A foodie tradition unique to Rwanda, the ever-present milk bar is Rwanda’s version of a neighbourhood pub. Milk bars serve just what their name suggests: milk, and lots of it.
In Kigali’s Kimisagara neighbourhood, on a bustling dirt path right off the main road, lies one of the city’s long-established milk bars. The place, named Kuruhimbi, is generally packed. The bar’s owner, Claudine Nytamba, is originally from the city’s traditionally Muslim and very colourful Nyamirambo neighbourhood. Along with her husband and children, she has been running Kuruhimbi for almost 15 years.
‘Rwandans love milk,’ notes Nytamba, ‘as milk is really good for you, and also really important to our culture.’
Milk bars are scattered around the city, and most frequently found in the Kimisagara, Nyamirambo, Kinamba, and Kimironko neighbourhoods. Patrons usually visit late in the morning or early in the afternoon, powering up with a hot glass of milk or cup of ikivuguto, a fermented milk reminiscent of a sour yogurt loaded with probiotics. Snacks like samosas, muffins, hard-boiled eggs, and chapati are available too, and though many of Kigali’s old-school milk bars have recently been replaced by the blue and white corporate-looking Inyange Milk Zones, the traditional milk bars that remain are held dear by Rwandan locals. Milk bars are the place to catch breakfast or lunch, as well as to socialise with loved ones and community members.
Milk bar signs around the city, decorated with colourfully painted cows and milk canisters, generally read Amata Meza, which translates from Kinyarwanda to mean ‘fresh milk.’ These signs, while slowly disappearing, still provide some of the city’s best street art. Upon entrance into a milk bar, guests will be asked for their order before being ushered to a plastic chair.
While waiting, customers have the chance to watch milk being poured from a giant steel container into small plastic bottles, all the while checking out the other clients and catching up on the neighbourhood’s hottest gossip. Depending on their milk preference – hot, cold, or ikiviguto – customers can also purchase honey, sugar, and cocoa powder to complement the drink. A trip to the bar will rarely cost you more than US$1.50 for a few frothy and fresh glasses of milk accompanied by a snack or two. Milk is also available to go, with large and reusable plastic bottles making a dairy-loving lifestyle even easier.
These milk bars exist only in Rwanda, and cannot be found anywhere else in East Africa. Kigali is Rwanda’s milk-bar capital, as city residents can’t usually keep cows, and thus have to rely upon different methods for procuring milk than their rural counterparts.
Cows, along with the milk they produce, are incredibly important to Rwandan heritage. They often signify both prosperity and wealth, and appear in many of the country’s rites and rituals. The gusaba, a traditional Rwandan wedding ceremony, witnesses the exchange of cows from the groom’s family to the bride’s father, and is still in use today. Cows and milk are often referenced in Rwandan pick-up lines and compliments, with a couple of the choicest being ugenda nk’inyana (‘You walk like a cow’) and ufite amaso y’inyana (‘You have eyes like a calf’).
A visit to a milk bar, while undoubtedly delicious, also offers important insight into Rwandan history and culture. ‘Come back anytime,’ laughed Nytamba, peeking out of the bar’s white curtain awning. ‘Next time, feel free to bring more friends.’
Names have been changed.