Cows R Us

Rwandans love cows. They have songs about cows, they have dances, their whole culture is based on the love of the cow.

The beautiful umushagiriro (cow dance) — I guess those are their horns.

And Rwandans are infinitely patient and gentle with their cows — even when they are being kind of .. pushy.

This Heifer heifer walked right into the ceremony, butted the speaker, went for the drinks & nobody batted an eye.

Kirehe, Eastern Province

So it makes sense that the Rwandan government would partner with Heifer, an organization named after its favorite animal, to help 6,382 families in the poor rural district of Kirehe earn a living, improve their land, and feed themselves. It’s part of the government’s national initiative called A Cow for Every Poor Family — that remarkably (well, not really) is based on Heifer‘s beautiful training/giving/passing on model.

Why a cow? I asked Kirehe veterinarian Dr. Jean de Dieu Niyitanga that question and he had this succinct answer, “Cows mean milk and money.” Then he waxed poetic and scientific about what cows need to thrive. For someone like me who thinks a cat requires far too much attention, raising a cow sounds like an inconceivable amount of work. So I asked him to elaborate.

“First you have to love your cow, because if you love your animal, you’ll treat it well, feed it well, and keep it clean and healthy.” Okay, but what does that exactly mean?

The cows Heifer gives to poor farmers in Rwanda are pure breeds, either Jersey cows (brown) or Friesians (black & white). They produce a lot of milk (up to 30 liters a day) but they also demand a lot of food– about 1/10th of their weight in food a day in grass, cereals and legumes that the farmers must grow and harvest. Cows also need a salt lick to provide calcium, potassium and sodium to replace the minerals lost when they are producing milk.

Like any nursing mother, heifers drink a lot: 50-80 liters of water a day, depending on their weight, and that also has to be carried on somebody’s head back to the home.

Cows are big, gentle animals but they require shelter from the elements. So before getting a cow, every participant has to build a shed with 6 bags of cement (@$16/bag) provided by Heifer for a concrete floor to keep the cow’s feet out of dung, wet mud, and to facilitate manure-collection. They’re also given aluminum sheets for roofing – and required to pass on the same cement & aluminum when they pass on the gift of the cow to another poor farmer.

Veneranda Mukagakwandi & her cow & her cow sheds.

Alfred’s son digging the fields.

Then there’s the issue of keeping the cow clean: the shed needs to be shoveled out at least once a day, and the animal washed with soap and water twice a week (more water to carry). Cows must also be sprayed to protect against flies and ticks that can give them theileriosis, a tickborne disease that can kill them if left untreated. And the heifers are always watched closely for mastitis – or they can permanently lose use of a teat.

My brain was whirling with the possibilities for bovine disaster, but to Rwandans a cow simply means milk, money and manure. One cow will produce 3 tons of manure a year – and that is hugely important to the farmers planting their crops in the over-cultivated, poorly producing soil in Kirehe. Farmers report a 75-100% increase in ag productivity with the addition of cow dung– and that’s no small potatoes.

So, how has a cow specifically changed the life of somebody like Alfred Nsengimana? After Alfred had a home visit and was designated as able to raise a cow, (if you don’t have enough land or strength to take care of a cow, you’ll first be given goats or pigs), he built his shed and received the 182 hours of training that Heifer gives all participants – to make sure they know how to breed, lead, raise and take care of the animal.

After those six months of training, Alfred received a pregnant Friesian heifer, it gave birth to a female that he’s passed on to a neighbor, and now Alfred is earning $50/month from the cow’s milk – in a country where 60% of the population earns under $1/day. With that milk money (I love this entrepreneurial spirit so much!) he bought more goats and rabbits that are easier to raise and quicker to sell than cows, if the family needs money for school fees or health emergencies.

Then, Alfred dug a cistern in his back yard and he is also harvesting rainwater from the roof –so his family can make fewer trips to the town well to carry water back on their heads.

Water harvesting with a plastic-lined tank — how clever!

