Unique to Rwanda, milk bars reflect a little-known truth about how intrinsic cows and milk are to Rwandan culture.
It was 10:00 in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, and an unmarked bar in the central Nyarugenge district was already packed. A line of motorcycles was parked out front, and as I pushed through a white curtain separating the dusty, dirt road from the crowd of boisterous regulars inside, the spectacled owner, Yusuf Gatikabisi smiled widely at me and said, “Mwaramutse!” – good morning in Kinyarwanda.
At the bar’s four communal tables, young bikers mingled with singles and parents clutching young toddlers. Some were eating beans and unleavened chapati bread. Others were feasting on cakes or doughnuts. But interestingly, everyone was drinking the same thing, and it wasn’t beer or wine. You see, at Kuruhimbi and hundreds of similar bars across Rwanda, there’s only one thing on tap, and it’s milk.
Unique and distinct to Rwanda, milk bars bind many of our communities together. They are places to meet for breakfast or lunch, to socialise with people of different backgrounds, and to throw back a frothy glass of cold ikivuguto (fermented milk) poured from a vast metal drum and topped with honey or sugar or a hot mug of inshyushyu (raw milk that’s boiled and served hot). While these local watering holes may seem like a kitschy neighbourhood haunt to the uninitiated, they reflect a little-known truth about how intrinsic cows and milk are to Rwandan culture.
With around 70% of Rwanda’s population engaged in the agricultural sector, cows are an economic asset as well as a symbol of wealth and social status in rural areas.
In Rwanda, when you want to wish someone well, you say, “gira inka” (may you have a cow) or “amashyo” (have thousands of cows), and you’ll hear the response, “amashongore” (have thousands of female cows). When you want to express profound gratitude, you say, “nguhaye inka” (I give you a cow).
Many traditional Rwandan dances are also inspired by cows. In the Umushayayo, which is often characterised as a sort of Rwandan ballet, women emulate the gentle movements of cows while showing their beauty and grace. And in the Ikinyemera, Igishakamba and other dances, men and women stretch their arms upward to represent cow horns.
In fact, cows are held in such high regard here that it’s common to incorporate the animal into your child’s name, with Munganyinka (valuable as a cow), Kanyana (female calf) and Giramata (have milk) – among many others – serving as popular first names in Rwanda today. And at milk bars, markets or elsewhere, if you want to make a woman blush, Rwandans might say, “ufite amaso nk’ay’inyana” (you have eyes like a calf’s).
According to Maurice Mugabowagahunde, a history and anthropology researcher at the Rwanda Cultural Heritage Academy, Rwandans have historically exchanged cows to mark major family milestones. Cows were traditionally given to the woman’s family as part of a dowry, and when one of the cows would later give birth, the calf would be gifted to the newlyweds to help them establish their own family. Although this tradition is now only practiced in certain parts of the country, in every traditional Rwandan wedding the groom’s family will still say, “Tubahaye ishyo” (We give you thousands of cows) or “Tubahaye imbyeyi n’iyayo” (We give you a female cow and its calf), even if it isn’t meant literally.
Mugabowagahunde explains that cows served as a form of currency in what is now Rwanda from the 15th Century until 1954, when King Mutara III Rudahigwa ended the practice. People called “abagaragu” (male servants) and “abaja” (female servants) would work in the homes of richer families to take care of their cows and ferment the milk, among other duties, and in exchange they would be paid with cows.
But while cows’ milk has always been consumed in Rwanda, Mugabowagahunde says it was historically considered a taboo and even “shameful” to sell it, because it was too precious a commodity.
“Generally, one cow in Rwanda would produce between one to two litres [of milk] per day,” he said. “The milk wasn’t enough for a family. This was mainly because the cows would solely depend on grass, without any supplements for them to produce more milk, like is done now.” Therefore, since the 1600s at the order of King Mibambwe Gisanura, elite families who had cows and milk shared their supply with their poor neighbours.
Rwandans only started selling milk in the early 1900s when the nation was colonised by the German Empire. Rwandans were forced to travel long distances to build roads, schools and churches as part of German East Africa. South Sudanese, Ugandan and Tanzanian merchants who travelled with the Germans started selling milk to the labourers (that they bought from locals who lived near the work sites) as a way to offer them nutrition far from their homes. As Rwandans soon realised it wasn’t taboo to buy and sell milk, they started selling it to each other, first in open-air markets, and then, starting in about 1907, in dedicated enclosed shops – the forerunners of the modern-day milk bar.
