A beloved cow

The difference one cow makes for a once-struggling family

Ruben Julian Hamburger
Two cows inside a kraal.
01 October 2021

Karuzi, Burundi – On the fertile hills of Rwimbogo, wealth walks around on four legs. With its lyre-shaped horns, its shiny black coat, and its wide eyes, the cow cuts an impressive figure as it grazes inside a kraal under tall banana trees.

Béatrice Nibogora, 23, removes the barrier made of solid, cleverly intertwined branches that closes the kraal’s entrance. “We call her Maza. She’s my pride,” she says as she strokes the cow’s neck. Behind her stands a modest, ochre-brick house, where Béatrice and her family live with no running water or electricity.

“Having a cow is a rare honor,” she says. “I could count on the fingers of a hand my acquaintances who do.” Purchasing cattle is certainly all but easy here, as one cow sells for the equivalent of $400 dollars – a fortune in one of the world’s poorest countries.

The reason is simple: of all domestic animals in rural Burundi, none are as noble and coveted as cows. For centuries, Burundi’s whole civilization was built around them. Herders revered their beauty, recited poems, or even talked to them. And to this day, cows provide countless farmers with a source of daily food, of much needed income, and of replenishing manure.


“We’ve milked Maza every day since she calved,” says Béatrice, as she enters her home to fetch a pail of the morning’s fresh milk. “Maza isn’t from a genetically improved breed. So, she provides us with 2,5 liter of milk per day. It’s not much, but it’s enough to nourish us.” She hands out a cupful to Chanique, her 3-year-old daughter, who happily drinks it in one draught. Béatrice says she feels reassured, as she has no reason to fear for her child’s nutrition anymore.

Béatrice’s mind hasn’t always been this tranquil. She was born to a poor household here in Rwimbogo – or the buffles’ hill, in Kirundi language. “As a child, we never had enough to eat three times a day – ever,” she recalls.

Later, she fell for an even poorer man, Sylvestre Habiyaremye, who owned no land, no house, and no livestock. For years, they both had to live and work on another villager’s farm to make ends meet – just enough to eat one meal a day. “I worried so much. Sometimes, I found myself wishing I hadn’t left my parents’ home,” she says.

A woman by the side of a calf
Béatrice, 23, stroking Maza's calf on the parcel she and her husband own in Rwimbogo, Burundi.

Today, life is milder. “We give our daughter much more than we ever received from our own parents,” says Béatrice, a sparkle in the eye.

So, what changed?

The answer has to do with Merankabandi, a social protection programme supported by the World Bank and UNICEF Burundi. Over the course of three years, the initiative provided 56,000 vulnerable families, including Béatrice’s, with fifteen cash donations worth about $20 dollars each, as well as awareness sessions on parenting practices, maternal and child health, and household finances.

Béatrice’s family had been malnourished, so she first bought staple food with her newfound funds. Then, as Merankabandi’s awareness sessions began, she purchased chickens, a piglet, and seeds to grow rice, beans, maize, and sorghum on a piece of land she had received from her stepparents. Two years later, she and Sylvestre were able to build their home and afford a cow.

Man with hoe standing in a field
Sylvestre, 32, poses for a photograph with a hoe on his shoulder.

 “Until a year ago, good harvests were rare,” explains Sylvestre, as he leads us towards his crop fields. “With Maza, we have manure to fertilize the land. Yields are better.”

The parcel stretches along the steep hillside, where bean and cassava shrubs shimmer in the light of the setting sun. The land isn’t vast enough to offer fallow fields for Maza and her veal to graze, says Sylvestre. So, he employs Jean-Marie, a young man from the village, to fetch hay and fresh-cut grass for them. “We are able to give work to a youngster, who used to be vulnerable and unemployed. I never thought we’d be able to do so one day.”

Pushing his way down through the thickets, Sylvestre surveys the fields, on the lookout for weeds. “Before Merankabandi, I was worried. I couldn’t see the way out. I couldn’t see the future,” he says.

“Now I do. Tomorrow, my child will go to school and be well-read. She’ll be able to provide for her loved ones. She’ll have a good life. Today, I can see the future. The future is guaranteed.”

By Ruben Julian Hamburger – Communication Officer, UNICEF Burundi