How cows are catalysts for hope in Rwanda

LivelihoodsPeace-buildingReconciliationTraumaInspired Individuals

How do you start to bring together survivors of genocide with those who perpetrated the violence? Even for the most sensitive and diplomatic of human beings, it’s taxing work.

Mujawamariya Odette and Nzigira Philemon take care of a cow together. He led the mob that destroyed her house. Had she been found, she would have been killed. Photo: Christophe Mbonyingabo
Mujawamariya Odette and Nzigira Philemon take care of a cow together. He led the mob that destroyed her house. Had she been found, she would have been killed. Photo: Christophe Mbonyingabo

Perhaps that is why Christophe Mbonyingabo thought a cow would work well in the role of peacemaker. And so he enlisted the help of a largely passive creature to continue the hard work already done in reconciliation workshops.

The Cow for Peace project was started by Christophe, executive director of CARSA (Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Action), in 2010. ‘We gave a cow to a woman and a man – she was struggling to forgive him for having killed her father,’ he says. ‘It was a way to keep genocide survivors and their direct perpetrators together after the workshop, as they were not meeting as regularly as we would have liked them to.’

In Rwanda, a cow is culturally the greatest gift one person can give to another. Cows are symbols of wealth and prosperity, and ownership of a cow carries incredible significance. Furthermore, a cow needs intense supervision and requires the whole family to share the responsibility of its care. In this way, the reconciliation process is strengthened for both families involved.

‘We gave a cow to a woman and a man – she was struggling to forgive him for having killed her father’

Christophe Mbonyingabo

The aim of the project is for a survivor and direct offender to care jointly for a cow. The animal plays the role of a bridge between them. It also acts as a bridge between their family members through meetings that renew mutual trust and break down fear and suspicions.

The cow stays with the survivor’s family, bringing the offender’s family to visit regularly. The first calf that is born is given to the offender’s family in a communal ceremony as a sign of restored relationship.

At a recent cow-giving ceremony, one participant said that it was the first time in his life, after all he had been through in the genocide, that anyone had given him something. Having lost his parents at the age of seven, he had to stop his education and endure loneliness as his surviving siblings lived far away in Kigali. He was an unhappy man. But he was very touched to receive the cow, and he explained that CARSA has been a blessing in his life since the time of the workshop, when he was helped to forgive the man who killed his mother.

The first calf that is born is given to the offender’s family in a communal ceremony as a sign of restored relationship. Photo: Christophe Mbonyingabo
The first calf that is born is given to the offender’s family in a communal ceremony as a sign of restored relationship. Photo: Christophe Mbonyingabo

In another case, Celestin is one of the perpetrators who killed Emerthe’s seven relatives during the genocide. When Celestin was released from prison, Emerthe contemplated how to get revenge on him. It was during this time that they both attended a CARSA workshop, which helped them to recover from their trauma symptoms. They became beneficiaries of the Cow for Peace programme, with both of their families sharing the responsibility of caring for a cow. Not only have they been reconciled, their children have become close friends. They are also able to sell the milk from the cow to pay for school fees, and the manure from the cow has increased their crop production. Celestin and Emerthe remain close friends today, always inviting each other when they host a party.

‘It is powerful for community members to witness two former enemies who could not talk to one another otherwise,’ says Christophe. ‘Sharing a cow increases their hope for a reconciled and sustainable future.’

In May this year CARSA embarked on a research project that will help it to determine more clearly how much the cow is able to help beneficiaries.

‘We can testify to changes that have taken place in the lives of these people so far,’ says Christophe. ‘In reconciliation cell groups we are also hearing about their good progress on the journey of forgiveness and how some of them are even helping their neighbours who need reconciliation.

‘Our hope is that as the survivor-offender pairs share the responsibilities of looking after a cow, their relationship will grow stronger.’

Nick Wyke
Nick Wyke is the Tearfund Learn editor. Email: nick.wyke@tearfund.org