Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Cattle in Burundi — from poetry to milk yields

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Bujumbura (Burundi): 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, 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 the way they are in India but were relatively sacred and had to be treated as such.” (AFP)

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