The simple act of giving lies at the heart of what it means to be human. This truth proved abundantly evident at a Heifer International "Passing of the Gift" ceremony that took place outside Kigali, Rwanda, in the Jabana Sector of the Gasabo District.
One-hundred fifty farmers, officials and celebratory dancers took part in the joyous occasion to mark the "passing on" gift of a dairy cow from 22 Heifer donors to 22 recipients. The donors were themselves recipients of a Heifer International gift of livestock, and were fulfilling their commitment to give their cow's first-born female to another needy recipient.
The donations represented the sixth generation of giving for the vibrant, successful Heifer dairy cow project in Jabana, beginning with 172 animals in 2004, almost doubling in size to 321 cows in 2009. Six times in five years have the recipients of Heifer livestock donations turned into donors, passing on the largesse that the organization's American contributors began.
"It is a chain of giving," said Gaspard Ialisa, president of Heifer's P.O.G. (Passing on the Gift) Project in Jabana, which is named after the ceremony by which an original Heifer gift can multiply arithmetically. In the lush, gently rolling hills northeast of the Rwandan capital of Kigali, Heifer cattle dot the small dairy farms and over 300 families can attribute increased prosperity and better nutrition to the P.O.G. Project.
"It is the best aid project we have," said John Gasana, a teacher and dairy farmer who was one of the donors in the ceremony. Gesturing to the earth emphatically, he added, "Heifer goes deep, deep into the countryside."
Peace has settled on Rwanda like a blessing, but always the horrific events of 1994 haunt the country, when Hutu and Tutsi embarked on murderous tribal warfare. The clashes resulted in the organized, genocidal murder of hundreds of thousands, by some estimates one out of every five Rwandan citizens. It is precisely in environments of conflict such as Rwanda that Heifer International seeks to exert a healing influence.
The festive atmosphere of Jabana's ceremony demonstrated the success of such a strategy. No tribal enmity was evident. On the contrary, an upbeat, forward-looking mood settled on the gathering, typical of the country's determination to put the past behind.
Organizers decorated the stage with yellow, green and blue bunting, the national colors of Rwanda. Traditional dancers from Itorero ry' Umerenge wa Jabana, a youth group dance troupe, greeted guests with a spirited chant of hospitality: "You are most welcome, visitors to Rwanda, sit and feel comfortable." Six young dancers, aged 6 to 17, backed by a pair of drummers and a group of singers, opened the event.
Outside the building, in their kraal, a set of stalls sheltered beneath a tin roof, a pair of yearling heifers waited to take their parts in the ceremony. Roosters crowed, and goats grazed in pastures set among fields of corn, a reminder that even here, a bare 20 kilometers from the center of bustling, urbane Kigali, Rwanda is overwhelmingly a rural country, and any prosperity must arise in the countryside as well as the city.
Inside, the ceremony centered around a raffle-like drawing, whereby donors reached into a colorful Rwandan basket, extracted a slip of paper and read off the recipient's name printed on it. As the donors learned the identity of the persons who would receive their heifers, there were greetings with hugs and smiles.
Heifer's program manager Dennis Karamuzi officiated over the drawing, energetically calling out the names of recipients. Donor John Gasana picked the name of Anastazia Musamuraia, from Masoro in nearby Rulindo District. Musamuraia appeared ecstatic to receive the gift.
"It will lift me out of poverty," she said simply, noting that she and her family, a husband and two young children, possessed no other livestock.
Before the ceremony, donor Gasana and recipient Musamuraia knew each other only in passing. "We are not really acquainted very well," Musamuraia said. "But when [the American contributors to Heifer International] give money to buy dairy cattle, they don't know the people who will receive the cows either. To give to someone you do not know, this is true generosity."
Emmanuel Nginwonsamea (28) and his wife, Senaphine Mokaswinda (22) , were also the new recipients of a yearling heifer. "My two boys love milk," Nginwonsamea said. The family lives on an acre-sized plot of hillside land 4 kilometers from where the P.O.G. event was held. As with Musamuraia, this animal will be the first livestock the family owns.
I know I will keep it well, since I have had the training that Heifer offers.
Donor John Gasana well knows the experience that the recipient families will have, since he himself received a Heifer cow in 2005. It took him three years to fulfill his contract with Heifer International and donate a female yearling to a recipient via the Jabana P.O.G. Project.
"My cow kept having bullocks," Gasana said. Heifer recipients sign contracts which require the first female calf to be donated, since there is little market for bulls in the Rwandan countryside. "It was a long time before I had a female calf to give," Gasana said. "But I am so happy it finally happened."
Gasana cited the "three M's" in listing the benefits of receiving a cow from Heifer International: milk, manure and money. The milk helps with his family's nutrition. He and his wife have four children, two daughters and two sons, and take care of a half dozen more relatives on their four-hectare farm (Gasana names his children proudly: "Richard, Mary, Rose, Juliet, Emmanuel, Agnes, Immaculate, Charles, Rita and Christine").
He credits Heifer's original gift of a cow with helping him feed his large family. "Right in my neighborhood, I have seen many children killed by malnutrition," Gasana said. "If God helps us, since I have received a cow my own children will never suffer this fate."
