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November 17th 2007 by Aaron & Tina
Zambia Part I: Charitable Cheese

Posted under Africa & Zambia

Fate is a funny thing. At times in my life, I have fought shamelessly to change mine – often chasing adventures of the rather “unconventional” sort – while at other times, I have faithfully relented to the will of the wind. I have been rewarded, slapped, blessed, and cursed. I have risen and I have fallen. I believe in fate but I believe in my ability to change it.

Life is like one of those “choose your own adventure” books that I used to read in elementary school. At the end of each chapter, there is a choice to make, an adventure to be chosen, each with its own path and its own ending. Naturally, after reading through to one ending, I would have to begin again to find out the “What if?” of the other choices. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, in real life, we do not have the luxury of turning back time. Some of the choices that I’ve made in my life have been downright idiotic but they have been my choices and I cannot regret them for they have eventually brought me here, to this time and place, to this crazy dream coming true before my eyes. My favorite poem is one by Robert Frost, written in 1920:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

As it turns out, fate has stuck her nose into our plans and called us home for a wedding at Christmas. Our original itinerary would have put us in Asia around then but we decided instead to take the opportunity to spend more time in Southern Africa. While the extra expense of this unintended trip home falls far outside the sanity border of our budget, it has bought us two very positive perks: Christmas in Iowa, which is on par with the best experiences that life has to offer, and a more thorough exploration of Africa.

On Zanzibar, the hands of fate pushed two lovely New Zealanders into our path, Jerry and Hayley Field whom we met while swimming with dolphins. They help to run a farm and cheese-making operation as a mission project in Kabwe, Zambia, and they invited us to be their guests for a couple of nights.

We had planned to take the fast ferry from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam and make arrangements from there to take the two-day train to Zambia. However, due to such motivating factors as insufficient information online (a chronic problem in Africa), lack of reasonable access to a travel agent, our negative first impression of Dar (from the one oppressively hot night we spent there in a seedy neighborhood with no A/C), the rumored unreliability of the train (supposed to take two days – could take up to four!), and that peaceful, easy island feeling, my dear husband suggested air travel instead and I enthusiastically concurred, mostly because it bought us two extra nights on Zanzibar! Coincidentally, we met Jerry and Hayley at the Zanzibar airport. They were on both legs of our flight to Zambia so the four of us traveled on together, spent a night in Lusaka, and then caught a bus to Kabwe.

As I’ve mentioned before, bus rides in Africa are always interesting, particularly at the “bus stations”, and Lusaka was no different. The four of us had shared a taxi to the bus station and, before it had come to a complete stop, the car was surrounded by young men, shouting and shoving each other to try to sell us bus tickets. It is an uncomfortable feeling to be swarmed by such vocal locals but we have grown accustomed to it. What still bothers us, however, is the physical nature of it. They tend to grab you by the arm, push you in one direction, or try to pull your bags out of your hand. The swarming I can deal with – the grabbing is unacceptable!

As our taxi rolled into the parking lot, one of the men reached through the open window, grabbed my arm, and started pulling on it. Instinctively, I shrieked, “Don’t touch me!” and yanked my arm away. This seemed to get everyone’s attention and the three leaches crowding my door apologetically retreated to let me out of the car. We collected our bags from the trunk in a hailstorm of flailing arms and simultaneous shouting and let Jerry make the bus arrangements.

With our packs stowed in the luggage compartment under the bus cabin, we grabbed four seats in the back. Most of the buses in Africa do not leave according to a schedule but rather when they are full, meaning every narrow seat is filled and the aisles are clogged with overflow passengers and parcels. In Lusaka, we waited in the sweaty bus for a record two hours before embarking on our ninety-minute journey. While we waited, I kept an eye on the luggage compartment. There are always many men standing around the buses with no apparent function or purpose and you feel compelled to keep one eye cocked whenever your bags are out of your immediate possession to ensure that the bags don’t depart before the bus does.

