Appeal: How a cow offers hope to survivors of genocide

For the poor in Rwanda, the gift of a cow can transform their lives, providing food, an income and hope for the future. Cahal Milmo reports from Kabuga
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The word imalarungu means "companion after great loneliness" and Jane Nzamugurunyana barely whispered it as she greeted the salvation she had waited a decade of grief and poverty to see. Standing in front of her, pulling at fronds of elephant grass in a central African banana grove, was cow 208322, a heavily pregnant Fresian heifer.

The word imalarungu means "companion after great loneliness" and Jane Nzamugurunyana barely whispered it as she greeted the salvation she had waited a decade of grief and poverty to see. Standing in front of her, pulling at fronds of elephant grass in a central African banana grove, was cow 208322, a heavily pregnant Fresian heifer.

The black and white cow would not have looked out of place in a British pasture, complete with a plastic ear tag carrying its identity number. But for Jane, this was not an anonymous beast, destined to serve a society where milk and meat are taken for granted as affordable staples on supermarket shelves. This animal with the soft, deep-brown eyes will transform her days and save her family.

Reaching down to touch the warm side of the grazing animal, she said: "This cow represents a new life for me. It is health, it is opportunity, it is dignity. It is a friend who will provide for my family after a long unhappiness. It is hard for me to say how important a gift she is. My children will grow stronger and learn better. This cow is my imalarungu."

Welcome to rural Rwanda, a place where a cow delivered just before Christmas for less than the average British family spends on gifts in one festive season can transform lives for ever.

The broad grin spreading over the face of a shy, 45-year-old woman, widowed, impoverished and mentally scarred by her nation's genocide in 1994 and unused to happiness, showed the significance of the animal presented to her moments earlier. At a ceremony in the middle of a tropical rainstorm in this village some 10 miles east of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, nearly 100 villagers sang, danced and applauded as Jane stood up to receive her cow.

It was an action which tells a different Advent story, the unification of Tutsis and Hutus, the victims and aggressors in the genocide, and the proof that something as simple as a cow can help begin to rebuild a society. Imalarungu was bought for £600 from donations to Send a Cow, the British charity which helps subsistence-level economies by buying and delivering livestock from goats to cattle to impoverished households.

The amount is more than Jane, or any of her neighbours in this densely packed country where 90 per cent of the population rely on basic agriculture for their income, could expect to earn in a lifetime of labour. In most families, the annual income, from tending the crops of beans, maize, banana and sorghum on their patches of rust-red land, is 20,000 Rwandan francs (Rfr). It is equivalent to £20.

But in a nation where personal wealth is still often calculated in the number of cattle an individual owns, the addition of a cow to a household's earning power amounts to nothing less than an economic revolution. The currency of this revolution is milk.

Fresians such as cow 208322, cross-bred with a hardier native breed to cope with the punishing equatorial climate, produce 20 litres of milk a day, compared to the one to two litres produced by traditional Rwandan breeds. Every day for a decade, Jane has risen at dawn to tend the small area of exhausted land outside her two-room mud-brick house to provide a meagre single daily meal for her three sons and three daughters, aged from 10 to 19.

The cattle she used to own were slaughtered in 1994, along with her Tutsi husband, Leo, shot like a fleeing animal from a helicopter by members of the Hutu presidential guard hunting with militiamen for human prey.

Now, again, she can look forward to benefits of cattle, manure to feed frail crops and fodder grass and the cow's urine mixed with chillies or ash to make an effective pesticide that will help protect the crops. And the cow will add hitherto unaffordable milk and a little butter to her children's diet, with money to be made from selling her surplus vegetables, fruit and milk. Before, Jane had struggled to muster 200Rfr (20p) a few times a year, selling beans to buy school books or writing materials. Now she can expect between 150Rfr and 400Rfr for every litre of milk she sells.

Emaciated by an unremitting daily routine of manual labour which starts at 5.30am and ends at sundown with a single meal of beans and rice, she said: "To us, the cows represent the difference between a life of survival or a life of improvement. Our cows were taken by the Hutu militias during the war and eaten in front of us. Now we will once more have the benefits of owning a cow.

"I suffer stomach ulcers and the milk will help that. The money from the milk will allow us to buy other food, salt and sugar, even medicines. The manure will be put on the fields to modernise our agriculture. We keep the urine to also act as fertiliser. Nothing will be wasted."

The cow was given to Jane in a ceremony under a plastic awning on the Gako Organic Farm, a small farm funded by Send A Cow in Kabuga as a centre for up to 60 people at a time, widows and orphans of the genocide, to be taught a unique syllabus of sustainable agriculture and the building blocks of a new nation.

During each 18-day course, the students are taken through other such practicalities as recycling some of the manure and urine to produce methane with which they can cook food, so reducing the need for wood which will, in turn, help slow the deforestation that blights the Rwandan landscape. As well as basic animal husbandry, the curriculum includes lessons in human rights, conflict management and community consultation.