With milk to drink, meat to eat, and money in the bank, Alfred & his wife put a new cement floor & walls in their house—a real luxury. He would like to keep at least two cows, because then he’ll have enough manure to qualify for a bio-gas unit (half paid for by the government) that will mean they don’t have to collect and burn firewood and can cook in half the time.

Biogas – a giant leap for woman-kind: no collecting wood/cooks in half the time!

Alfred’s neighbor Jean de Dieu Habayarimana is 24 years old and an orphan responsible for raising his two younger brothers. He doesn’t have land to grow forage for a cow, so he received the gift of 2 pigs from Heifer last December and proved himself so good at raising them, he was given the stud pig for the community – which means that he’ll get 1 piglet from every brood his pig sires.

If you’ve got no land for a cow, take the pig!

This Kirehe Project is a massive undertaking, requiring a daunting amount of work from Heifer (home-visiting every prospective family and giving 182 hours of training to each beneficiary), the government, and all the local organizations across five pilot zones in 12 sectors of the Eastern Province. But 1,000 heifers have been already given in 2011 (and 360 passed along), with 1,145 more to be given this year (plus 2,000 South African Boer goats and 562 purebred pigs). That means that families like Alfred’s will be given the chance to take this opportunity and leverage it to feed their families, earn a living, double their agricultural productivity, and climb out of poverty.

The real beneficiaries of Kirehe’s big project.

Makes me feel like hollering Oyee! Amata Iwau Kuruhimbi, which means something like Let us always have milk in our homes!

Yes indeedy.

Categories: Africa, Animals, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

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27 thoughts on “Cows R Us

  1. Fantastic post! How eye-opening it is to be reminded of how something as simple as a single cow can make a huge difference in a family’s life. Very inspiring. Kudos to Heifer for their involvement.

    I love how the new owners get so much training to maximize their chance of success. Also interesting to think about how helpful the manure can be; I always think of cows as meat & milk, but they’re obviously much more valuable than that.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi FF! So happy to hear from you — and yes, it’s amazing to me how much training is involved BEFORE a family gets a cow: from breeding techniques (they all use AI to ensure quality of the breed and healthy gene pools) to gender equality, leadership, community organization, etc… but I think that’s why Heifer has been successful/because the people are really prepared to prosper with the animal. And yeah, it was fascinating to me, too that sometimes the animal manure is almost as helpful as the milk or meat — the land has been so depleted from years of farming, and fertilizer is awfully expensive. But doubling your production with manure fertilizer is a huge opportunity!

  2. Oh, Betty, I hadn’t even considered the amount of water a cow would drink. I’d thought of food, but not water. Talk about a lot of toting and carrying!
    And I love the m &m’s of milk and money they produce in return. Forget the candy. Forget McDonald’s golden arches. It’s the m & m’s that cows produce we need more of.

    • Kathryn — I KNOW.. i was blown away by the sheer numbers of liters and kilos of food & water the cow requires. I think I’d take the pig! But love your M & Ms analogy .. did you read the comment about the 7 Ms that one reader sent?? I want that t-shirt!! xoxxo and Happy Labor Day, K & S!!

  3. The cow is gold! Thanks again for your stories and information. These people in the pictures do look thin and in need, especially of your kind, generous and thoughtful gifts. Bless.

  4. Cindie

    Hi Betty, I like to think of seven M’s when cows come to mind. They provide: (1) milk, (2) meat, (3) money, (4) muscle, (5) manure, (6) materials, and (7) motivation! The University of Alaska Heifer International Club produces a t-shirt with the M’s on it! I’m not an Alaskan, but got one of the t-shirts through Todd at Heifer’s Little Rock office.

    • I want that t-shirt, Cindie!! I LOVE the 7 Ms … and what a great way to remember what a huge gift a heifer really is to these families! University of Alaska Heifer Club sounds AWESOME!!

      • Cindie

        Hi, Betty – I’ll try to track one down. Thanks for all you do!

  5. Wow! Your photos! I love the Biogas shot and the cow dance but seriously all are inspiring. Oh how I wish our lives in the west were as simple as cows.