Gasana received his gift from Heifer in a similar Passing on the Gift ceremony in 2005. He benefitted from Heifer's training and its policy of introducing non-native breeds to increase milk production. Gasana's cow is a Holstein-Friesian, a black-and-white breed originally from Holland and familiar as a major milk-producer all over the world, but rare in Rwanda before Heifer International introduced it.
"The best cow, the finest cow ever, can deliver 40 liters of milk in a day," Gasana said. "But that's only the best cow. My own animal delivers somewhere between 16 and 20 liters, and I am very happy with that." The milk sells at US 35-cents per liter, and Gasana makes extra money by selling surplus cow dung to other farms.
Similar to that of many countries in East Africa, from Sudan and Kenya to Tanzania, Rwanda agriculture is largely cattle-based, and the possession of a cow immeasurably contributes to a family's prestige and standing in the community. The two favored imported breeds are Friesian and the brown-coated Jersey, kept as pure-breds or cross-bred with the hardier, disease-resistant local cattle.
Soil erosion and environmental degradation has developed into a serious problem in Rwanda, which has led to vast tracts of rural land that are essentially sterile. Heifer confronts the situation head on with its "zero-grazing" policy for the country. Gasana testifies that this strategy of keeping livestock penned, not grazing in pastures, feeding them silage and grain supplements, has helped his farmland partially recover from past misuse. He raises elephant grass as livestock feed, and also beans and potatoes as foodstuffs.
If the milk produced by Gasana's cow helps his family remain healthy, the manure produced by his cow contributes in a different way, by helping nourish the crops he raises on his four-hectare plot of land. He feeds his family with the maize (corn) he grows, and feeds the maize brand, or silage, to the cow itself. Fertilized by the cow dung, the chopped up stems and stalks of the maize helps to give back to the cow and, in turn, the family. The fertilization also helps bring back additional land to productivity. "The cow helps us in many ways," he says.
Not the least of which, of course, is the extra income Gasana receives from the milk he sells. He estimates that he nets 50,000 Rwandan francs per month from selling milk and manure, around $1,200 a year. This in a country where the per capita income has risen to $315 a year, which makes Gasana almost four times as prosperous as his average countryman, all from Heifer's initial gift of a single dairy cow.
With some of the money from his first cow, Gasana expanded his farm by buying another cow. He is currently milking both, with enough production to both supply milk to his family and sell some on the open market.
"With the income I get from milk, I can send my children to be educated," Gasana said. "Schooling means a better life for my children." He himself is associated with the Alliance High School in Kigali, and he puts a high premium on education. With added income comes education, he said, and with education comes stability and a better economy.
"Prosperity and peace are brothers," Gasana said, when asked about the shadow of 1994's genocide on his country. "The best thing for reconciliation efforts [between Hutu and Tutsi] is to raise the standard of living in Rwanda." Heifer International's effort to provide the poor farmers of Rwanda with increased income may be said to be a bringer of peace and an effective method of conflict resolution.
More than 15 years after the fact, the past events still make for a sensitive subject in conversation, and may politely be raised only tangentially. For example, it is not considered correct to ask an individual's tribal heritage directly. The question "Are you Hutu or Tutsi?" is deemed socially gauche, and will inevitably bring the answer, "I am Rwandan." It is significant that the P.O.G. ceremony was held during Rwanda's annual National Reconciliation Week, a series of conferences and talks that contribute to the current mood of hard-won social tranquility.
The P.O.G. Project in the Jabana sector, as well as other Heifer initiatives in the country, turn out to be gifts to Rwanda in other ways. Inspired by the success of Heifer International's dairy project, the Rwandan government's Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources instituted a program called Garinka, also known as "One Cow Per Poor Household." In addition, Heifer works to foster bank-funded programs to support the creation of dairy cooperatives.
Indeed, the creation of a dairy and milk-chilling facility to support the district farms is the next step for the P.O.G. Project in Rwanda's Jabana sector. "The impact of Heifer International is very visible throughout the area," said Justus Kangwagye, the mayor of the Rulindo district, as he spoke at the P.O.G. ceremony. The vision, he said, was for a new dairy facility to be an anchor for the whole area, providing not only agricultural services but such necessary improvements as a pharmacy and rural medical clinic, all housed in a central location.
As the ceremony concluded, the organizers offered box lunches, cold soda and cups of fresh heated milk to the participants. Then, led by the dancers, the assembly adjourned to the nearby kraal. There, a traditional medicine shaman raised a chant of praise to the donors and the recipients, who he directed to "take good care of this calf.
Rubbing the young heifers ceremoniously with handfuls of grass, the shaman went on to express gratitude to the contributors of Heifer International who had provided the funds for the project – and then lavished praise on the two young heifers, who the shaman extolled for their beauty and abundant supply of milk.
"You will feed our families," the shaman chanted, "you will bring food and happiness to us."
Gasana has his own words of praise for Heifer supporters. "I wish to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to the people of American who donated to Heifer International," he said. "It is a noble action because this assistance goes directly to people of the village. With milk we solve the problem of poor nutrition. We get manure from cow dung to fertilize our gardens and we get a better harvest. The whole society becomes healthier and more energetic."
Heifer International, Gasana says, "is considered as one of the best NGO [non-governmental organization] in our country." He adds: "I wish to thank the people of America for this noble action."