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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ~