I took off my shoes and entered the traditionally designed house set up within the premises of the Seeds of Peace Center in Gahini Sector, Kayonza District. It looked like a shrine or any other site of spiritual significance. The interior was artistically decorated. Looking around, I couldn’t stop admiring our ancestors’ creativity.
I had been to such a house before. This happened at the King’s Palace Museum, located in Nyanza District, many moons ago. That memorable tour resuscitated the past and put history into perspective. While visiting the palace, I examined the royal court’s organization structure and its meticulous etiquette.
Back to Seeds of Peace, I sat on a stool and grabbed a chalice of fresh milk. Speaking of milk, the setup of the milk table looked like an altar. As I said, it felt like a shrine. To understand the cultural value of milk, we need to look into the position of cattle in the traditional Rwandan societies.
When I visited Gicumbi District, I interacted with Maître Rutinywa Kageyo, the co-author of a book titled Rwanda: Pastoral Evolution and the Place of Inyambo. Maître Kageyo owns numerous cows — including a good number of inyambo, — the long-horned species featured prominently in his book. Our conversation over milk shed light on the culture of cattle rearing and the nobility of cows.
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 residence, 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 shown 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 author is a travel enthusiast on a tour of all 30 districts and 416 sectors of Rwanda. Follow his awe-inspiring expeditions on Twitter @GeoExposure.