Although I had heard a lot about the Banyankole tribe and their traditions, and had worked with them many times, with the traditional rural Banyankole as well as with the more ‘westernized’ one’s in urban areas, it was my first time to actually spend the night in a rural Banyankolle hut. And nothing I had heard about this tribe had been exaggerated.
The Banyankole are traditional cattle keepers. But unlike some other tribes that depending on cattle keeping (like the Masaai in Kenya), the Banyankole are not nomadic, but instead own fast areas of pasture around their settlements. Due to their big herds with subsequent large milk production, the tribe is relatively rich. Cattle is their pride, and milk is their food. Their only food. Banyankole do not involve themselves in agriculture, and have little interest in buying food. They often prefer taking milk and milkproducts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Cattle rearing and milking is a task for men. So what work is left for women? Not much. They don’t work on the land, they rarely cook food.
Often, a ‘filled’ figure is appreciated for African women. But the Banyankole have taken this to an extend that goes far beyond. When a woman is going to be married, she is kept indoors for a month, and fed so excessively that she hardly fits through the door opening after this period of time. The fatter the better. Genetically, all these fats attach to their buttocks. Married women are quite immobile, and sit on the floor in their huts most of the day. They make fermented milk (same principles of yoghurt, but with different bacteria, the taste is bitter) and butter, talk, and drink their (fermented) milk, which has a fat percentage of 5%. More heavy work, like washing clothes, is done by the younger girls, who still have a modest size.
Ladies are kept like princesses. However, they are owned by their man. It is hard for me to understand, with the total different cultural background I come from. When a man reaches the state that he can afford it, he builds his hut, he pays the bridal price, ‘buys’ a lady to make the household complete and to ‘produce’ his offspring. It is like a strategic transaction.
So the backdrop of this all: those ladies are not empowered. When I give a training in yoghurt making, the husbands are usually contacted to ask them for permission to let their wives attend. After having sit through the training (active participation is generally out of the question) the ladies often go home without changing anything, with one of the reasons being ‘The milk belongs to our husbands. We have no milk to make yoghurt of.’ Furthermore, in general it is not easy to tell Banyankolle anything about dairy farming. They normally see themselves as the source, the origin, of dairy farming. Do not think you know better than them.
I’m sometimes doubtful about yoghurt trainings for those ladies. Do they need to be empowered? They seem to be quite happy, sitting in their huts, chatting the day away, getting milk supplied every morning and every evening. Or do I not fully understand the dynamics of their position and feelings yet? The difficulty is also that those traditional ladies does not speak a word of English, which makes direct interaction impossible.
The night I stayed with them, I was lucky that a daughter attending a boarding high-school was in her holidays, and thus around. It was a bright girl with perfect English, who translated all the questions her curious mother asked me. In the evening we drunk hot milk which was slightly flavoured with tealeaves. They were too surprised (offended?) that I did not allow them to refill my half-a-litre mug with their milk which was thick like cream. In the morning I got that same cup filled with their local fermented milk. I had to drink slowly: the taste was bitter, nearly alcoholic. I tried to hide my astonishment when I saw mother filling a 3 liter jar with that same stuff, put it to her mouth, and cleared it within a few minutes. 3 liters!!! She must have weighed maybe almost 200kg, and that was not surprising to me anymore. The girl had a modest size because as she said ‘otherwise I get problems in my school uniform. But the moment I finish high school I will start drinking like mum.’
One of the ladies of this community, Winnie, aunt to my English speaking high-school friend, had gone to university, had been exposed to the ‘outside world’, and is currently a successful business lady. She has set up a group in her home village: the village ladies make the local fermented milk and butter from some milk they beg from their husbands, and Winnie arranges transport all the way up to Kampala, and sells it there to different outlets. Having this business in place, it became worthwhile to make efforts to train the village ladies in controlled yoghurt production. And who knows, by being part of a successful business that makes supermarket-standard products, the mindset of this ladies will slightly change. But will it be for the good, or for the disturbance of the peaceful marriages and family live?