As the sun scorched over the mountainous Rwanda capital on a recent afternoon, a motorcycle taxi driver, two women in matching headscarves and a teenager wearing headphones all segregated into a small roadside kiosk drinking the only thing on tap. Went for: Milk.
“I love milk,” said motorcycle taxi driver Jean Bosco Nishimimukiza as he sipped a large glass of fresh milk, leaving a white line on his upper lip. “Milk calms you down,” he said with a smile. “It reduces stress. It heals you.”
Nshimyemukiza and the others all sat at a milk bar, one of hundreds found everywhere in the capital, Kigali, and scattered throughout this small country of 12 million people in central Africa. In Rwanda, milk is a beloved drink and the Milk Bar is a favorite place to indulge, combining the enjoyment of the drink with a communal atmosphere.
Men and women, young and old, sit on benches and plastic chairs throughout the day, drinking glass mugs, liters of fresh milk or fermented, curd-like milk, locally known as ikiwuguto, in front of them.
Some patrons drink it hot, others prefer it cold. Some – respecting the old custom of finishing their cup in one go – gulp it down quickly, while others sip it slowly while eating snacks like cakes, chapatis and bananas.
However they take their glass, everyone comes to socialize and relax. But first they drink milk. lots of it.
“I come here not when I want to relax, but also when I want to think about my future,” said Nashimimukiza, who said he drinks at least three liters of milk daily. “When you drink milk, your head is always straight and your thoughts are right.”
While milk sticks have sprung up everywhere over the past decade, the drinks they sell have long been intrinsic to the country’s culture and history, as well as its modern identity and economy.
For centuries, cows were a source of wealth and status – the most valuable gift to provide to a friend or new family. Even royalty longed for easy access to milk. During the Kingdom of Rwanda, which lasted hundreds of years until the last king was deposed in 1961, cows’ milk was stored in wooden bottles with conical woven lids just behind the king’s thatched palace.
Cows were valued so much that they ended up in children’s names – Mungninka (valued as a cow) or Inyamibwa (beautiful cow) – as well as in traditional dances, where women danced to imitate Ankol cows with giant horns. She used to raise her hand.
In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a genocide, during which an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered within 100 days. Most of those killed were ethnic Tutsi, historically rich in pastoralists and cattle.
Dr. Maurice Mugabowaghunde, a history and anthropology researcher at the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy, said cattle-rearing families and their cows were targeted by extremists from the Hutu ethnic group, who were mostly farmers.
As the country recovered from the genocide, the government of Rwanda saw cows again as a way to expand the economy and fight malnutrition.
In 2006, President Paul Kagame launched the Girinka program, which aims to give one cow to every poor family. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources, the program has so far distributed over 380,000 cows across the country – with contributions from private companies, aid agencies and foreign leaders including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The program (Girinka means “can you have a cow” in the local language) is one of those development projects that has garnered Kagame’s support across the country, albeit with no dissent and cracking down on rivals. tightens.
As milk production increased in this country, so did the number of people moving to urban areas for education and employment. And so milk bars were born, which allowed farmers to sell their surplus milk and let customers drink it in abundance to remind them of home. Most of the milk bars are in Kigali, the country’s most populous city with 1.2 million people.
Steven Muvuni grew up with nine siblings in the Rubavu district in the west of the country. After moving to Kigali to attend university, he said he missed living in the countryside, milking cows and drinking milk without limits.
“I come to milk bars and get carried away with nostalgia from childhood,” he said one evening in late September, as he drank from a large mug of hot, fresh milk in downtown Kigali.
As he sat down at the bar, Mvuni, 29, who works in Rwanda’s budding technology sector, showed pictures of his 2-year-old son drinking a glass of milk on his parents’ farm. He added, he worries that children growing up in cities will not be connected to the country’s dairy culture, as there is now easy access to pasteurized milk in supermarkets.
“I want to teach my kids the value of milk and cows early on,” he said.
For all their appeal, milk bars and the dairy sector in general have faced increasing challenges in recent years.
NS coronavirus The pandemic hit the industry badly, especially as Rwanda instituted one of the strictest lockdowns in Africa. As authorities mandated a nightly curfew, closed markets and restricted movement between cities and districts, the economy took a hit and Rwanda fell into recession.
According to the government, more than half of Rwanda’s small and medium-sized dairy businesses closed during the lockdown. Three of the country’s five largest milk processors were operating at 21% to 46% of their capacity.
Restrictions on small, independent milk bars were particularly tough. In recent years, many smaller bars were closed as corporate chains tightened their grip on the market.
Climate change has also presented challenges. In recent years, recurrent droughts have left thousands without food and cows lacking fodder and water. There is a shortage of milk across the country.
Unfavorable weather conditions in the last four months have also meant an increase in milk prices. On average, a liter of milk at Kigali shops has increased from 500 Rwanda francs (50 cents) to 700 francs (70 cents).
For Illumini Kayitesi, who owns a milk bar in the Nyamirambo neighborhood in Kigali, the past year’s lockdown affected her ability not only to pay rent, but to pay her employees and take care of her family. Affected too to remain profitable enough. The recent lack of milk also meant that she could not keep the bar’s milk cold for most days.
While business has slowly picked up as more people are vaccinated and the country reopens, “it still isn’t easy,” she said.
But no matter the circumstances, Rwandans say Milk Bar is here to stay.
Last year during the pandemic, Ngabo Alexis Karegya began sharing photos and videos on Twitter about Rwanda’s attachment to cows and milk – garnering national attention. Karegeya graduated from the university this year with a degree in business administration, but still remembers his days taking care of cows as a boy. She tweeted a picture of herself in her graduation gown, captioned “Certified cow-boy y’all.”
“Rwandans love cows and they love milk,” said Karageya, who owns five cows in the lush hills of her family home in western Rwanda and drinks three liters a day.
“The Milk Bar brings us together,” he said. “And we’ll keep coming to the milk bar to have more milk.”