We arrived at the farm around six p.m. and easily settled into Jerry and Hayley’s spacious two-bedroom house with cozy loft above. They were the most gracious hosts and we immediately felt at home. Hayley has an herb garden in front of the house and there is a lovely patio and a large backyard. On her first night home, after a ten-day island vacation, Hayley put together a delicious lasagna, made with Swiss cheese produced in the cheese factory. A bottle of South African red wine complemented the meal perfectly and we talked late into the night.

The Fields have been on the farm for a year and are more immersed in the local culture than we could ever hope to be so we enjoyed hearing their perspectives on some of our observations thus far. We’ve noted on several occasions that the children seem incredibly well-behaved in Africa. On long bus rides, babies hardly cry. A girl of about six years sat on the floor of one bus – she didn’t have a seat – and didn’t make a peep for ten hours! This is without a single material item to keep her attention – not a book, a toy, or a crayon; she didn’t sleep but just sat, idle and quiet, the entire time! It seems unbelievable but this is a phenomenon that begins in Africa at a very young age. Because of the culture and/or the poverty, babies are not stimulated. There are no toys and no books. Children are left to their own devices at an early age because their mothers live hard lives and cannot be bothered with them. We’ve often seen young children sitting in groups in the dirt or being tended by other children who are not much older themselves. Jerry shared his observation that even the local school curriculums are devoid of creative and cognitive thinking exercises and gave the following example: If you give a group of Western children each a toy truck, they will play and collaborate with each other. If you give the same-aged group of Zambian children each the same toy trucks, they will look awkwardly at them for a few seconds then hide them under their shirts. They seem less inclined to play or to imagine.

We have observed the direct, long-term results of this unfortunate phenomenon in all of the African towns that we’ve visited, where streets are literally lined with young men sitting on ledges and benches for hours at a time, just staring, with nowhere to be and nothing to do. We’ve seen village women with the same blank stares and idle tendencies. As business-minded Americans, we immediately see opportunities that are not being exploited while hundreds of able-bodied men and women sit idle, with neither the foresight nor education to capitalize on them. It does not surprise us then that a culture such as this remains saddled with the sort of hard labor, low-wage jobs that will unlikely bring a nation out of poverty. This is Africa.

Bright Hope International bought the farm and pre-established cheese-making operation in 2005 with the goal of teaching local Zambians how to support themselves while maintaining a self-sustaining, profitable business. The farm is run by a group of volunteer Kiwi missionaries in conjunction with a local Zambian foreman. The operation employs 25-30 local citizens and supplies cheese to local businesses. They produce cheddar, emental, Gouda, Swiss, parmesan, feta, gruyere and mozzarella, and cream cheese, just to name a few. They currently have about 200 freesian cows. We enjoyed the privilege of touring the farm and cheese operation and learning about the cheese production process.

Cheese 101: I have always naively assumed that all cows produce milk, all the time. Not so. Only females produce milk and only while they’re pregnant, which makes perfect sense, of course. On many dairy farms, such as this one, the farmers employ methods of artificial insemination to keep the female cows as perpetually pregnant as possible. Twice daily, at four a.m. and four p.m., the cows are milked using a milking apparatus, which channels the milk fresh from the udder to a canister in the milk room. Next, most of the fat is siphoned off into a separate bucket and is later used to make butter and cream cheese. The skimmed milk is taken directly to a large vat in the cheese room, where it is mixed with cultures (which acidify the milk) and rennet (which coagulates the milk into curds and whey). The proportions of these two ingredients determine the texture, density and flavor of the cheese. When the milk has curded into lumps and the whey has fallen away, the lumps are wrapped in cheesecloth and pressed into molds, where they sit overnight in the cheese room. The cheese is then removed from the mold and moved to a refrigerated room to age at least three months with the exception of mozzarella, which matures in only three days! Inside the refrigerated room, the cheeses must be rotated at least once per day, throughout the aging process. Certain cheeses, such as feta, must spend time in a bucket of brine. When the cheese reaches maturity, it is cut and packaged for distribution.

The operation employs a small local sales force to solicit the orders, mostly from businesses catering to tourists, and the deliveries are made in the farm’s cheese truck. The volunteer administrators manage every facet of day-to-day operations, including accounting and reporting, product quality control, personnel, developing and repairing infrastructure on the property, and fixing the vehicles when they break down. The missionaries work pro bono, bless their hearts, so any monetary donations benefit the local operation directly. The project requires a group of multi-talented and uniquely skilled individuals but, even with all of the required resources, running a business in Africa still has its own set of challenges.

