Rwanda: In the milk bars the locals "get drunk" with milk

"Milk helps you calm down" "Reduces stress. It heals you. "

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Rwanda, Kigali.

Afternoon time and the sun sets.

A motorcycle taxi driver, two women in matching scarves and a teenager with headphones approach a small roadside kiosk for a glass of milk.

"I love milk," says Jean Bosco Nshimyemukiza, as he drinks from a large glass of fresh milk that leaves a residual white line on his upper lip.

"Milk helps you calm down," he says with a smile. "It reduces stress. It heals you. "
We are in one of the hundreds of milk bars that have opened everywhere in the capital of Rwanda, in central Africa. In Rwanda, milk is a favorite drink and milk bars are a favorite place for locals.
There they combine the pleasures of the drink with the entertainment and the company, as if they were in a regular bar!
Men and women, young and old, sit on benches and plastic chairs all day, with glass mugs in front of them, drowning gallons of fresh milk or yogurt-like fermented milk, known as ikivuguto.

Some patrons drink it hot, others like it cold. Some - respecting an old custom that requires us to finish our drink immediately - consume it quickly, while others suck it slowly eating a snack such as cake, chapatis and bananas.

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"I come here when I want to relax, but also when I want to think about my future," said Mr Nshimyemukiza, who added that he drank at least three liters of milk every day.

"When you drink milk, you always have your head straight and your ideas right."

An African tradition for centuries
Over the centuries, cows have been a source of wealth and prestige - the most valuable gift to give to a friend or new family.

Even kings wanted unimpeded access to milk. During the Kingdom of Rwanda, which lasted hundreds of years until the last king was ousted in 1961, cow's milk was stored in wooden bottles with tapered lids just behind the king's straw palace.

The cows were considered so valuable that they ended up becoming παιδιών children's names - Munganyinka (precious as a cow) or Inyamibwa (beautiful cow) - as well as in traditional dances.

In them, the women raised their hands to imitate the Ankole cows with their giant horns!
In 1994, a genocide took place in Rwanda, during which an estimated 800.000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. The majority of the dead were Tutsi, national cattle breeders and rich in cattle.

Livestock families and their cows have been targeted by extremists from the Hutu ethnic group, who were mostly farmers, said Dr. Maurice Mugabowagahunde, a history and anthropology researcher at the Rwanda Academy of Cultural Heritage.

As the country recovered from the genocide, the Rwandan government again saw cows as a way to grow the economy and fight malnutrition.

In 2006, President Paul Kagame introduced the "Girinka" program, which aims to give every poor family a cow.

The program has so far distributed more than 380.000 cows nationwide, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources - with contributions from private companies, aid agencies and foreign leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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The project (Girinka means "you can have a cow") is one of the development projects that have gathered Mr. Kagame support nationwide.

As milk production increased in this village, so did the number of people who moved to urban areas for education and employment.

And so the milk bars were born, which allowed farmers to sell their surplus milk and let customers drink plenty of it to remember their home, their origin.

Most milk bars are located in Kigali, which is the most populous city in the country, with 1,2 million people.
"I come to the bars to drink milk and I have been nostalgic since I was a child," say several older locals.

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Sitting at the bar, Mr Muvunyi, 29, who works in Rwanda's emerging technology sector, showed photos of his 2-year-old son looking at him as he drank a glass of milk on his parents' farm.

He is concerned, he said, that children growing up in cities will not be so attached to the country's dairy culture, given the easy access now to pasteurized milk in supermarkets.

"I want to teach my children early the value of milk and cows," he said.
Despite their attractiveness, milk bars and the dairy sector in general have faced increasing challenges in recent years.

The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected the industry, especially as Rwanda introduced one of the strictest lockdowns in Africa.
As authorities imposed a overnight curfew, closed markets and banned travel between cities and regions, the economy was hit and Rwanda collapsed into recession.

More than half of Rwanda's small and medium-sized dairy businesses closed during the lockdown, according to the government.

Also, the restrictions were particularly harsh for small, independent milk bars.
In recent years, many smaller bars have closed as corporate chains consolidated their hold on the market.

Climate change has also created challenges. In recent years, repeated droughts have left thousands of people without food and cows without food and water.

Adverse weather conditions over the past four months have also meant an increase in milk prices. On average, a liter of milk in Kigali stores increased from Rwandan 500 francs (50 cents) to 700 francs (70 cents).

"Rwandans love cows and they love milk," said Karegeya, who owns five cows on the green hills of his family home in western Rwanda and drinks three liters a day.

"Milk bars bring us closer," he said. "And we will continue to come to drink our milk."

* With information and photos from the New York Times