“I love milk,” said Jean Bosco Nshimyemukiza, the motorcycle taxi driver, as he sipped from a large glass of fresh milk that left a residual white line on his upper lip. “Milk makes you calm,” he said, smiling. “It reduces stress. It heals you.” Nshimyemukiza and the others were all seated at a milk bar, one of the hundreds found everywhere in the capital, Kigali, and scattered all across this small nation of 12 million people in central Africa. In Rwanda, milk is a beloved drink and the milk bars are a favourite place to indulge, combining the pleasures of the beverage with a communal atmosphere.
Men and women, young and old, sit on benches and plastic chairs throughout the day, glass mugs before them, gulping litres upon litres of fresh milk or fermented, yogurt-like milk, locally known as ikivuguto.
Some patrons drink it hot, others like it cold. Some — respecting an old custom of finishing your cup at once — chug it down quickly, while others sip it slowly while eating snacks like cakes, chapatis and bananas. However they take their glass, everyone comes to socialise and unwind. But first and foremost, they drink milk. Lots of it.
“I come here when I want to relax, but also when I want to think about my future,” said Nshimyemukiza, who added that he drinks at least three litres of milk daily. “When you drink milk, you always have your head straight and your ideas right.” While milk bars have popped up everywhere over the last decade, the drink they sell has long been intrinsic to the country’s culture and history, as well as its modern identity and economy. Over the centuries, cows were a source of wealth and status — the most valuable gift to confer on a friend or a new family. Even royalty craved easy access to milk. During the Kingdom of Rwanda, which lasted for hundreds of years until the last king was deposed in 1961, cows’ milk was kept in wooden bottles with conical woven lids right behind the king’s thatched palace.
Cows were considered so valuable they ended up in children’s names — Munganyinka (valuable as a cow) or Inyamibwa (beautiful cow) — as well as in traditional dances, where women raised their hands to emulate the giant-horned Ankole cows.
In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a genocide, during which an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered within 100 days. The majority of those killed were ethnic Tutsis, historically herdsmen and rich in cattle.
Cattle-keeping families, and their cows, were targeted by extremists from the Hutu ethnic group who were mostly farmers, said Dr. Maurice Mugabowagahunde, a history and anthropology researcher at the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy.
As the country recovered from the genocide, Rwanda’s government looked to cows again as a way to expand the economy and fight malnutrition.
In 2006, President Paul Kagame introduced the Girinka program, which aims to give every poor family one cow. The program has so far distributed over 380,000 cows nationwide, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources — with contributions coming from private companies, aid agencies and foreign leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.
The writer is a journalist with NYT©2021
The New York Times