During my frequent visits to rural Rwanda, I share banana wine with elders quite often. This time, I am offered milk. The best milk I have ever tasted.
I am on a hill known as Ikiraro k’Inyambo located in Kaniga Sector, Gicumbi District. My host, Maître Rutinywa Kageyo, is the author of a book titled Rwanda: Pastoral Evolution and the Place of Inyambo.
Maître Kageyo owns many cows, including a good number of inyambo, the famed long-horned cows featured prominently in his book. The book, boasting an enticing foreword written by President Kagame, sheds light on the evolution of cattle rearing and the nobility of cows in the Rwandan culture.
Traditionally, cows are prized possessions symbolizing wealth. In today’s cash-driven economy, cattle ownership continues to upgrade standards of living. Beef and dairy products are sought after consumables. Horns, hoofs and hides are important raw materials in the manufacturing industry.
Local communities have been using cow dung as manure for a long time. Lately, what could easily be discarded as waste has become a source of biogas. Apart from occupying a prestigious position in the Rwandan culture, cows open up multiple streams of income for farmers.
In his research paper titled, Kivuguto: Traditional Fermented Milk and the Dairy Industry in Rwanda," Eugene Karenzi pointed out that consumption of milk was once a privilege enjoyed by a few rich families and cows played some sort of a divisive role in the society. However, Karenzi acknowledged efforts made by the government and its partners to accelerate universal ownership of cows through the Girinka program.
The Girinka program was rolled out to ensure every poor family in the country owns a cow. The word Girinka (may you have a cow) is a popular greeting among Rwandans. It is an expression of best wishes. In addition, a cow is considered the most precious gift.
The first step in the supply chain of milk is milking a cow. At the King’s court, there used to be a virgin girl responsible for handling his milk. Utensils of all sizes and shapes, bearing distinct Kinyarwanda names, adorned her neatly kept hut.
As mentioned above, everything a cow produces turns into gold. However, milk’s symbolic and nutritional value transcends everything else. Different consumer trends come and go but the consumption of milk has stood the test of time. The milk drinking culture is here to stay.
The hill on which Ikiraro k’Inyambo is found used to be the site of Radio Muhabura, the voice of inkotanyi. Plans are underway to recreate the studio and preserve this location of historical significance. In the meantime, the farm offers unparalleled cultural experiences and the best milk I have ever sampled.