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Cattle nobility and the symbolic value of milk in Rwanda

Cattle nobility and the symbolic value of milk in Rwanda

During a recent visit to the picturesque hills of Bigogwe, I spent some time sharpening my milking skills. This was an opportunity to learn more about pastoralism and Rwanda’s rich heritage.

Traditionally, cows are prized possessions. They symbolize 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. Imigongo artists, on the other hand, use it to make decor items. Apart from occupying a prestigious position in the Rwandan culture, cows open up multiple streams of income.

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.

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 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.

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