Uganda, Switzerland milk cultures captured in international exhibition

An exhibitor at the museum. PHOTOS BY BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI

What you need to know:

  • “Drink Deeply! Milk” – an exhibition about Uganda and Switzerland’s milk cultures has run from September 2017 - March 2018 and aims at presenting the different knowledge of milk; its cultural and social aspects.

  • There are also some legends on milk in both countries at this exhibition.

  • The exhibition also captures the issues beyond the milk like the environment, the collection and use of cow dung, the dangers of packing milk products in plastic bags to the environment, and climate change.

ONE clear distinction between the milking knowledge and traditions of Uganda and Switzerland at the seven-month long international exhibition at the Uganda National Museum (UNM) in Kampala is that the milking process in the former is still traditional while it has been fully mechanized in the latter.

The traditional milking of indigenous cows in Uganda is usually done in the morning and evening. The process of milking takes place within the kraal. At most times, the hind legs of the cow to be milked are tied and a calf is allowed to suckle the mother to stimulate the cow’s udder. Thereafter, milking (kekégh in Pokot, akilepi in Karamojong and okukama in Runyankole) commences.

To collect the milk from the cow, wooden milk jars, plastic or metallic containers are used in Uganda. The milk is then transferred into a bigger bowel or a pan for storage and boiled to keep it safe.

In Switzerland the cows were traditionally milked using hands.  Milking tools like stools and buckets were mostly wooden. The milking process today is, however, mostly done by machines, some of them semi-automatic or fully automatic including portable milking machines.

In Uganda and Switzerland, milk collected from farms is transported to the Milk Collection Centres (MCC) on the same day for quality checks and cooling.

Titled “Drink Deeply! Milk” – an exhibition about Uganda and Switzerland’s milk cultures has run from September 2017 - March 2018 and aims at presenting the different knowledge of milk; its cultural and social aspects.

Early evidence suggests that agricultural farming began with domestication of animals by around 9,000BC in areas of Mesopotamia (Southern Iraq), Syria, Lebanon. Since the domestication of mammalian animals, humans began to use the milk as food.

The exhibition offers insights on the history of cow milk, traditions and milk products, and indigenous knowledge systems of both countries. It shows the hidden treasures of milk and how it connects the diverse cultures of the world. Visitors can see how their everyday food in the kitchen and how it is contextualized in a trans-local exhibition.

On display are the milking practices, skills, tools and equipment, storage facilities, preservation processes, the use of milk dairies, and the production and packaging of milk products. The exhibition also highlights the diversity of milk, good farming practices and global perspectives.

The exhibition is not all about history and tradition but also the contemporary status of milk, the industrial changes, gender roles, the environment and the political economy Uganda and Switzerland.

The exhibition that includes video installations attempts to answer the following questions: Why milk? What do we know about milk in Uganda and Switzerland? What cultural aspects are involved? What are the changes in the modern methods of milking?

Milk is essentially an important consumable good and it contributes to the sustenance of the population. Cow milk contains numerous nutrients such as calcium and magnesium among others.

Cow milk products include yoghurt, butter, curd, cheese, oils and fats. In parts of western Uganda there is clarified butter called ghee (amagita g’ente in Rutooro) and a ghee sauce known as eshabwe (in Runyankole). Milk is used to make chocolate, bread, cakes, biscuits, sweets and ice cream, among others.

Mixing of fresh blood with the milk is one of the cultural practices amongst the pastoralists in Uganda especially in the Eastern region.

Once milk is poured into a big container, two people hold the head of the young cow, and a vein on a cow’s neck is then pierced with a sharp arrow fired from a bow to allow blood-letting (ikecheri in Pokot andecharakani in Karamojong).

The fresh blood is then well prepared to remove all clotting particles. The blood is poured into a bowel of milk and stirred together. After stirring, a uniform blood and milk mixture is formed and is then ready for drinking, cooking or consumed at later time.

Milk Processing and Preservation

There are different ways of processing and preserving milk safe for consumption. Traditionally, milk in Uganda is processed and preserved in milk pots and gourds. The milk gourds and pots are cherished milk containers among the Banyankole, Batuku, Pokot and Karamojong.  Each region has special herbs used for treating the milk pots so milk can be kept for a long period of time.

Churning of milk is the process of shaking the whole milk to separate the liquid milk from the cream so as to make butter or ghee. The difference between ghee and butter is that, ghee has unprocessed fat, while butter has processed fat which requires immediate refrigeration.

Among the Banyankole, Pokot, Batuku and Karamojong in Uganda, churning is done using gourds. After, milking, some milk is kept in the milk pot or guard, until the late afternoon hours. Thereafter, drops of yeast are added into the milk and kept until the next day. Towards the next morning when the milk has turned into bongo or sour milk, it is then churned.

