerned and asks the little boy next to him why the cows don’t seem so interested in the water.

Karangwa’s attention to the cattle clearly reveals that he cherishes and loves them like he would love his own child! To a person who equates cattle to other animals, it’s weird to learn that someone loves them more than expected.

Karangwa explains his obsession with cattle as “part of the Rwandan culture since history.” To Rwanda, cattle are a very significant symbol and cows are the best wealth a person can ever possess. Land, money, wealth can’t all be compared to cows.

Rwandan obsession to cattle rates back to history when a man’s wealth and manhood were considered by the number of long horned cattle he possessed.

“Anyone who had no cows wouldn’t have class in the society, people would work hard, do peasantry work all in the name of buying cattle,”says 75 year old Karangwa.

In Rwanda, cows were the only token that would be given for dowry or as a present to a friend. Even today, a cow is still considered the best present one can ever give a beloved one. Be it a wedding, graduation or a birthday party, cow giving makes the occasion more colourful and real.

Though they would spend eternity in forests and bushes herding their cattle, the Rwandans thought it worth. “Those days, we used to have a belief that no Rwandan is whole if they fed on food every day, we considered milk very important,” says Teoneste Gakwerere, 63.

According to him, there will never be any prestige for a man apart from possessing lots of cattle and children.

According to Karangwa, cattle would be given names according to their characters, the time of their birth as well as the favour they have before their owners.

Even with people with lots of cattle, they would endeavour to know most of them personally. “In my life, my favourite cow was Intwarane {heroine}, I gave her this name because she was very brave,” recalls Karangwa.

Cattle were given names like Inyamibwa {beautiful}, Intwari {hero}, Gatabazi {defender} and many names that carried great meaning. In the opposite, people would also be given names according to the cattle they have or the way they love cows.

“My name was given to me because of the vigour I had when it came to feeding cattle,” says Arnold Bikerinka.

Indeed we’ve heard of names like Munganyinka {she is as valuable as a cow}, Zaninka {bring a cow}, Nzamukosha {I will exchange her for a cow}. All these are names meant to show the great significance of cattle in the Rwandan culture.

Talking of cattle can’t go without telling of the prominent taboos that surrounded cattle in Rwanda.

Rwandans had several taboos about cattle, their owners and their herders. For example in order for servant to receive a share of cattle, he was prohibited from walking behind his master or sharing the same sitting stool.

It’s not culturally right for cattle to return to the kraal without lighting fire for them. Again in collecting fire for cattle, it was a taboo to carry only one piece of burning charcoal because one piece of fire was interpreted as a portent sign, it was considered an attempt to reduce the number of cattle.

It was wrong to smoke while milking cattle and even adding any beverage to the milk was a taboo.

Not to mention where the annual ceremonies done to welcome new baby calves into the kraal.

Up to today, many Rwandans don’t believe in adding any beverage to milk saying it can harm the cattle.

Rwandans are sometimes called cousins to the Masaai of Kenya and Tanzania because of their obsession and love for cattle. To win a Masaai woman, a man should be sure of parting with at least thirty cows.

They rate dowry according to the girls’ complexion and education level. If a girl has a lighter complexion and is a graduate, an average of 38 cows is asked for dowry.

As for Rwanda, back in the days, many cows were also paid as dowry. Even today, people who possess many give away many as bride price. In fact, even the poorest Rwandans can’t go without being given a cow on their wedding.

As he watches on, Karangwa says cattle the only friends he has ever had since he was born. According to some Rwandans, cows, especially the long horned cattle, will never lose their significance.

Ends

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