A hillside village in the Democratic Republic of Congo mights seem like “an unlikely site for the production of fine cheese,” according to BBC Africa’s Maud Jullien, but Andre Ndekezi is continuing a legacy first started by Belgian priests in 1970s in the war-torn eastern foothills of Masisi.
The local cheese is known as Goma, after the largest town in the area, and which tastes like a mild version of Dutch gouda, though the product is softer in texture. Andre Ndekezi is now 52 years old, but his artisanship dates back 30 years to a time when Masisi was a thriving dairy centre.
Ndekezi told Jullien: “The priests started in 1975, they set up factories on the hills, not only here but also in Rwanda and Uganda. I know how to make camembert and mozzarella, but we no longer have the equipment to make those – everything was looted or destroyed.”
The present conditions can only be described as basic, with hundreds of small dairy farms lined up on the hills of Masisi produce cheese using nothing more than bathtubs, but after a month on a shelf in a dark room the cut curds develop into nothing short of a minor miracle.
Ndekezi was originally taught to make cheese – not a native foodstuff to the Congo – by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Masisi, before being hired by one of dozens of local dairy farms being run by Belgian priests at the time.
Indeed, before war broke out in the 1990s, the area was one of the most prosperous in the country, with fertile soil and immense mineral wealth, and it continues to provide the ideal combination of abundant cattle and the cool climate required for dairy production.
Though the war is not over, many people from Masisi have returned home anyway, and for Ndekezi this has also meant returning to his passion. He added: “Now I earn a better living. This is what I am good at. It is what I love to do. Little by little, I will build on this.”
And of course Goma cheese has become a popular part of local diet, and the production that stalwartly persists in Masisi is a rare lifeline for the country’s dairy industry, generating the only local product to be sold across the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ndekezi declared: “I am proud to be able to say that my country DR Congo produces cheese.”