Yes, say cheese and you immediately think of the French, Dutch, Swiss and English.
You wouldn’t think of DR Congo.
The rare art of cheese-making in DR Congo
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 French gruyere, 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.