A cow is just a cow until you come to Rwanda. Rwandans love cows! You may think they love them for the milk or meat but no! Cows mean a lot to Rwandans. The Rwandan cows are characterized by long horns and a dignified appearance but their historical and cultural importance is even more impressive. Cows used to mean a symbol of wealth and a family that owned many herds would be respected in society. Because of the position the cows had in society, whoever owned them had to make sure they were bred in the best way possible. Owners of the best breeds would have their cows paraded before the king and they would be rewarded for their work – in most cases they would be rewarded by giving them more cows! Herds of cows would be traded in exchange for a bride and a cow was the most respected gift given to a friend. It was the symbol of friendship between families.
Currently a cow is still very important in the lives of Rwandans. Many people still give others gifts as cows to express their friendship. Cows are exchanged for brides but this is now done as a symbol rather than as a true worth of the bride, as was the norm back then. Today few cows are exchanged because there is no longer enough land to graze them on.
To understand the importance of cows in the lives of Rwandans you need to know that some families were saved during the Genocide because they had given cows to some friends and they hid them and protected them. Therefore it is a friendship that you start with a person when you give him/her a cow and this friendship over time develops into a relationship that members of the families enjoy for a very long time.
The cow still plays a key role in Rwandan society – a development role. Because there is not much land people still own one or two but the preference now is for exotic ones that yield much milk. Some policies in Rwanda has have built on this and introduced a program locally known as “Girinka”, translated as “own a cow” or the one cow per family program. This program targets very poor families in need of support. The cows have changed the lives of these families in many ways. They sell some of the milk and get income to cater for their needs, the nutrition demands of kids are met and they also get manure to fertilize the farms.
Such is the importance of cows in Rwanda. What is the most important animal in your culture?