Richard Munyerango, the head of the charity's Rwandan operation, said: "The people who come here have never been together before and they come from all parts of our culture. Call it Tutsi and Hutu if you want. They sleep in the same dormitory and they learn together. At the end of the week they weep and tell each other that it is so unfortunate they fought. They are brothers." In this new Rwanda, everything must therefore be done with exemplary transparency. Alongside six other widows and orphans, Jane was invited to choose a folded piece of paper with a number on it, corresponding to a chalked figure on wooden pens holding half a dozen cows. Number four led Jane to cow 208322. It is a lottery designed to remove any suggestion of preferential treatment over Hutu or Tutsi in a country where such suspicions helped set off the avalanche of violence in which at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed and led more than two million people, mostly Hutus, fleeing their homes to the diseased killing fields of eastern Congo.

The terms "Tutsi" and "Hutu" are now absent from common parlance, and asking a Rwandan to which he or she belongs will spark suspicion about the questioner's motives. Mr Munyerango said: "These were words which never had any true meaning because Tutsi and Hutu had lived together and intermarried for centuries. They are political terms which we get away from now. For example, Send A Cow's system works on the principle that the first female calf born from your cow must be passed on to another recipient. That recipient can come from any history or background but we hold the ballot to make sure there is no feeling of preference. Providing that cow increases understanding and forms new bonds. In Rwandan society, someone who gives you a cow is dearer to you than a brother or a sister."

Safeguards such as the lottery nonetheless remain prudent. A crime as communal and brutal as Rwanda's genocide is never forgotten by its victims, or easily explained to an outsider.

The cliché is that each of the eight million-strong population is related to a victim or a killer. People who have suffered as Jane did are reluctant to give up the details of their past, and only when they do does the depth of the depravity and horror of what happened a decade ago strike home.

Jane kept looking down at the beaten-earth yard of her home where a stout stable has been built for Imalarungu as she spoke of the fate of her mother-in-law. "She was stoned not far from here. Then her killers threw her into a pit latrine. She drowned in other people's filth, the dirt of her killers." Ten years later, it is possible that relatives of those murderous men would have been sitting under that awning, laughing and applauding Jane as she received her gift.

But in this case, the prejudice and hatred that the lottery is designed to outmanoeuvre were unnecessary. Each new cow-owner-to-be is nominated, assessed and chosen by their community because they are judged to have suffered enough grief and destitution, regardless of their history. As a result, villagers had come to queue to shake the hands of Jane and the latest recipients of the cows, not to revisit old ills.

Domina Mukarusine, 42, another genocide widow, with three children, who received a cow at the same ceremony as Jane, put it more succinctly. Grinning from ear to ear, she said: "The cow is the future. The past has occurred and now we want to grow fat. We hope to look good."

It is difficult to understate the significance of the cow in Rwanda, past and present. Like many parts of eastern and central Africa, wealth has traditionally been measured in the number of cattle that an individual owns.

But as the population of Rwanda expanded to make it the most densely populated country on the continent, so grazing area has shrunk and the competing pressures between landowners increased, creating one of the factors blamed for the genocide. Now, Send a Cow, has brought in a "zero-grazing" policy, the only way small farmers with little land can survive. Nearly all the animals Send a Cow supplies are kept clean and comfortable in roomy shelters, with plenty of space to move around, and their food, a naturally balanced diet of grass, vegetables and cereals, is brought to them.

It was the ancient kings of Rwanda, the Mwami, who retained the finest cattle of all, a breed of mythical renown called the Inyambo. Such was the prestige of these huge animals with their long horns bending together in the shape of a harp that they were said to be able to lead their human masters in dance.

Today, the cow remains a pervasive and powerful icon. And often that power is expressed in a name. Some 35 miles north-west of Kabuga, the four Ahimana sisters, orphaned by the genocide, tend to their cow high up on a hillside at the end of a long, narrow, winding footpath.

Clarice, 20, the eldest of the sisters, said: "We call her Rutete. It means Beloved One. Her milk pays for my brother to go to school. So we honour her with her name. She is a part of the family like my sisters."

The tribute is also carried into the names of people. In Rwanda, surnames are given not as evidence of lineage but as reminders of their family's history. Some are named because their birth coincided with a period of drought, some after the settlement of a family dispute.

Other people, such as Jane, have names which bow to the primacy of the cow. Her family name, which means "She who can be exchanged for a heifer", is a reminder of the reality that a cow is seen as an acceptable dowry for a bride. The irony is not lost on Jane, with her six children who admits that, until now, her situation was unlikely to attract suitors. She said: "This is now our cow. I do not need to be exchanged to receive one. It is my companion after loneliness. We will not be parted."

Send a Cow works in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Zambia and Tanzania, some of the poorest countries in Africa.