Nshima – Food in Zambia

The first time I ate nshima, I was underwhelmed. I was at the CCAP Synod of Zambia meeting in Kitwe as part of my Lusaka orientation. We had just come out of a long session of the meeting to break for lunch. I was hungry, and curious about what this Zambian staple was like.

Nshima (top) with goat (left), cabbage (bottom), and lape (right), a common leafy green vegetable in Zambia

I looked into the serving trough and saw what looked like lumps of very dense grits, each about the size of a grapefruit. Upon tasting them, I found that they were just that – very dense grits. There were also troughs of fish, beef, and cabbage. Being vegetarian, I skipped the first two and went for the cabbage.

Looking around, I saw that everyone around me was taking fistfuls of nshima, rolling the stuff in their hands, and using it to pick up the other food. I tried to imitate them, at first using both hands. I slowly realized that the other people in the room were only eating with their right hands, and I followed suit, letting my left hand drop.

As I fumbled with the nshima and cabbage, I wondered – is this what I have to eat for two meals every day in Zambia? Cabbage and maize mush? Would I have to give up being vegetarian just to get enough nutrition in Zambia? Would I be able to eat this many carbs every day without going crazy?

A roadside tree near the village of Chimwangombe

Then, I checked myself and my spoiled American lifestyle. If an entire nation ate this way every day, I could eat this way for a year. After all, it didn’t taste bad – the cabbage was fried with onions and vinegar and added a little bit of flavor to the bland nshima. I got through all of the cabbage and a majority of the nshima before I felt too stuffed to continue. Nshima is very heavy food.

Goats roaming in the village of Chimwangombe

The next time I ate nshima was in the village of Chimwangombe. By this time, I had managed to give myself esophagitis by swallowing a doxycycline (antimalarial) pill without water. Eating had become very painful for me, so my site coordinator had encouraged me not to stay the few days in Chimwangombe with the other YAVs. It seemed safer to stay in Lusaka, where doctors were more readily available, until I had taken the full course of my medicine.

I still made the drive to Chimwangombe with the other YAVs to see the village and to provide moral support. When we arrived, we were led to the only brick house in sight. It had a simple roof made of an iron sheet, small holes in the brick walls for windows, and curtains for doors between rooms, of which there were about three. This was the guest house, which Miguel and Emily were going to stay in. The family hosting them would be staying in shelters made of grass and mud outside. The toilet consisted of a deep hole in the ground, sheltered from view by tall grass walls, but no roof.

IMG_0164 (1)
Mabuchi Ndhlovu, CCAP Community Schools Coordinator (left) showing Emily Teerink, YAV (right) how to stir nshima

Upon seeing Chimwangombe, the realization of the privilege inherent in my decision to stay home hit me full force. The people in Chimwangombe did not have access to prophylactic antimalarial drugs with which to get esophagitis. They did not have the option to retreat to a house in Lusaka with running water, electricity, and doctors nearby. Most of the health care received by Zambians is from local clinics, which are each headed by a nurse. There is only one doctor for every 10,000 people in Zambia.

So when we were served dinner, I did not complain that the only options available were nshima and village chicken. I had learned by now that Zambians do not eat meat very often – it is reserved for special occasions and for honoring guests. The family hosting us had butchered one of their chickens to honor us. I was thankful, in that moment, that Miguel, Emily and Sherri were not vegetarian.

Pigs roaming in the village of Chimwangombe

Upon swallowing my first bite of plain nshima, I braced myself for the pain that I had become accustomed to from my esophagitis. But what had previously been an intense burning sensation was only a dull ache. I realized that what had initially turned me off from nshima was exactly what was saving me from pain now. The mushy texture and bland taste of nshima allowed it to pass through my esophagus without damaging it further. Famished from days of not being able to eat enough food, I enthusiastically finished my portion. Nshima was the best thing I had ever tasted. Nshima was life.

