BYUMBA, Rwanda -- Two years ago, Celestin Bujyakera was a notorious village drunkard selling banana wine. He never made enough to pay his children's school fees, his wife's medical bills, or other family expenses.
Two houses up the hill, widow Christine Mukamuhure was no better off. She made only $14 a year selling crops from her field and could manage just two meals a day for herself, her daughter, and her parents.
Then the US taxpayers gave them and 503 other families each a disease-resistant dairy cow in a program designed to help Rwandans recover from the 1994 genocide, when more than 500,000 people were killed.
With a cow producing an average of 21 quarts of milk a day, the families have seen their incomes from selling milk soar into the hundreds of dollars -- a small fortune in this corner of Rwanda where people live on much less than a dollar a day.
To spread the benefits, each participant in the $2.3 million Pass on the Gift Program is required to donate their cow's first female calf to another poor family.
"These days, I make between 250,000 francs ($430) and 300,000 francs ($520) a year from the sale of milk," said Bujyakera, a 44-year-old father of six who now has two cows.
He was given the first cow after making a commitment to straighten out his life and accept close monitoring, said Venant Safali, an official with the US Agency for International Development, which funds the program administered by Heifer International, a charity based in Little Rock, Ark.
"I repaid most of my debts, and I bought back land that was seized by creditors," Bujyakera said. "Other villagers consider me a progressive farmer, and I have regained my self-esteem."
With his milk earnings, Bujyakera has sent his wife to neighboring Uganda for medical treatment three times. His children, including one with learning difficulties, are now in school.
"He no longer goes to drinks, no longer sells the local brew. He is always at home with the family and looking after the cows," his wife, Philomenne Tumukunde, said with a broad smile.
Cows are important in Rwandan culture. They are used to pay dowries, to express condolences, to compliment a new mother, to give newlyweds a start. In years past, the ultimate compliment of a woman's beauty was to tell her: "Your eyes are as beautiful as those of a calf."
Blood feuds between families are sometimes resolved by community courts that may order a person accused of murder to give a cow to the bereaved family.
"That clears the bad blood between families and regenerates relations," said Charles Kayumba, a veterinarian with the program. "This is still practiced today."
The Rwandans' creation myth even involves milk: The god of thunder fashioned a small man from clay and put him in a jar with milk and a bull's heart. After nine months, the clay man rose from the jar, came down to Earth, and fathered a son who founded the kingdom of Rwanda a millennium ago. These days, lasting ties are forged between friends when one gives a cow to another.
Tommy Thompson, the US secretary of health and human services, gave a cow to a hospital treating AIDS patients when he visited Rwanda in early December.
"I was a farmer before I became involved in politics, and I have found another beautiful tradition in the Rwandan culture -- that is the giving of a cow as a gift," Thompson said.
Pass on the Gift cows are helping Rwandans reintegrate and reconcile after the genocide in which a government led by extremist ethnic Hutus attacked both the Tutsi minority and Hutus who were politically moderate.
Standing beside a pink rosebush in front of her new home, Mukamuhure said the 1,543-pound cow in her backyard had raised her profile so much that she is now vice president of the provincial farmers association. Her village has no electricity, so she is saving for a home generator.
"In two years, I shall install a bio-gas plant at home to light the house for my daughter when she does her homework once she goes to secondary school," Mukamuhure said. "I want her to become a veterinary doctor."