Tue. Jul 27th, 2021

The place of a cow in traditional Rwandan society

Since time immemorial cows have played a central role in the economy of the traditional Rwandan people including offering solutions to malnutrition, poverty and unity. This explicitly explains why H.E President Paul Kagame, the brainchild of the home grown solutions has successfully solved the problem of grinding poverty linked to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi through tapping into the Rwandan culture, and the Girinka programme launched in 2006, has virtually delivered thousands of rural Rwandan citizens formerly engulfed by alarmingly high levels of poverty and childhood malnutrition. Thanks to Arise Rwanda Ministries (ARM) that have partnered with the GoR in fighting poverty through cow donations.

The King was sick and bedridden, indeed. King Gihanga (1091 – 1124) had just arrived in Nyamirembe, in Gatsibo-Byumba (north-east Rwanda) after a sharp disagreement with his young cousin, Gahu who had impregnated his daughter, princess Nyirarucyaba.

Nyirarucyaba bought milk which the hailing father would fed on as he battled with the sickness. After a few days his health improved and from then to date milk is believed to have medicinal properties in the Rwandan traditional society.    

On learning that his life had been saved by milk from Gahu, King Gihanga forgave him. Gahu also gave the King many cows as act of penitence. The King changed Gahu’s name to Kazigama, meaning “One who gives cows.” Reconciliation was therefore is linked to milk and donation of cows.

Since that time, the Rwandan society attaches a lot of value to cows. Apart from the medicinal importance, cows a symbol of cows are a symbol of wealth, love and unity. This is very explicit when one considers it in the cultural context of ancient Rwanda where only Kings and heroes owned cows. The poets of the day composed poems that piled praises on the cow to emphasize their importance.

During the post-genocide era in Rwanda, the country ravaged with poverty-ridden, malnourished and a population polarized along ethnicity lines. The government came up with solutions that are a replica of the traditional solutions. From within the Rwanda cultural granaries, a solution was born dubbed Girinka or ‘one cow per poor family programme’.

Arise Rwanda Ministries (ARM), a nonprofit organization with a mission to fight poverty, building sustainability and prosperity with focus on holistically individual communities tapped into the national program.

John Gasangwa, founder and President of Arise Rwanda Ministries notes that the organization was founded to give hope to the people of Boneza, a community of 26,000 people in Rutsiro District, Western Province of Rwanda.

To uplift the residents of Boneza from poverty, ARM launched ‘Have A Cow Campaign’ as one of its first initiatives launched to salvage the poor in Boneza and started with victims of the Genocide against the Tutsi. The campaign with a target of granting at least 10 cows annually, this year received a major boost from the Covenant Life Church in USA.

“When one family receives a cow, the impact spreads throughout the community,” explains Gasangwa. When a family is gifted with a cow which must be female, they are food secure because of the nutritious milk and manure to apply as fertilizers for the crops. When the first female calf is born it is gifted to a neighbor and this strengthens social relations of the community as the gifting of a cow continues to make rounds.

Covenant Life Church donates 52 cows

The Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven in Michigan, USA, donated 52 cows to Boneza community in western Rwanda. The cows were officially distributed to the families on February 17, 2020 at Kivu Hills Academy in Boneza, which is also part of ARM initiative.

The Covenant Life Church, a vibrant, multigenerational congregation in downtown Grand Haven close to the shores of Lake Michigan answered the call to the transformational program gifting cows to impoverished families in rural Rwanda.

“Sunday school children at the Church started the campaign to donate cows on learning that that many fellow children in Boneza were not in position to afford a cup of milk,” explained Dave Knibbe, a member of the Global Mission Committee at Covenant Life Church.

Knibbe travelled a great distance to reach Boneza Sector in Western Rwanda to hand out the great gifts to the beneficiaries.

At the cows-giving ceremony, Knibbe personally handed out colorful envelopes from their benefactors with their photos, letters from supporters and proposed names for the cows.

He told the beneficiaries that the cows were donated from Covenant Life Church community who wished well the people of Boneza. He underlined that the donation was intended to enhance lives and relationships.

Martini Bibutsuhoze, 29, was the first to receive a cow, which he chose himself, a gratifying experience it was.

The father of a six-month baby was happy and when it stops breast-feeding milk will be readily available.

Bibutsuhoze is not looking at the milk for his baby alone, as a smallholder farmer he’s hopeful that productivity will go up as a result of applying manure [cow dung].

“My plot of land needs fertilizers to become more productivity and I couldn’t afford to buy fertilizers before, with this cow I will be the happiest man by end this season,” says Bibutsuhoze with a wide smile.

Bibutsuhoze who currently sells food stuffs like ground nuts nurses a dream of starting a shop. He will complement his household income by selling surplus milk.

Bibutsuhoze’s dreams are not farfetched as one cow per poor family initiative has worked wonders in transforming the livelihoods of the poor farmers by enabling them to increase agricultural production and ensuring food security, nutrition, household incomes and reconciliation.

Tasiyani Mukankubito, 61, a genocide survivor received a cow from ARM in 2016. The cow she received has already produced three times, she gave away the first calf, sold another and still has two healthy cows in her kraal.

Mukankubito says she was blessed to get a cow from Gasangwa (meaning the founder of ARM).

 “He found me desolate, poor and hopeless. When he gave me a cow, I felt lucky and became hopeful that I will live a meaningful life because some people cared about me, and I passionately care for the cow”.

During the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, Mukankubito lost 70 members of her family and was always crushed by grief. When she received the cow, one person among the people who killed her family came to ask for forgiveness from her, as some kind of penitence he started helping her with chores in the kraal.

Mukankubito in return would give him milk, she says they have reconciled. Even though this man helped kill my family but I genuinely forgave him, she notes, because he sought forgiveness and I also wanted to unburden my soul.

Powerful stories of reconciliation attached to the one cow per family program have been heard around Rwanda.

But how does the program deliver

Grace Nirere, the Coordinator of the programme at Arise Rwanda Ministries in Boneza explains that proper procedures are followed in identifying the right beneficiaries and this is done at the local government level. “The reason for this is that we don’t want to just give cows to anyone poor but only those with capacity to feed the cow,” she said.

Farmers’ enthusiasm is also one driving force for the success of the project.

Grace says that from one cow farmers are able to get manure as well as milk for the family as well as sell the rest. From the proceeds they are able to buy other foodstuffs, making them food sufficient.

To promote reconciliation, when a genocide survivor is given a cow and it gives birth to a female calf, the programme facilitators encourage that the calf is passed on to the family that participated in killings who subsequently ask for forgiveness. In the case of a male calf, they encourage to share milk among families so that your neighbours also have milk for the young ones to avoid malnutrition and improve relationships.  

The rest of the offsprings remain with the ‘donor’ family.

Since ARM started operations in Boneza nine years ago, over 200 cows have been donated. The Executive Secretary of Boneza Sector, Jules Niyodusenga observes that to have ARM in his sector is a blessing because they’re very significant in uplifting the welfare of residents.

Niyodusenga revealed that 988 cows have so far been donated and with 5,700 households in Boneza sector, he wishes for more initiatives like ARM to support this mainly agrarian community in their journey of development.

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