Malawi 2: Eating and Drinking: The Challenges

on Tuesday, 18 February 2014. Posted in Africa Travels

Eating and Drinking

Our day starts pretty early, around 6am, with various activities around the home, including collecting water from the local bore hole, about 400 meters away. Malawian law states that every home should have access to water within 400 meters so we just make it. 400 meters may not seem much but when carrying a huge bucket of water on one’s head, 3-4 times a day, it adds up!! Of course, I am terrible at carrying water on my head, the water slurping down my neck as I career across the football pitch from the well, which is situated by the local primary school. In fact, Malawian men rarely carry things on their heads, the privilege being left to the women! The water is good and fine to drink but a family of five needs quite a lot of water to live – drinking, washing, laundry etc and so it is an important chore. We get the fire going quickly also, right now using charcoal instead of wood. Racheal should have collected a lot of wood in the summer for the following year, but had done her back in lugging thousands of bricks to build her kitchen, storage and bathing room. She spent some weeks unable to pick up anything at all. However, apart from the money, charcoal is easier to cook with and so we get the water boiling for tea first thing. Malawi grows its own tea and coffee and very fine it is too, so tea has become an even more important ritual than normal. I pour a little tea into a tea strainer and then pour hot water from the flask over the tea, creating a very nice brew. Sugar is mandatory with tea in Malawi. For local people, no sugar, no tea and in spite of my constant protestations, everybody puts 3 heaped tea spoons of the stuff in each cup. Milk tea is a privilege here and I take mine black anyway, with a measly small 1 teaspoon of sugar, much to the shock of everyone else. Also tea is rarely taken alone but normally accompanied by some food, even if just a slice of white bread. So I normally start the day with a cuppa, even before we hit the fields. Normally folk will get up and work 2-3 hours in the fields before taking anything.

Breakfast is a luxury here, as it is in many parts of the world. Normally we take bread and make a sandwich with peanut butter and avocado; luckily we have two huge avocado trees on the property. Peanuts are also grown in Malawi and so local peanut butter is readily available, sugar added of course. If I can score a pineapple, I will have that also for breakfast. I did bring two bags of muesli with me, but it is parceled out in small packages on certain occasions. Lunch is mostly the same each day – nsima – the local fare which consists of maize and or cassava. Many locals have pure cassava nsima, called Kondoli, which is a fearsome weight of thick, stodgy gruel, which fills you up like nothing else. Only cement works better. It satiates hunger like nothing else and people eat in a group, all picking away at this 5 kilo mass of grey, tasteless, sticky pulp. It is accompanied by what locals call ‘relish’, which consists of a green – usually cassava leaf or maybe sweet potato, pumpkin or another leafy green. It is ideally cooked by frying a little onion, tomato and salt and then adding the green until ready. If lucky, folk will also have some usipa, the local small fish found in the lake which is mostly bought already boiled and dried. It tastes horrible so I avoid it. I will occasionally take a larger fish if found, just for variety, otherwise I stick to beans, which luckily are available and quite cheap. I have nsima with a mix of cassava and maize, roughly a 30/70 proportion, which is lighter than the pure cassava. People are impressed though if I say I eat Kondoli, the pure cassava. Most mzungus (white folk) don’t eat it.

Vegetables and fruit are not easily found in abundance here in the village. One store has some cabbage and at times eggplant, looking none too fresh and occasionally one comes across okra and one time we saw green beans. Tomatoes are usually used as kind of stock, along with onion. No flavorings or spices are used in the food otherwise. Salt is added and one can buy some strange chilli sauce, just to give a bit of variety. Fruit is usually grown on people’s land and is not often sold in the market. I think its mad people don’t eat more fruit and veg but it’s one of the things about subsistence life. You eat what you need to to survive. Everything else is extra, surplus to requirements. But people here are not that keen on large amounts of fruit. Mangoes are found in abundance but they all come at the same time, mangoes falling everywhere from the many trees, but after two months, it’s over and rotting mangoes are everywhere but none to eat. No one thinks to dry them and preserve them in any way.

It is said that about 25% of Sub Saharan Africans suffer some form of malnutrition. My estimate is that it is somewhat higher. It is not obvious. People here in northern Malawi look pretty fit and the physical work tends to keep people in shape until the body collapses after 30 years of digging the fields. Most people still ‘dig’ for a living and people’s health is measured by their ability to ‘dig’. So it’s not as if one sees signs of serious malnutrition here but when one looks at the average diet, there has to be some real vitamin and mineral deficiencies that slowly but surely deplete the immune system and creating greater susceptibility to diseases such as malaria and AIDS. Quite a few people come into our clinic with digestive problems, a result of the monotonous cassava and maize diet that irritates the digestion, similar to the gluten allergies we now see in the West.

Dinner for many people is simply more of the same. I can’t eat nsima more than once a day and so eat either pasta, rice or sweet potato in the evening, ideally with some cabbage or eggplant and maybe more avocardo to add some variety. Tea is normally taken again either before or after dinner, one of the rare treats. Living like this reminds me how much variety of food we have normally and how many things can be eaten to fill that little psychological addiction, that little ‘treat’ we think we need. Of course one can get biscuits here and strange little sweets but mostly we don’t have them and so tea becomes the big thing. Every now and again, I get totally sick of the monotony of the food, the same thing basically every day and the general struggle to cook everything on one charcoal cooker, especially at night in the dark, where you can’t find half the things you need to make the meal. The only light we have are a couple of camping head torches and one little solar powered light which I had sent from Kenya last year.

Subsistence life like this is very simple but for a person who is a product of the decadent West and where the fetish of choice is part of the way we live, it can be challenging after a while and somewhat tedious. Just doing the basic chores like cooking, cleaning and washing take such a long time and come dark, there is nothing much one can do after eating dinner. It is too dark to read really and anyway, most people here having nothing to read, apart from the bible!! I can read my Kindle powered by torch and savor all my downloaded editions of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, amongst all the other books I have waiting to read. I know Amazon suck politically but really this Kindle is a life saver.