During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered an estimated one million people – mostly of the Tutsi minority – in just 100 days. The genocide spread throughout the country, as ordinary citizens were incited by local officials and the Hutu Power government to take up arms against their neighbours.
25 years later, a distinctive project is taking place in Rwanda. Titled Cows for Peace, it was launched by the Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance (CARSA) in 2012 to pair perpetrators with victims. The groups meet and raise a cow together in an effort to reconcile and, simultaneously, develop a sustainable future. CARSA’s programme begins with trauma healing and forgiveness workshops and ends with the shared responsibility of looking after a cow. The aim is to enable communities “to cooperate in trust and to rebuild relationships” through caregiving; for small farmers in Rwanda, cows are one of the most valued elements of a household.
In 2019, artist and researcher Paul Seawright accompanied those involved as a photographer. The result was Beasts of Burden, a series of images now on view at Belfast Exposed – Northern Ireland’s leading photography organisation. It includes portraits of individuals set against their homes and surrounding landscapes, as well as detailed, close-up images of cows grazing and lowing. It’s an intimate, sensitive portrayal of a unique collaboration between humans and other animals.
Seawright’s images are objective and rooted in the present moment – never revealing “sides”, social standing or what has come before. They are set within the same spaces where atrocities occurred yet offer a non-judgemental look at those inhabiting the land today. The series is a powerful examination of Rwanda post-conflict and the wider nature of trauma, reconciliation and companionship. It taps into what it means to be human – reaffirming the possibility of co-existence in the wake of suffering. Deirdre Robb, Chief Executive of Belfast Exposed, describes the Cows for Peace programme as “one that can inspire communities across the world.”
7 October – 23 December. Find out more here.
1. Paul Seawright, Untitled (Portrait II) 110 x 82.5
2. Paul Seawright, Untitled (Red Eye) 100 x 100