KIGALI, Rwanda – As the sun scorched the rolling Rwandan capital on a recent afternoon, a motorcycle taxi driver, two women wearing matching scarves and a teenage boy wearing headphones all strolled separately through a small roadside kiosk to drink the only thing from the tap: milk.
“I love milk,” said Jean Bosco Nshimyemukiza, the motorcycle taxi driver, sipping a tall glass of fresh milk that left a residual white line on his upper lip. “Milk makes you calm,” he said with a smile. “It reduces stress. It heals you.
Mr. Nshimyemukiza and the others were all seated at a milk bar, one of hundreds that can be found all over the capital, Kigali, and scattered throughout this small nation of 12 million people in Central Africa. In Rwanda, milk is a popular drink and milk bars are a favorite place to indulge yourself, combining the pleasures of drinking with a common atmosphere.
Men and women, young and old, sit on plastic benches and chairs throughout the day, glass cups in front of them, gulping gallons on gallons of fresh milk or fermented milk resembling milk. yogurt, known locally as “ikivuguto”.
Some customers drink it hot, others like it cold. Some – following an old custom of finishing your cup in one go – drink it quickly, while others sip it slowly while eating snacks like cakes, chapatis, and bananas.
No matter how they take their drink, everyone comes to socialize and relax. But above all, they drink milk. A lot.
“I come here when I want to relax, but also when I want to think about my future,” said Nshimyemukiza, who added that he drinks at least three liters of milk a day. “When you drink milk, you always have your head straight and your thoughts right. “
While milk bars have popped up everywhere over the past decade, the drink they sell has long been an integral part of the country’s culture and history, as well as its modern identity and economy. .
Over the centuries, cows have been a source of wealth and status – the most precious gift to give to a friend or a new family. Even royalty longed for easy access to milk. During the kingdom of Rwanda, which lasted for hundreds of years until the last king’s dismissal in 1961, cow’s milk was kept in wooden bottles with woven conical lids just behind the thatched-roof palace of the King.
Cows were considered so precious that they were found in children’s names – Munganyinka (valid as cow) or Inyamibwa (beautiful cow) – as well as in traditional dances, where women raised their hands to imitate Ankole cows. with giant horns.
In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a genocide, during which around 800,000 people were massacred in 100 days. The majority of those killed were Tutsi, historically herders and rich in livestock.
Cattle ranching families and their cows have been targeted by extremists of the Hutu ethnic group who were mostly farmers, said Dr Maurice Mugabowagahunde, researcher in history and anthropology at the Academy of Cultural Heritage of Rwanda .
As the country recovered from the genocide, the Rwandan government once again turned to cows as a way to grow the economy and fight malnutrition.
The program (Girinka means ‘can you have a cow’ in the local language) is one of the development projects which has garnered Mr. Kagame’s support nationwide, although it does not tolerate any dissent and represses its rivals.
As milk production increased in this landlocked country, the number of people who moved to urban areas for education and employment increased. Thus were born the milk bars, which allowed farmers to sell their surplus milk and let customers drink in large quantities to remember their home. Most of the milk bars are in Kigali, the most populous city in the country, with 1.2 million people.
Steven Muvunyi grew up with nine siblings in Rubavu district in the west of the country. After moving to Kigali to attend university, he said he missed being in the countryside, milking cows and drinking unlimited milk.
“I come to milk bars and I am overwhelmed by the nostalgia of my childhood,” he said one evening in late September, drinking from a large cup of hot and fresh milk in downtown Kigali.
As he sat at the bar, Mr Muvunyi, 29, who works in Rwanda’s fledgling tech sector, showed photos of his 2-year-old son watching him while he drank a glass of milk on the farm of his parents. He feared, he said, that children growing up in cities might not be as connected to the country’s dairy culture, given easy access to pasteurized milk in supermarkets now.
“I want to teach my children the value of milk and cows early on,” he said.
Despite all their appeal, dairy bars and the dairy industry in general have faced increasing challenges in recent years.
The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected the industry, especially as Rwanda has instituted one of Africa’s toughest lockdowns. As authorities imposed a nighttime curfew, closed markets and prohibited travel between towns and neighborhoods, the economy took a hit and Rwanda fell into recession.
More than half of Rwanda’s small and medium-sized dairy businesses have closed during lockdown, according to the government. Three of the country’s five largest milk processors were operating between 21 and 46 percent of capacity.
The restrictions were particularly severe for small independent dairy bars. In recent years, many small bars had closed their doors as corporate chains consolidated their hold on the market.
Climate change has also presented challenges. In recent years, recurrent droughts have left thousands of people without food and cows without food or water. Milk shortages have surfaced across the country.
Bad weather conditions over the past four months have also caused milk prices to rise. On average, a liter of milk in shops in Kigali has gone from 500 Rwandan francs (50 centimes) to 700 francs (70 centimes).
For Illuminee Kayitesi, who owns a milk bar in the Nyamirambo neighborhood of Kigali, last year’s lockdowns affected its ability not only to pay rent, but also to pay its employees and to remain profitable enough for it to be profitable. she can take care of her family. Recent milk shortages also meant she couldn’t keep the bar’s milk cooler full most of the time.
As business has slowly picked up as more people get vaccinated and the country reopens, “it’s still not easy,” she said.
But whatever the circumstances, Rwandans say the milk bar is here to stay.
During last year’s pandemic, Ngabo Alexis Karegeya began sharing images and videos on Twitter on the Rwanda’s attachment to cows and milk – attract national attention. Mr. Karegeya graduated from college this year with a business administration degree, but still fondly remembers his days tending cows as a child. He tweeted a photo of him in his graduation gown with the caption “certified cowboy, all of you”.
“Rwandans love cows and they love milk,” said Mr. Karegeya, who owns five cows in the lush hills of his family’s home in western Rwanda and drinks three liters a day.
“The milk bar brings us together,” he said. “And we will continue to come to the milk bar to drink more milk.”