The quiet craft of cheese making thrives in a most unlikely place; war-torn eastern DR Congo

The history of cheesemaking goes hand in hand with the land disputes, and tells a remarkable story of resilience by the people.

BETTER known for war and bloodshed, the lush hills of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)  are also home to a surprising, successful craft that has survived decades of violence: cheesemaking.

Though not part of the traditional diet, the cheese—a mild-tasting hard variety with a yellowish-brown rind—has managed to win favour across the nation.

But the way up has not been easy.

“The history of cheesemaking goes hand in hand with the land disputes” and conflicts that have shaken the Masisi territory for more than eight decades, said Fidel Bafilemba, a researcher with Enough Project, a non-governmental organisation working in the region.

Variously confiscated, pillaged, destroyed then reclaimed and pressed back into production, the rudimentary farms today provide a living for many locals—in a country where more than 70% live below the poverty line.

At first glance, Masisi, in the south of volatile North Kivu province, looks like a land of plenty whose verdant landscape hints little at its troubled past.

In the 1930s, the “Banyarwanda”, ethnic Hutus and Tutsis from tiny, populous neighbouring Rwanda, starting challenging the native Hunde community in their search for space.

By the 1970s, the Tutsis, who control today’s cheesemaking, were winning, at the expense of native Hundes. Further ethnic and political conflicts exploded in 1993 into massacres that claimed thousands of lives.

The village of Kilolirwe, at 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) in altitude and 50 kilometres (30 miles)—or two and a half hours by car—from the North Kivu capital of Goma, is still picture-postcard with small wooden farms dotting mountain paths.

Cows—both African Ndama and Zebi varieties and European Friesians and Brown Swiss cows—graze languidly on steep pastures bordered by eucalyptus trees and neatly cultivated fields.

European oddity 

Typical is Ernest Kakwiki. After his morning milking—by hand—he and some 15 other farmers cart the liquid from their cows to the dairy of Innocent Ntwalabakiga, where it is poured into a huge old tub. All sport the cowboy-like hat seen as typical of Tutsis.

Ntwalabakiga already has a wood fire heating up water, which, with whey, will be added to convert the milk into cheese.

His production chief, James Hakizi, has no modern equipment and total confidence about his savoir-faire. I only have to plunge my arm into the mixture “to know if the temperature is ready” and conditions right to form curds, separate them from the whey and set the milk into moulds, he said.

Final ripening takes about three weeks before the pressed, one-kilogram (2.2 pounds) rounds are ready for market.

Producers sell the Kivu or Masisi, as it is called, for about US$3 a cheese. Goma shops charge a little more, at $4-5, while across the country in the capital Kinshasa it costs three or four times that amount—a luxury price for most Congolese.

Farmer Kakwiki got involved in 1971, tending the region’s abundant cows as a 13-year-old. At the time, he said, “milk was only for drinking, at home with the family.”

Cheese was a “foreign” oddity, brought in by Europeans and produced at three Italian-owned local farms. But all three left when late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in 1965 and confiscated foreign enterprises, said Kakwiki.

Kilolirwe locals started producing cheese themselves between 1975 and 1980, he recalled, with help from a Catholic Belgian missionary, Father Roger Carbonez, who had founded an agricultural school named Lushebere shortly after independence in 1960.

Kakwiki took to the craft, prospered and came to own 35 cows.

 ‘Enough to feed a family’ 

But worse was to come: between 1996 and 2003, the east was the scene of two major wars that ravaged Kivu and saw the Tutsis flee to Rwanda. Despite the presence of 20,000 UN peacekeepers, a host of armed local and foreign groups are still active in the region.

Like many farms, Lushebere was looted and its 2,000 cows killed. Father Benjamin Barumi, the treasurer at the Goma diocese, said Father Carbonez, back in Belgium for his final years, died of shock when he heard the news.

Milk and cheese production stopped entirely in the war years, resuming only after the Tutsi refugees started returning.

Put in charge of reviving Lushebere farm, Father Barumi said they started “with only 50 cows” and today have 420 and produce 50 cheeses per day.

At only 26 years old, Ntwalabakiga already employs three people and produces an average 22 cheese a day, which brings in $150-200 a week—“enough to feed a family”, he said happily.

Overall, Masisi authorities said 120 tonnes of cheese were produced in the territory in 2012, for a turnover of some $360,000 for the producers—and the future looks promising.

Despite the instability, “lots of dairy and cheese farms are starting up,” said cheesemaker Hakizi, 22 . He himself will shortly turn over his job at Ntwalabakiga’s farm to his apprentice to go train other young locals in the art of cheesemaking.

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