Africa at Cheese

29 Sep 2011

Africa is not a land of cheese, neither for its traditions, nor for its climate. Still there are many shepherds crossing pastures all over the continent, in the most extreme weather conditions, from the Sahel to the highlands of Kenya’s Rift Valley. They have been using the milk from their herds for generations, consuming it fresh or making it into yoghurt.

Shepherds were the African guests of this edition of Cheese: they came from communities all around Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Mauritania, and breed camels, dromedaries, goats and zebu. For them, participating in a big international event also meant an opportunity to teach and learn from their fellow international colleagues, in order to be exchange experiences with shepherds, farmers, cheesemongers and herdsmen and bring the new knowledge they have gained back to their communities.

In the days preceding the event, the shepherds participated in training seminars held in some farms in the province of Cuneo, northern Italy, from simple visits to stables and cheese factories, pastures and gardens, to training with veterinaries to learn about basic sanitary practices. These are small but important steps towards an improvement of the herds’ condition, hence that of the communities basing their whole existence on those herds. Animal health is the first building block in transformation, especially for those working with raw milk.

“Being a shepherd is already difficult in Europe, imagine in Africa,” said Slow Food International President Carlo Petrini during the conference “Shepherds in Africa”, held on the Saturday afternoon of Cheese, before receiving a touareg turban as a present from Seydou Madia, from Conseil Régional des Unions du Sahel, a network of producers and herders committed to the repopulation of the Sahel area on the border between Niger, Burkina and Mali, whose inhabitants were wiped off by a severe drought in 1973.

This might have been the most moving moment of the event, but emotion was clearly visible in the eyes and in the moves of the participants also during their trip to Cascina del Finocchio Verde farm in the days before the event, when local producer Mario Gala proudly explained the delicate balance between the farm dimensions and the number of heads necessary in order not to waste anything: to have enough manure to fertilize the soils but not too much to poison them; enough milk to produce cheese but not too much to have to throw it away, due to the small dimensions of the artisan cheese workshop.

“Mario, how much do you earn?” “Why did you come up here and become a shepherd, if your parents weren’t?” These were among the queries animating the late morning question time, on a porch overlooking the breathtaking surrounding scenery. In addition also more technical inquiries: “How do you plough your land? Are you using animals?” “Where do you get the water?” “How did you build all this?” together with requests of advice on cheesemaking back in their own countries.

The animal health training was tougher but particularly rewarding, as noticed by Ronald Juma Wakwabubi, a Slow Food veterinary specifically hired to assist the Pokot community in Kenya. “The encounter with Slow Food and its philosophy literally opened my eyes. I am old, but I’ve leart a lot since our roads crossed. Today the objective is not to only increase the production anymore, it became much wider: the importance of fodder, animal health, monitoring and improving every single phase of the production so that everything can be carried out at its best. I researched, read some books to understand how to put the principles into practice, and now I’m a better vet!”

In fact, the lack of adequate medical knowledge or access to veterinaries is one of the biggest problems for the herdsmen. “The assistance from a veterinary was vital for us, it is helping us improve. Before, even a single birth could be a problem, now we are learning how to recognize ill animals and cure them when necessary,” said Reuben Loitang, one of the two Pokot shepherds who came to Cheese to present their ash yoghurt (a Slow Food Presidium).

Cheese is not only a festival or a cheese fair, but for the producers who participated in it, it was a chance to grow, exchange experiences and learn, in particular for those who came from the south of the world and perhaps took part in such an event for the first time, or even never had left their home country before, whose proud and amazed looks captured those who were so lucky to meet them.

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