Why Modi’s Gift Of Cows To Rwanda Was Very Significant

Why Modi’s Gift Of Cows To Rwanda Was Very SignificantModi gifts cows to Rwandan villagers. (Twitter)
Snapshot
  • The best and most cherished gift the Rwandans have ever received from any visiting dignitary were the 200 cows that Modi handed over to poor families at Rweru village.

    This will most certainly give a fillip to the Rwandan-Indian ties.

Leave aside the $200 million line of credit that India extended to Rwanda during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's just-concluded visited to the landlocked east African country. Or the $400 million credit that had already been given to that country for various infrastructure projects and the tele-medicine and tele-education centres India set up there a few years ago. The best and most cherished gift the Rwandans have ever received from any visiting dignitary were the 200 cows that Modi handed over to poor families at Rweru village.

Why cows? Because, little known to most outside this beautiful country of rolling hills and placid lakes, Rwandans hold the cow in high esteem. The cow is not only a prized possession for all Rwandan families, but also an important member of the families. The Rwandans even name their cows and many Rwandans are named on how well they treat or look after their cows! Quite like in India, the cow had played a pivotal role in the country's economy in the earlier days and, till European colonisers converted them to Christianity, the Rwandans never consumed beef. The cow was revered, so much so that it is still taboo to even add sugar to cow milk that is consumed by the people of the country. Milk is considered sacred and is an essential part of all meals there.

On a trip to Rwanda a couple of years ago, I witnessed the role cows had played in not only rejuvenating the country's overwhelmingly agrarian economy based on subsistence agriculture that went into a tailspin during the Rwandan Civil War, but also in setting the country towards reconciliation and healing the wounds created by the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Rwandan President Paul Kagame had launched his pet Girinka (meaning one cow per family) scheme in 2006 and I visited a village in the Cyeru sector of Burera district in the country's Northern province. It was a touristy trip, a brief stopover at the village for a glimpse of life in rural Rwanda.

John Mukantagara, our guide for that trip, told us that the village was a terribly impoverished one which had lost most of its male members in the civil war. And the survivors had lost nearly all their possessions, including their prized and majestic Ankole cows. The poorest in the village of about 350 households got about 50 cows in 2008. The only stipulation is that the first female calf born to the cow would have to be donated to a neighbour. Thus, John explained to us, the beneficiaries not just made money out of the cow, gifting the calf strengthened bonds between the people.

The bonds between the Tutsi and Hutu people (the divide is an artificial one created by the Belgian colonisers and the two actually belong to the same ethnic group) were torn asunder during the civil war. John told us that all over Rwanda, Tutsi people gifting their newborn calves to their Hutu neighbours, and vice versa, have gone a long way in healing the wounds and bringing about reconciliation between the two communities. I remember being told by both Tutsi and Hutu elders in the village (with John acting as the translator) that cows have played a stellar role in reuniting them and bringing about social harmony.

More than 2.6 lakh cows have been distributed till now under the Girinka programme. Apart from consuming the milk and selling the excess milk that increased family incomes, use of cow dung as fertilisers has vastly restored soil health and led to a sharp rise in the country's green cover. Consumption of milk drastically reduced malnutrition among the poor. Bio-compost is providing power and cooking gas to rural households and, according to Ugandan government statistics, cows have come to play a central role in the country's economy and are responsible for generating up to 15 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product!

Traditionally, cows have been the most prized possessions of Rwandans. Land, money, house and other possessions fade away in comparison to the cow in Rwanda. The cow is still considered to be the best gift in Rwanda and even the rich living in urban areas gift cows to their friends routinely on major occasions. During Christmas, tens of thousands of cows and calves are gifted by individuals and families. Cows are the preferred gifts at weddings, engagements, birthdays and graduation ceremonies, and the living rooms of houses I visited in Kigali (Rwanda's capital) had portraits of members of the families proudly posing with cows on their walls! Butter made from cow milk is considered sacred and used to be offered to deities (now, to Jesus).

No meal in Rwanda is considered complete without a glass of milk. In fact, most Rwandans were vegetarians before they were colonised; it was the Europeans who introduced the practice of eating meat. There are a number of rituals associated with the cow. It is mandatory to welcome cows returning from pastures after grazing, with water, and by then, the ladies of the house have to start cooking for the evening meal. Only males can milk a cow, and a person has to bathe and pray before milking his cow. Smoking is strictly prohibited while milking a cow. Milk is never mixed with any other substance, not even sugar or water. Petting a cow the first thing in the morning is a ritual adhered to by every member of a Rwandan family.

Cows are also given names very lovingly by their owners. Some of the names are Inyamibwa (beautiful), Intwari (hero) and Gatabazi (defender). And children also used to be named after characteristics or how well they used to look after their cows. Thus, some popular Rwandan names are Bikerinka (one who feeds his cow well), Munganyinka (as valuable as a cow), Zaninka (one who plays with a cow) and even Nzamukosha (one who can be exchanged for a cow), among many other such names!

It is still considered a good omen for a person to have a look at a cow while leaving for work. Presence of cows in inaugural ceremonies is considered portentous, and Rwandans believe if a newborn touches a cow, he or she will have a blessed life. And if a cow moos immediately after the birth of a male child, he will grow up to be a chieftain. Children are taught from a very young age to take care of cows and respect them. Drivers on roads and highways in Rwanda murmur a prayer in thanks when they see a cow, and if they see a large herd at the beginning of a journey, they consider it a very lucky omen.

Rwanda's native Ankole cows are large, mostly chestnut brown in colour, have distinctive humps on their shoulders, chest and stomach, and very long and regal horns. But European breeds have higher yields and, gradually, many Rwandans are opting for Friesian cows. However, even those who have the European breeds ensure they have at least one Ankole cow since they consider only this breed of cow to be a good omen. Rwandans believe that tragedy befell their country since such a large number of cattle (90 per cent of the one million-strong national herd) were killed, mainly for food, during the genocide. While cows are today slaughtered for food in the Christian-majority country, there are strict laws in place for such slaughter. Only aged and unproductive cows and that too, from commercial cattle farms, are sent for slaughter. Almost no individual owner abandons his aged cattle.

It is well-known now that the earliest Indians migrated from what is now east Africa. Does Indian reverence for the cow have its roots in Africa? Maybe, and perhaps, Indians have deeper roots with Rwandans than what researchers have been able to find till now. But one thing is for certain: the ties between Indians and Rwandans have got a fillip with the deeply thoughtful gift of cows to that country by Modi.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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