Food, they say, is the essence of any culture. In Zambia, food is both the foundation of life and the harbinger of hunger. To understand this complex relationship, it may first be helpful to know more about just what people eat in Zambia.
Meet nshima, the Zambian dietary staple.
Nshima, pronounced shima, is typically made from maize flour (though it can also be made from cassava or finger millet flour) boiled into a thick mush reminiscent of Cream O’Wheat or breakfast porridge. Nshima is served at every meal and Zambians consider it the cure to most anything that might ail you. Hungry? Better eat some Nshima. Feeling unwell? You probably haven’t had enough nshima lately. Feeling low on energy? Nshima is the answer. I’ve heard of a vetrinarian that, while consulting on the death of a cat, stated, “It died from not eating enough nshima.”
While the primary carbohydrate in the Zambian diet, nshima has approximately the nutritional content of air, and so provides little to nothing in the non-carbohydrate department. As a saving grace, Zambians traditionally eat nshima with “relish”, which isn’t the green pickle mess that one typically puts on a hot dog. Relish is the general word for anything that can be eaten with nshima (which is almost anything), such as fried or dried fish, any vegetable (typically boiled down into a mere memory of solid greens), legumes, and just about anything else a Zambian can grow, find, or hunt. In the above picture, my nshima lunch is served with locally grown beans and boiled pumpkin leaves. Having two relishes to compliment my nshima is somewhat of a rarity during the dry season, and my family more frequently eats just nshima and beans. In essence, the irony of nshima is the more of it you eat, the less you really have in you.
But, like any cultural food, the pitfalls of eating nshima come with cultural strongholds as well. Making nshima requires arms of steel as it must be stirred nearly constantly to obtain the thick, paste-like texture. Mothers take pride in their nshima stirring, and as a foreign woman to this country, I am sometimes asked if I know how to make nshima myself. Young girls are taught to stir the nshima as part of their transition to womanhood, and in the evenings it has become a comforting sound to hear my mother’s big wooden nshima spoon thunk-thunk-thunking in the nshima pot, stirring the white mealy flour into her family’s staple food. In Mambwe, there is a common phrase asked of newcomers: “Mwalila?” Meaning: You are enjoying? It’s an abbreviation of a longer question asking: Is there anything more enjoyable than nshima? The correct answer is: yes, there is nothing better than nshima. It’s a special thing to be invited to eat nshima with your neighbors, and the greatest of insults to refuse to eat someone’s nshima in their home.
Nshima is eaten with the hands after breaking a small piece off of the main lump and massaging it into a small ball in your palm. Then, the nshima is dipped into meat drippings or used to scoop up relish. As a PCV, one of my job is to encourage the development of sanitary practices in my community. Zambians wash their hands backwards, rinsing before the meal and then washing with soap after eating. When I try to suggest the reversal of this washing order, Zambians will sometimes complain that washing with soap before meal can discolor the taste the nshima – a true tragedy and shame to the meal. So, what to do? Well, leading by example helps (I insist on soap before eating) as well as encouraging hand washing elsewhere in the day (like after using the chim or shaking the hands of everyone in your fish farming group). I use a tippy-tap handwashing station which is situated outside my chim, and am encouraging others in my community to build similar units for their own families. Behavior change, as these little changes are called, is an achingly slow process but, little by little, I think we’re making progress.
And so, I eat a lot of nshima and, against my better judgement and carbohydrate intake intuition, I’ve actually come to really enjoy it. Like a Zambian, my day just doesn’t seem quite complete unless I’ve had a lump or two. Despite this, I don’t subsist entirely on nshima. Other local foods include squash, groundnuts (peanuts), sweet potatoes, beans, wild fruit like guava, mango, and lemons, and the occasional chicken run afoul (ha!) of my mother’s butcher knife. Sometimes eggs are available, and sometimes dried or fresh fish will make the menu. When cooking for myself, I rely on more common place staples like rice, peanut butter, soy protien (often called soya pieces), oats, lentils, and fresh vegetables when I can find them in the market. I also attempt baking over my braiser from time to time, an activity of much interest to the local women in my women’s club. Most recently, I managed a sweet potato bread with the help of one of my nearest PCV neighbors. It was shockingly delicious, and the recipe will be the subject of my next cooking demonstration in the village. But even with successes like these, you’re still likely as not to find me eating peanut butter out of a jar with a fork
Before coming to Africa, my fictive mother in Thailand (who also makes the world’s best pad Thai for a living) said to me, “Why are you going to Africa for Peace Corps? They don’t have any food there. Come to Thailand instead.” At the time, I had similar worries. Now, being here and having come to find a sort of dietary equilibrium, I would argue that good food does await you in Africa. Culinary delights and exotic cuisine? Assuredly not. But family food where everyone eats together, relishing (ha!) and appreciating every bite? Nshima waits for you.