Forgiveness and reconciliation are two words that carry a lot of weight in Rwanda and Vestine Uwicyeza, who lost her husband in a genocide which claimed the lives of one million people 20 years ago, knows what it really means to leave the past behind.

Her home and belongings were destroyed in 1994. She lost members of her family and was living in extreme poverty after the war, but now lives in a model village, where Rwandans affected by the genocide and those who committed crimes live side by side.

“I had lost hope,” she says. “It was a struggle to survive before, but I have gained confidence in life again.”

In 2007, Vestine received a heifer from Bóthar. She now has two cows and is able to sell milk, but also gives it away to neighbouring families in need.

“I have the courage to help others and assist vulnerable families,” she says. “The cow has helped build trust. We are living a decent life.”


The genocide saw the majority Hutu set out to kill the Tutsi population. Rwandans were faced with the task of rebuilding their devastated country together. They were asked to forgive – but never forget. But how could you begin to live alongside a person who may have murdered a member of your family? It’s unthinkable, yet this is reality for Vestine and millions more people in Rwanda – a tiny landlocked country in Africa.

However, 20 years since the country was destroyed by ethnic violence, heifers donated by Irish farmers are helping to rebuild once-shattered communities.

Cows have always been an important symbol in Rwanda. There’s a saying in Kinyarwanda: amashyo, which literally translates as “may you have a herd of cattle”. To own cows was always regarded as a sign of prosperity and status for Rwandans, as well as being a central part of their culture.

During the genocide, 90% of the country’s cattle were slaughtered, leaving many already devastated families without a source of milk or income. Cow ownership also became a divisive issue.

As part of the Girinka programme, which was established in 2006 by Rwandan president Paul Kagame to help alleviate poverty and malnutrition, people living in poverty are receiving the gift of an in-calf heifer. They are shown how to care for it by local vets, and must pass its first-born heifer to a neighbouring family.

Irish charity Bóthar plays an important part in this scheme, and has been sending dairy cows to Rwanda since 1997.

Given the high proportion of households headed by widows in Rwanda, Irish Country Living met many women like Vestine during our time in the country. The gift of a heifer has helped these women elevate in society, educate their children and, in some cases, build new houses and install biogas generators and electricity. Manure is used as fertilizer for crops, with bananas and Irish potatoes grown in homes.

BÓthar Creamery

Aideen O’Leary hails from Cork but has lived in Rwanda for almost two years, overseeing the development of a creamery being built by Bóthar in Ruisizi, near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Over time, you can see the improvement,” she says. “It’s a gradual process, but it really goes to show how one cow can make a difference and empower these families.

“Rwanda is a country where there is still a lot of poverty and unemployment, and it’s important for people to move on and progress,” she adds.

Progression is key in Rwanda, a country that is keen to prove itself and move on from the genocide. Rwanda’s Vision 2020 sets out to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country. The ICT sector is a growth area, with 4G broadband set to be rolled out throughout Rwanda.

Gender quotas have been introduced in government, with a minimum of 30% of posts in decision-making bodies to be filled by women. The country’s physical infrastructure, which was destroyed during the genocide, is impressive, with not one pothole in sight on main roads.

However, it’s impossible to visit Rwanda and not be affected by the brutal crimes that took place in 1994. The African country, known as the land of a thousand hills, is stunningly beautiful and lush, but its population is still deeply wounded.

Reminders are everywhere. During our time in Rwanda, we only saw three elderly people and later found out the population of almost 12 million people has a median age of just 18. Many survivors of the genocide are either orphaned, widowed, or living with HIV/Aids. The people themselves are reserved, but we’re told they always have been.

However, it’s clear to see the difference Irish cows are making to families. They’ve been given names like Hope, Chance or Agahozo, a Kinyarwandan word that means “dries the tears”.

Blaise Ufiteyezu works as a vet with Heifer International and trains the families in husbandry when they receive a cow. He has seen first-hand how lives have improved through the Girinka programme.

“I have seen how miserable life can really be,” he says. “Widows were traumatised, with many living with HIV, and families were malnourished. To give a cow to a family was life-changing.”

Blaise has worked with 300 widows and has seen how cows have aided the reconciliation process. Families are also encouraged to form co-operatives, which furthers the spirit of community.

“A family who has killed could receive a cow from a family who has suffered. The pass on creates a positive relationship between both sides. No one can understand what we went through,” he adds.

“The situations families were in was awful, but slowly we have seen how a cow can empower them,” says Blaise.

It’s impossible to comprehend the horror that Rwandans endured during the genocide and the trauma many struggle with. For people like Vestine, it will never be easy to forgive and move on. However, the simple gift of one cow means that the future is bright.

“I am supporting myself,” says Vestine.

“Now I can stand tall and proud.”


Bóthar is an Irish charity that enables families and communities worldwide to overcome hunger and poverty by specialising in improved livestock production and support-related training and community development. Visit to find out how you can help.

Rwanda fact file

Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa with 11.78m in an area less than half the size of Ireland

Capital city: Kigali

Official languages: Kinyarwanda, French, English

Currency: Rwandan Franc (€1 = 843RWF)

Area: 26,338 sq km (less than half the size of Ireland)

Arable land: 46.32%

Rural population: 80.9%

Average age: 18.7 years

Life expectancy: male – 57.73; female – 60.83

(206,900 people, equivalent of 2.9% of the population, are living with HIV/Aids)

Literacy: 71.1%

Infant mortality: 59.59 deaths/1,000 live births

Water access: 66% of people in rural areas have access to improved water

31.9% of GDP is generated through agriculture

Main exports: Coffee, tea, hides, tin ore

44.9% of the population is living in poverty

Average annual income: €500