During churning, a gourd is shaken in a rhythmic manner that leads to separation of watery milk from the cream or fat substance. After a while, grass (used as filter) is put on the mouth of the gourd and the watery milk is poured into another smaller gourd while the ghee remains in the churning gourd.  The solidified cream milk is then poured into another container ready for making sauce.

Traditionally, the most common milk processing product in Switzerland is cheese. Fresh organic milk is collected and poured into a cheese saucepan (copper-plated) for heating to produce cheese after four or five weeks. 

There are different modern preservation practices and these include pasteurization, sterilization which is also known as ultra-heat-treating (UHT), and dry milk (powdered milk).

“What I have seen during my visits to Switzerland is that the Swiss really care and look after their cattle very well. And they are majorly interested in quality milk production,” the co-coordinator of the Museums Cooperation Project in Uganda, Amon Mugume told Daily Monitor.    

“Almost 90 per cent of the Swiss farms I visited have gone into organic farming. This means that you don’t treat your cows with antibiotics and pesticides because when are detected in your milk the price goes down and you will register low sales,” Mugume added.

“The message I have for Ugandan cattle farmers is to go organic. During the rainy seasons we have a lot of grass in Uganda so we should cut it and keep it as hay for the dry seasons. This will enable us have production of milk throughout the year because the cows will have food throughout the year and our cattle will not look bony and skinny during the dry season because of lack of grass,” Mugume said.

The traditional milking of indigenous cows in Uganda is usually done in the morning and evening. PHOTOS BY BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI

The Legends

There are also some legends on milk in both countries at this exhibition. For example, an Ankole legend is told that, a full grown cow is helped along by him who first milked it and this is called Okubuturwa. It is that very man who would see its capabilities and how much milk it gives; others would not be interested in it. In the same way a man helps one he has known, but others that he gets to know later.

Another Runyankole legend goes: Ente inywebwa abagyenyi abana bakuzibwa obunaku “Cattle are drunk by visitors: children grow up by time” (This refers to visitors coming and drinking the milk which children would have had and so have to wait. The children will grow in time anyway and will always be there, but the visitors will go on tomorrow).

The Alpine legends tell stories about gods populating the mountain areas. The tales are about the wise women, wild men, dwarfs, spirits, dragons or giants. Some were said to be cruel and indecisive whereas others were helpful in guarding moral behaviours among humans. It is told that they produced magic cheese from the milk of animals that never run out of supply.

According to the Swiss Grison legend, there were little people like dwarfs, called Wildmanndi or Ermanndli that lived in the mountains, under trees or between rocks, who taught humans how to produce cheese.

UNM, the Igongo Cultural Institute (ICI) in Uganda, and the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich (EMZ) formed a partnership of museums cooperation in 2015. The Museums Cooperation Project is part of a long term museum’s field research and education programme between the three institutions on traditional and contemporary milk practices in Uganda and Switzerland for public consumption. 

“The main purpose of this exhibition is to share knowledge about the milk cultures of Uganda and Switzerland. But more importantly is for the Uganda National Museum, the Ethnographic Museum of the University of Zurich and the Igongo Museum to share professional experiences on how museums can be relevant to the public,” the exhibition’s curator,  Nelson Adebo Abiti told Daily Monitor.    

From April 2018, the exhibition will move from UNM and go mobile and travel across Uganda because UNM is usually only accessible for those who come to or live in Kampala. “We are going to do what is called a mobile exhibition and this is mainly to go to the communities in the villages especially those far-off places with people that can’t manage to reach the National Museum in Kampala. We are still drawing the plan for the mobile exhibition,” Abiti, who is also an ethnographer at UNM, said. 

A similar exhibition has been installed permanently at the Igongo Museum in Mbarara district in western Uganda under the title “The Power of Milk.”

Beyond The Milk

The exhibition also captures the issues beyond the milk like the environment, the collection and use of cow dung, the dangers of packing milk products in plastic bags to the environment, and climate change.

“It is not only the natural waste that is connected to milk: milk, cheese and other dairies are sold in plastic packaging, and thrown away after consumption – often not in the litter,” the exhibition organisers say. They are therefore suggesting that a good way of reducing this problem is to consume only glass bottles of milk or other reusable materials.

The consequences of climate change matter to cattle keeping as well as to human everyday life. Extreme drought reduces pastures for cows and drying of water sources. In drought season, cows produce less milk thus reduced supply. Climate change is affecting forage and intake of food for the cattle.

The exhibition organisers acknowledge that traditionally, herding and milking was done by men in the family, while the women took care of the milk processing and consumption within the house around the world.

“The commercialization of milk has changed these traditional roles in most regions. Currently both, men and women, work in the milk industry and can prepare dishes with milk for their own consumption,” they add.

The organisers also acknowledge that the dumping of European subsidised produce in African countries is forcing local producers out of business. They cannot compete with the industrial milk producers and government grants from the EU for agriculture.