As I walked past the ever-expanding Manda Hill shopping centre one lunch-time, I caught the smell of wood smoke and food.

Surprised, I looked around to find the source. In the corner of the construction site were a group of builders in blue uniforms involved in the important business of cooking nshima.

Unlike pretty much anywhere else I have lived, in Zambia, if you know how to build a fire you can find a little space, by the side of the road or on a patch of wasteland, to cook nshima. Everyday, our very own caretakers stoke up their fire and soon the pungent perfume of kapenta – the small dry fish they usually eat – wafts onto my patio. Their fire is a simple affair: a couple of bricks topped by a small iron grill, with a few dry sticks underneath as the fire itself.

In Zambia, nshima is like a religion, it is a white stiff porridge and unlike in countries like Uganda or Kenya where it can be made from sorghum, millet or cassava flour, here in Zambia it is almost always made from maize meal. Eaten at least once a day and often three times in a day, nshima holds a special power. People in Zambia claim it is the only thing to fill them up and as a married woman I am often asked if I can cook nshima. I can’t, it requires far more elbow grease than I am prepared to expend!

Nshima is a useful staple for a number of reasons. First of all, it is very cheap; a 10kg bag of mealie meal will set you back about $10 and will feed a family of four for about a month. Secondly, it fills you up as it is a dense carbohydrate. Thirdly, the manner in which it’s eaten means that no cutlery is required. From a large mound you pull a small amount, roll it into a ball and dip it into whatever accompaniment you might have. Finally, if a family receives an unexpected guest, all they have to do is make a little more nshima and make their other dishes stretch a bit further.

Like other cultures that do not use cutlery when eating, there is a bonding aspect to meal times in Zambia. If you are in someone’s house, the meal begins with hand washing. Practicality requires that you help each other since it is difficult to pour water and wash at the same time, this in itself has a certain intimacy. Then the dishes are shared, each person has a plate onto which they put their mound of nshima, meat (if available) and vegetables. Whether you are in a large house or a small hut, it is rude not to eat your fill. Being vegetarian here can lead to a real faux pas. Chicken or beef is often prepared if guests are coming, even by the poorest families. To refuse to eat something they have gone to so much trouble to prepare can understandably be offensive to the family.

Eating nshima here can also have another purpose, getting in on the gossip. When I worked at a community centre in a rural part of Zambia years ago, I started to eat with the other workers and my status really changed. I didn’t feel like a foreigner and I was able to get the lowdown on what was happening in the area. I think it was also a great chance for my friends to tease me about what a mess I made when I ate!

There was an occasion when my husband and I visited a friend in a village and she was eager to give us lunch. It was only when we arrived and ate with her that realised how important this was to her. She had very little to serve; some greens and potatoes along with the nshima. But what she had was served with such ceremony that we felt touched and honoured. I come from a family where food was a huge part of life: we made an effort to eat together at the table; Sunday lunch was an important part of the week. And I often find it difficult to relate to people who don’t give food its due respect either through fussiness or by not eating well when they have no economic reason not to.

Food is more than re-fuelling; in many cultures that have not been overtaken by the rat race it is still an expression of love and friendship. For those who have so little to give us so much is an amazing thing. Not just the food itself, but also the opportunity to make friends and feel loved.

Read more:
The rains continue in Zambia
Zambian dried fish (food of the world)
Cooking chapati in Nairobi, Kenya


About the author

Elizabeth is a Brit living in Zambia with her American husband. She was an English teacher for many years, which is when she got the travelling bug; she has also been a VSO volunteer. She is now a freelance writer and education consultant as well as volunteer at a local art gallery.