    • Shawn & Suzanne! So happy to hear from you — for some reason after i subscribed to your blog, I stopped getting notices of your posts… boo!! I can’t wait to catch up with you guys! Thanks for the comment…I love that biogas shot, too. It looks like a developing world Vermeer to me!

      • Betty, It’s because we haven’t written a blog in months! We had no internet and even if we had there was simply no time to write. We’ve been working on rural farms. Working hard! I’m glad to be getting a brief rest 🙂

  6. Betty, I continue to love your stories. I always learn more about Heifer which I try to pass on to others so they will know what a wonderful and valuable organization Heifer is. They are absolutely my favorite world non-profit. Thank you for all that you do.

  7. What a difference Heifer made in the life of Alfred Nsengimana. I really enjoyed hearing how the lives of he and his wife changed, beginning with one cow.

    • I love the trajectory, too — and getting a cement floor in this RED mud environment is really huge, and a big jump in status for the family. I can only imagine the difference that makes in cleanliness and health in the rainy season. The dust/mud is really pretty incredible!

  8. I don’t understand what you mean when you say the families now have milk and meat. Do you mean that they slaughter the cow for its meat? If so, what about the milk and manure?

    • Oh, sorry I wasn’t more explicit, Ronnie. The family has MILK from the cow, MEAT from the rabbits and goats that they bought from the income from the milk they sell, and MANURE from all the animals. So that’s the breakdown … thanks for asking!!

  9. Renee Swanson

    Betty, your blog is wonderful, in fact it is the only one I read and i have told many others about it. After many years of donating to Heifer International i now have a much better understanding the significance of a single animal on the life of a person surviving in a village and the commitment that is made both by the receiver and the organization. Most importantly, your great respect for the people you meet shines through and is contagious!

  10. Thanks so much, Renee – and I really appreciate you telling other people about the blog .. .I always love to have new readers!! And I am so happy that you feel as if you better understand what a WONDERFUL thing you are doing by supporting Heifer, and how people truly experience the opportunity to change their life thru the gift of a animal! I have loved meeting all these people around the world and feel that, once I have their photographs in my files, they are part of my life – and I remember them, think about them, and hope for ALL the best for them!

  11. Betty: This is a spectacular post which beautifully demonstrates ways Heifer is helping rise people out of poverty. Wow! I am really interested in social good work and am expanding my blog with guest posts by featured writers. Would you ever been interested in sharing this or another post about your experiences with Heifer? I would love to introduce some of
    My readers to your work and blog! Nicole

    • Sure Nicole…would love it!! I’m honored you would ask me…and I’m so grateful for your enthusiasm!!!



      Sent from my iPhone

      • WOW! I wasn’t sure if you’d be interested or not and I am really really excited! I would really like to feature the one you just did on Cows R Us however if there is an earlier post you did that would be better, please let me know.
        The best way is for you to send me via email ( the link to the post and attach the images separately. I can of course copy and paste them myself but I find the quality better when they are sent directly. Then a brief bio on you and the work you’ve done, including three recommended posts from your blog! This would be amazing!
        I’m really trying to expand my blog into more of a travel and philanthropy site. I will probably change the name to reflect it as well as the theme so it looks more like a magazine style with featured posts. I will still be the main writer but am starting to add new travel and social good writers as well to make my blog more interesting. I am really excited about this Betty! Wish I could be there with you in Rwanda….but will have to wait until my kids grow up! 🙂 Got to have dreams! Nicole

  12. Thank you Betty. I finally understand something about the giving and the raising of cows, the 182 hours of training (!) the hauling of water to feed said cows, the dust, the mud, versus the cement floor… what using a biogas stove means to a woman in Africa!
    Love all the photos of the cows!

    • I love cows so much – they are SO expressive and when they look at you, they really SEE you! I can’t imagine how much work it is to raise a cow, but it makes such a world of difference in the lives of the family, I know it’s worth it. So happy to hear from you, Rosie!

  13. Anonymous

    Your blog brings back the wonderful memories I have of my visit to Rwanda with Heifer. Keep up the good work of sharing Heifer’s mission.

  14. Thanks so much — once you’ve been there in Rwanda, it’s impossible to forget it, don’t you think??

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