Men in Burundi once recited poems to their long-horned cows as they led them to pasture, before civil war decimated the prized stocks. Now the country is rebuilding its herds, but at the cost of forsaking tradition.
Burundi’s whole civilisation was built around cattle. So noble were cows considered that under the monarchy the same word was used for the stomach of the king and the stomach of a cow — quite distinct from the word used for the belly of a mere mortal.
“Before the civil war (of 1993-2006), we had 800,000 head of cattle,” Eliakim Hakizimana, the country’s top official in charge of livestock at the agriculture ministry, recounted.
“But the conflict had terrible consequences on cattle, with only around 300,000 left at the end of the war,” he said.
After 13 years of fighting and peace bids between the traditional ruling caste in the Tutsi minority and the rebellious Hutu majority, when an estimated 300,000 people lost their lives, Burundi is trying to build up its herds.
The Tutsis are mainly herders and held most of the cows whereas the Hutus tend to be farmers. During the war the cows became a prime target for militia fighters, seeking not only food but the destruction of what their foes held most dear.
“Before colonial times, before the Europeans came at the end of the nineteenth century, the cow was not just a domestic animal in the kingdom of Burundi,” explained Adrien Ntabona, a retired anthropology professor at Burundi University.
“People talked to their cows, reeled off their ancestry. They had different poems they recited when they led them to water, to pasture, brought them home or milked them. A cow was seen as a person.”
Cows are traditionally given names that describe either their beauty, such as “she who came down from the moon”, or their character.
With their long horns and slender forelegs, Burundi’s Ankole cattle were held to be the epitome of beauty.
Poets in this small central African nation applied to cattle attributes normally reserved for either women or warriors.
Times of day were expressed in relation to activities concerning cows, with morning known as “grazing time” while early afternoon was “time for the calves to come home”.
“When someone wanted a house, a favour or even a wife, he would give a cow,” said Pierre Nduwimana, a peasant farmer in Matana in the country’s south. “A wife was referred to as a two-legged cow who could carry water and cut wood.”
“Burundi’s whole civilisation revolved around the cow,” Ntabona said. “Cows served as a link between people. They weren’t treated like goddesses in the way they are in India but they were relatively sacred and had to be treated as such.”
Long before the civil war erupted, the arrival of colonial forces, a population boom and the shrinking of pastureland in a densely peopled country had all already taken their toll on this traditional way of life, much to the chagrin of some Burundians.
“My father had cows, just like my grandfather and my great-grandfather but I can’t afford to keep a herd,” said Pierre, a civil servant. “I feel very guilty about that — as if I’d betrayed my parents.”
Since the war ended in 2006, when the last major rebel group, the Forces for National Liberation, signed a ceasefire, the cattle population has risen and it is now at 600,000 head, according to official figures.
But to acquire a cow today you either need to be rich, as one cow sells for $1,000 (almost 750 euros) — a fortune in one of the world’s poorest countries — or to be a beneficiary of a cattle donation scheme.
This scheme launched by the authorities has distributed 25,000 cows since 2008, Hakizimana said. The aim is “to modernise the sector to make it productive in milk, cheese and fertiliser,” he added.
Emmanuel Nibaruta, a 35-year-old farmer living on one of Burundi’s thousands of hills in the northern Ngozi province, says he is “still thanking God for having given me my first Friesian cow”.
While his bulky black and white animal may lack the grace of a traditional Ankole, Nibaruta concedes, it gives him 16 times as much milk every day.
But a major problem for the productivity scheme is the absence of outlets where farmers can sell their milk and have it turned into yoghurt and cheese, Hakizimana acknowledged.
Bujumbura’s one and only milk processing plant was shut down 20 years ago at the beginning of the civil war. Milk is sold by cyclists who ride through the streets of the capital.
“It’s very demotivating for those of us who produce milk because we end up throwing it away, while cattle feed and veterinary products are so expensive,” lamented Anicet, a civil servant who also owns a farm.
Burundi lags well behind the east African region when it comes to milk production, estimated at 71,300 tonnes in 2011. Neighbouring Rwanda produces almost twice as much, and Kenya 30 times as much as Burundi.
“We’re really lagging behind. That’s why we’ve got to move away from the idea of the cow as a prestigious status symbol to the idea of a cow that has to turn a profit,” Hakizimana said.
“We have a long way to go,” he predicted.