Now, with a healed esophagus, I am living with my new host family in the village of Egichikeni. Our village is much larger than Chimwangombe, and my host family has the privilege to own a brick house, an outhouse with a roof, and even a motorcycle. The Liches have welcomed me with open arms, and quickly embraced my vegetarianism. Every day I am thankful for the two different vegetable side dishes that I am fed along with my nshima.

Sunset over the village of Chimwangombe

It would be easy to look at life in Egichikeni and only see the have-nots. To see only the lack of running water and electricity. To say Dear God, why do I have to eat nshima twice every day? But the Liches and the people of Chimwangombe have helped me to value what we have. To be thankful for the well water and the solar batteries. To say Dear God, thank you so much for letting me eat nshima twice every day. 


~ Credit for the photography in this blog goes to Miguel Petrosky ~



No Easy Answers

Hi, friends and family! Thank you for taking the time to keep up with me on my YAV year blog! For those of you who don’t already know, YAV (Young Adult Volunteers), is a year-long service program through PCUSA. There are YAV sites all across the USA and in several countries abroad, and I will be working at the Zambia site.

If I am being perfectly honest, I had – and to some extent, still have – a lot of worries about how this year will turn out. Before this program, I had never been to Africa at all, let alone Zambia. What if language barriers isolate me from my new community in the village of Egichikeni? What if the culture shock is too much for me to handle? What if I am culturally insensitive, or my presence ends up hurting my community, rather than helping?

Small Group
My YAV Orientation Small Group. I grew alongside these women this week through our discussions about privilege, oppression and service.

When I found out that YAV Orientation involved intersectional anti-racism training, I felt incredibly relieved. I put YAV Orientation on a pedestal as the place where I would get all of my answers and have all the tools to be the perfect volunteer. No more mistakes for me – after Orientation I would be able to single-handedly take on systemic oppression! I would be immune to ignorance! I would laugh in the face of those other “White Savior Voluntourist” programs, safe in the knowledge that the YAV program was doing Real Social Justice.

Small Group NYC
My Small Group outside of a subway station in New York City, where we battled the lack of accessible platforms.

In actuality, Orientation made me feel anything but safe. In fact, the leaders told us to think of this week as “Dis-orientation.” For every answer I found this week, ten more questions appeared. I realized that the truth is huge and complicated and steeped in ambiguity. We were not there to be comforted; we were there to be challenged.

Our week began with two days of sessions led by Crossroads, an intersectional anti-racism activist organization. During these sessions, we were shown that society teaches us to normalize inequality. Throughout our lives, we have been conditioned to believe that systems of privilege and oppression are the default – the regular way for society to function. The normalization of these systems makes privileged people believe that any disruption of the status quo is unjust. The result is that movements toward equality are seen as barbaric, unfair and wrong, when in reality the status quo is wrong.

Small Group Walking
My Small Group exploring East Village, where we observed the process and effects of gentrification.

On one hand, I already knew that systems of oppression existed, and that I as a white, middle-class, American woman possessed a lot of unearned privilege. On the other hand, it was hard to face the fact of my own conditioning and complicity in systemic oppression. Whenever the word “complicit” is used to describe me, my automatic emotional response is guilt.

Cafe NYC
A quote on a wall in an East Village Cafe

Crossroads taught me that guilt is not only useless in combating systemic oppression, but illogical. My conditioning is not, and has never been, my own fault. So instead of being stuck in guilt this year, I will do my best to take responsibility for my part in oppression, and to try as hard as I can to reverse it. In this way, while I accept that I can’t completely eradicate my complicity, I am still fully committed to anti-racism. Acceptance of this inherent ambiguity is vital when the privileged participate in social justice.

So I will be culturally insensitive. There will be language barriers that I cannot overcome and culture shock that will – well, shock me. Sometimes, I will hurt people in my community. Sometimes I will feel hurt by them. Through this process, I will grow, learn, and make deeper connections with people in my community as I work alongside them. At the end of the year I will come back to the U.S. with new knowledge and experiences that will inform the decisions I make for the rest of my life. In this blog, I hope to take you along with me in this journey as I am stretched, challenged, and made wiser in the process.

YAVs 2018-2019
2018-2019 YAV Class