The rare art of cheese-making in DR Congo

  • 4 February 2014
  • From the section Magazine
The apprentice adds hot water to the mixture
Image caption Hot water is added to curdled milk to harden the cheese

A hillside village in the Democratic Republic of Congo is an unlikely site for the production of fine cheese. But here, one man continues a legacy started by Belgian priests in 1975.

Andre Ndekezi cuts carefully through thick, curdled milk with a large fork and then stirs it with his bare hands. He is making cheese in a bathtub.

His workshop is a small, wooden cabin perched on the lush hills of Masisi, in the east of the DR Congo.

The conditions are basic, but Ndekezi has a rare savoir-faire when it comes to dairy products.

The curd will spend a month on a shelf in a dark room in the back of the workshop and eventually become a refined cheese.

Simply known as Goma cheese - Goma is the largest town in the area - it is like a milder version of Dutch gouda, softer in texture.

Ndekezi is 52 years old and he learned how to do his job 30 years ago. At the time, all sorts of cheese was produced in eastern DR Congo.

''I know how to make camembert and mozzarella,'' explains Ndekezi. "But we no longer have the necessary equipment or products to make those cheeses. During the war, everything was looted or destroyed.''

Hundreds of small dairy farms lined up on the hills of Masisi produce cheese using no more than a bathtub, fishnets, buckets, and some metal pots.

With its cool climate and abundant cattle, the area offers the ideal conditions for dairy production.

That is what prompted Belgian priests to first start making cheese here in the 1970s.

''The priests started in 1975, they set up factories on the hills, not only here but also in Rwanda and Uganda," Ndekezi explains. Today, cheese from Masisi is the only local dairy product to be sold across the DRC.

Cheese is not usually part of traditional food in Africa, and in fact much of the cheese found on the continent is imported from Europe.

Ndekezi's face lights up when he talks about his job, and how he learned it.

He was taught to make cheese by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Masisi, before being hired by a local dairy farm run by Belgian priests.

That's where he acquired the skills to make more sophisticated dairy products, including the famous French camembert and Italian mozzarella but also yoghurt and butter.

At the time, dozens of parishes produced dairy goods across eastern DR Congo. The area, with its fertile soil and immense mineral wealth, was one of the most prosperous in the country.

Andre was able to earn a living producing cheese until the late 1990s, when the war forced him and hundreds of thousands of others to flee to the biggest nearby town.

"My family and I left Masisi for Goma, and I had to find a different job. I worked in a hotel. I managed to feed my family, but I didn't make cheese for 20 years."

Image caption The cheese curd is packed down into pots to create the round shapes

As he speaks, two apprentices come into the workshop carrying buckets of hot water. "This is to harden the cheese," he says. They pour it into the bathtub while Ndekezi continues to stir.

Three decades of war dislocated the east of the country and left many people struggling to survive, let alone find a job.

In November last year, one of the country's most dangerous rebel groups, the M23, was defeated by the Congolese army backed by UN troops, raising hopes for a more stable future.

The war is far from over in eastern DR Congo, where over 30 armed groups still target civilians, but parts of Masisi have been experiencing relative peace in the past few years.

Many people from the area, including Ndekezi, have returned home.

The prospect of stable employment played a big role in his decision to return. "Now I earn a better living. This is what I am good at. It is what I love to do".

He speaks over the metallic sounds his apprentices make as they squeeze the curd into small round pots.

Image caption The mixture is stirred quickly to bring it to the right temperature
Image caption Two batches of cheese are prepared each day in Ndekezi's factory
Image caption Once made, the cheese rests in the storeroom for one month

"I am proud to be able to say that my country DR Congo produces cheese.''

He has bigger ambitions. For him, this tiny factory is only a first step back into the business. He is convinced that with his skills, he can achieve much more.

"Little by little, I will build on this. I want to get equipment shipped from Europe so I can also start making camembert here. You'll see, one day I will send some to you, in France.''

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