Maura Derrane in Rwanda: Some 10,000km separate my Aran Islands home with Kigali... but I'm drawn in by nostalgia
From Killeaney to Kigali... some 10,000 kilometres separates my home place of Killeaney on the Aran Islands and Kigali.
But somehow on day two of this journey with Irish aid agency Bóthar into and beyond the Rwandan capital, our worlds didn’t seem that much apart in many ways.
Separated by distance yes but, in many respects, only time separates it from much of what we know back home.
The time piece became strikingly obvious as we stopped in the afternoon sun at the tiny farm of Innocent Sekamana this afternoon.
A survivor of the genocide of 23 years ago, today this man is the proudest owner in the world of an Irish cow.
As we arrived at his small holding, I was drawn back to a time 30 years ago, when as a young girl growing up on the Aran Islands, I, too, crouched on knee and milked a Friesian cow.
He has one. We had three. Not a huge difference.
That was life back then on Inis Mór, Aran Islands. Our cows were precious to us; put milk on the table, we drank it, loved it. It was part of our life.
For Innocent, it’s more than a part of his life. It’s actually and literally been a life-line.
A life-line given to him by Bóthar; moreover by the Irish people who have donated this and many other cows that are now transforming lives here in Rwanda.
A stunning transformation that I saw with Innocent and other farmers, including genocide widows today.
In reality, Innocent’s life is probably what life in parts of Ireland was like much more than 30 years ago.
If we could time-travel back home, we would probably find a period at some stage in the early part of the last century when it was very similar.
His home is not at all unlike an Irish rural cottage back then.
Four small rooms. No electricity. A galvanised roof. No running water; the source of same being a local well nearby.
The walls are adorned with religious images; his faith the same as ours.
Outside the house, his life dependent on a cow, side by side in a shed with a young calf offering hope for the future.
There’s two goats and a pig. And the crouching that has to be done as he draws what, for him, is this white gold from his precious cow. An Irish cow.
I was drawn in by time and nostalgia.
Could I remember how to milk a cow? Well there was only one way to find out. Innocent agreed to let me try with a beguiling smile.
And I’m delighted to report, that yes, the milk flowed. It’s just one of those things, like riding a bike that you don’t forget. Kilkeany to Kigali indeed.
Because this cow has a greater importance and dependence than any Irish cow for decades. If not a century.
It’s changed his and his family’s life way beyond anything we can ever truly understand. Put a superfood source on the table, allowed him to sell the excess. Used the money to buy a small piece of land behind his house that is now home to his goats, pig and hens.
She’s the reason he can smile as wide as the evening Rwandan sun as it sets over the thousand hills of this charming and surprising nation.
It’s one of the most engaging smiles I’ve seen. And good reason for it because, just like the meaning of the name Bóthar, he has travelled a road. A hard, hard road.
He’s from a world where neighbour set upon neighbour with merciless, inexplicable abandon in a 100 day period that was the fastest killing spree in the history in the world.
Even after that, in the post genocide era, his simplicity and poverty meant he was dismissed by others.
As aid began to pour in, including through the life-changing gift of Bóthar’s income and food producing animals, the suggestion that this humble man, among the poorest of the poor, could be trusted to care for an animal that is celebrated in Rwandan society was ridiculed.
No one believed, even in his own community, that Innocent could look after this most precious of gifts he received from Bóthar six years ago.
But he did.
Today, as he sat to milk his cow, he did so wearing the same coat that he has worn for three years.
It’s a coat given to him for winning awards – two on the bounce in fact – for having the best show-cow in his region; an award based principally on milk yield but also on how it’s cared for. And this is a country that cares for cows like no other.
A strike for the underdog.
Innocent is a symbol of the hope. Bóthar gives that hope and it gave it to him.
Irish people trust Bóthar to do that and it’s well placed.