“The milk-selling business became bigger in 1937 when King Rudahigwa inaugurated the Nyabisindu milk plant, the very first of its kind. They would buy milk from people, preserve it and sell it, alongside other dairy products like cheese and yoghurt,” Mugabowagahunde said.
Still, a milk scarcity lingered in Rwanda for most of the 20th Century. According to Mugabowagahunde, a 1961 study by Joseph Rwanyagahutu found that an average Rwandan only consumed 12 litres of milk per year.
“This scarcity started reducing in the late 1980s, when the government started importing improved dairy cows like the Holstein Friesian cattle,” Mugabowagahunde said. But tragically, an estimated 90% of Rwanda’s cattle were slaughtered during the 1994 genocide.
As Kigali became increasingly urbanised following the genocide and residents in the capital were no longer had as much space to keep cows, dedicated milk bars began popping up as a way to offer urban residents an alternative to the powdered or pasteurised milk they purchased from stores. Traditionally, the raw and boiled milk consumed and preferred by Rwandans was always kept in a separate room from alcohol because it was considered sacred. Thus, as the nation pieced itself back together in the late-1990s, the modern milk bar became a dedicated establishment where thick ikivuguto and yellow-tinted inshyushyu milk is served, and booze is nowhere in sight.
Mugabowagahunde estimates that the number of milk bars was at the peak between 1998 and 2000. However, while Rwanda’s love for cows goes deep, our independent milk bars are slowly disappearing, as more people are turning to supermarkets for watered-down, pasteurised milk sold in larger 0.5 and 1 litre cartons, which can last much longer than ikivuguto and inshyushyu. What’s more, in 2006, the Rwandan government introduced the nationwide Girinka (literally: “may you have cows”) programme, where poor families are given cows as a way to fight child malnutrition. As of 2020, an estimated 400,000 cows have been distributed, and while this has been undoubtedly beneficial, it’s meant fewer Rwandans need to fill up at their local milk bar.
Yvette Murekatete, who runs Gira Amata milk bar in Kigali’s south-eastern Kicukiro district, thinks business is not as profitable as when she first opened in 2009 because some of her clients have resorted to pasteurised milk sold in stores. Others have ventured to the nearly 80 milk bar franchises created by Rwanda’s Inyange Industries that have popped up in Kigali since 2013. To combat the reduced profits, Murekatete says that many independent milk bar owners have started selling food and upgrading their business to supermarkets or coffee shops.
Today, the government encourages Rwandans to rear their cattle in enclosed kraal villages or on large livestock farms away from residential areas as part of its zero-grazing system to reduce greenhouse gas emmissions. Since fewer people now raise cows at their homes, the cost of milk has increased. Nevertheless, people like Murekatete and Gatikabisi ensure that this once-scarce commodity is available to all who need it.
Gatikabisi opens Kuruhimbi every day at 06:00, and by 09:00, it’s almost always full. That is also when a bicycle arrives carrying two metal drums filled with raw milk. Some of the milk is kept in Kuruhimbi’s cooler to be boiled the next morning, while the rest is boiled immediately. At night, part of the boiled milk – which has since cooled – is put into a container after its top cream has been removed. “Imvuzo” (a small amount of fermented milk) is added to the milk to act as a fermentation starter. The milk is then kept in a warm place overnight to speed up the fermentation, and in the morning, the now-thick ikivuguto is refrigerated and served cold.
“Uruhimbi” refers to a raised platform in homes where milk is kept, and Gatikabisi says he wanted to name Kuruhimbi after the term so that everyone in the neighbourhood would know that there will always be fresh milk when they come.
Pascal Kubwimana, a taxi-moto operator who has been coming to Kuruhimbi almost every day for two years says he is not going anywhere. “I love the milk here,” he said, washing down his chapati bread and beans with a litre of hot milk. “It helps me feel good all day when I have it for breakfast. I even take some at home in the evening. My children love it.”
This sentiment is echoed by Dominic Dushimimana, another Kuruhimbi regular. He says that spending time at the bar helps him relax away from the pressures of work.
Gatikabisi believes that not adding any water or other additives to his milk is what makes people love it. Kuruhimbi also makes its own unleavened chapatibread and doughnuts, which pair well with both cold, fermented ikivuguto and boiled inshyushyu.
“I feel honoured to be in the milk business because milk is sacred,” Gatikabisi said from behind the bar. “I don’t make so much profit, but I love it.”
Source: BBC Travel