Wrestling down my deeply-rooted training against eating with my fingers, I broke off a small chunk of the thick, white mush on my plate, following the example of my host. After rolling it into a ball in my hand and pressing it spoon-shaped, I scooped it into the accompanying relish of vegetables, meat and peppers before chewing it down. Both the texture and flavors were delightful!
Those fingers reached for the next bite, the Canadian inhibitions pushed aside by a stimulated palate. My introduction to this ages-old Zambian cuisine was successful. Second helpings were in order.
This dish, known as nshima, is not only the staple of the Zambian diet, it is so integral to their existence that they express a craving for it when it’s missing from the menu for any amount of time. And although relatively easy to prepare, a simple meal of nshima belies the importance of a good maize crop to this predominantly subsistence culture. If the highly-anticipated rains fail in the rainy season, the shriveled crop means lean eating for many and even starvation for some.
Nshima is made by boiling “mealie meal,” a white coarse flour made by pounding or grinding the kernels of maize, a very close relative of our typical, yellow corn. Maize, with its white kernels, predominates about 65 % of Zambian cropped acres, most of which is raised for domestic consumption.
Farming in the beautiful country of Zambia demonstrates a stunningly wide range of technology. While the large-scale farmers run much the same equipment as their Canadian counterparts, they are fewer than 1,000 in number. The vast majority of Zambian farmers, numbering close to 800,000, use oxen and manual labour for planting, tillage and harvesting their maize.
The crop is planted in November at the beginning of rainy season and harvest begins in June, the start of cold season. At a recommended planting rate of 22,000 seeds per acre, a good stand of maize would make a Canadian corn grower check his planter to see what went wrong. However, with timely rains and a sound fertilizer program, this relatively light stand produces big cobs of maize that might dwarf ours for size.
Along the highway, a traveler will see demonstration plots with many unfamiliar seed company brands such as Pannar Seeds, Afriseed, Zamseed and more. However there are also many signs bearing the familiar logos of Pioneer and Dekalb that bespeckle Ontario’s country roadsides.
As we traveled for four, air-conditioned hours from our comfortable guest house in Macha to visit the spectacular Victoria Falls, I was taken with two thoughts. One was of the great missionary/explorer, Dr. David Livingstone, who trekked these same wild plains on foot, often fighting malaria, dysentery or negotiating with unfriendly people groups. This God-fearing doc- tor was a man of unswervable dedication whose work made an immeasurable contribution to recognizing the intrinsic worth of the African people and potential of their lands.
The second thought was of the millions of acres of unbroken arable land that slipped by outside my window; the crop production possibility is staggering. This is supported by official data which indicates that only 15 % of Zambia’s 100-million farmable acres is currently being cropped. The supporting infrastructure, such as good roads, is equally sparse. The farming potential has barely been scratched.
Just a couple of days earlier, I was speaking with an American ag-technician whose mission was to improve yields through affordable fertilizing methods. “Zambia alone could feed much of Africa, if only…,” I said. He looked up at me from the soil that trickled through his fingers and after a moment of contemplation, replied quietly, “Isn’t it almost enough to make you cry?”