As the four of us visited, Jerry quoted Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Danny Archer in the movie Blood Diamond. “T.I.A. This is Africa.” It is a blanket response to the many nuances of Africa that seem bizarrely backwards and for which there is no logical explanation. Whether you have to wait at the petrol station for 40 minutes while a shift change takes place or you walk another kilometer to the fourth ATM that you’ve tried because the first three were broken, Africa has a way of slapping you in the face, constantly reminding you where you are and by whose rules you are playing. African commerce requires unlimited patience, especially from Western-minded individuals. Tasks are completed at a snail’s pace; what would take twenty minutes to accomplish in the States can take weeks in Africa. Something as seemingly simple as opening a bank account can entail four or five trips to the bank, submitting redundant forms and resubmitting previously submitted forms which were inconveniently (or incompetently) misplaced. This is Africa.

In the resorts on Zanzibar, we observed the frustrating pace of the African service employee. We would walk up to an empty bar and order a drink from the bartender. Twenty minutes later, we would look up at the still dormant bartender, who hadn’t even begun to make our drink and he would meet our eyes with a look of realization that he was supposed to be doing something and “What was it that you ordered again?” When we tried to order an item in a restaurant with a slight variation from the standard preparation or ask a clarifying question about a menu item, we were met with blank stares. It is partly due to the language barrier but there is definitely a larger disconnect there. Customer service and overachievement seem foreign ideas to these men and women. Aaron compounds the frustration by asking detailed questions about menu items and, when it is clear to everyone at the table (usually just me) that he’s not going to get an answer, he tries harder to clarify his question, thereby intensifying the look of total confusion on the face of the server. Just order the damn burger! But this is Africa and Africa requires patience.

An estimated thirty-five percent of urban Zambians are infected with the HIV/AIDS virus – a maddening statistic that has lowered the average life expectancy of a Zambian to only thirty-three years! In the local culture, however, the subject is still very taboo. When someone dies of the virus, people say that he died of Tuberculosis or malaria, but NEVER AIDS. There are local clinics which dispense free medication to infected persons. In towns where the clinics reside, locals will go to another town, often much further away, to collect their meds so as not to be seen by anyone they know. The meds work to fight the symptoms of the virus so the patient starts to feel mentally and physically better at which time he starts having sex again and spreading the disease. We wonder whether the Western-sponsored drugs are doing more to help or hurt the pandemic which has left thousands of Zambian children orphaned or living with grandparents who are too elderly to support them. This is Africa.

What impresses us most about the farm project is that it is teaching the local people valuable skills as well as providing jobs. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” This kind of hands-on educational gift empowers and teaches self-reliance, initiating positive change. An educated and skilled population will thrive.

On our last night with Jerry and Hayley, we were treated to a cheese tasting! We tasted about five varieties, of which my favorite was the Swiss and Aaron’s the emental; they were all delicious! After that, it was steaks, more wine and a rowdy game of Settlers of Catan, a board game which we will be sure to purchase in about sixteen months. Our stay on the farm was short and sweet but definitely one of the highlights of our adventure. We are so appreciative of the Fields’ hospitality…especially the use of their washing machine! They are doing remarkable work and we admire them for their commitment. We are fortunate for the twist of fate that crossed our path with theirs. Fate is a funny thing. Sometimes you just have to go with it.

1 Comment »

One Response to “Zambia Part I: Charitable Cheese”

  1. Catherine Rodgers on 21 Nov 2007 at 9:15 am #

    Tina & Aaron,
    Thank you, once again, for taking me on this adventure with you. I’ve read every blog post and viewed every picture & I continue to eagerly await the next series of stories and images from your travels. May you travel safely home to Iowa for the wedding and holidays. I am sure everyone from home will want to spend time with you and perhaps there will be an opportunity for me to see you as well. I’ll continue to stay in touch and keep you both in my prayers.