Man should not live on nsima alone

After reading The Nation's article about how people are coping with the famine a friend of mine, Stacia replied with a letter to the editor. I thought her response was fascinating:

Thank you for your story in the 12 November 2005 edition of The Malawi Nation by George Ntonya "Hunger takes toll in Salima".

I empathize with these communities and hope that the government, non-government organizations, and local community groups can come to the aid of those affected by food shortages. I also hope that these organizations and communities continue to investigate all their local food resources such as the bamboo seeds, mangoes and termites which they are now diversifying into. When eaten in the right quantities, these 3 foods alone can provide many of the nutrients that we need to have a healthy life, and in fact, are more diverse in nutrients than ufa woyera (processed maize flour)!

* Bamboo (Nsungwi in Chichewa) seeds are an "important food source" according to Useful Plants of Malawi, 1955-75 editions, by Jesse Williamson. She describes them as similar to rice in flavour. Edible bamboo shoots are high in protein and vitamin C and are eaten worldwide.
* Mangoes are an important source of carbohydrate and vitamins A and C. Mango leaves are also edible and are full of vitamins and minerals, as well as medicinal properties.
* Termites are particularly nutrient dense food. High in protein, fat, B vitamins and minerals. A handful of Termites supplies an adult with almost all the iron they need in a day!

As a nutritionist, I always want people to have access to a wide variety of foods from all the 6 food groups every day. The current diet and food supply that we are seeing in Malawi does not meet the nutrient needs of the population, nor does it supply food every day of the year. The reason for this is that it is too focused on maize. According to the Malawi Food Guide, an average adult should have about 200 gm of cereal grain on average per day (this would include millets, sorghums, rice, wheat, oats, maize, etc.). Even if a person chose to eat all 200 gm from maize alone, this would mean a person should have no more than about 73 kg of maize per year!

The rest of the diet should be from the other food groups: Fruits (such as mangoes); Vegetables (such as mango leaves); Animal foods (such as termites); Legumes/Nuts (such as kabaifa, kamumpanda, or mbula nuts); Staples (such as tubers from water lilies or buye); and Fats/oils (such as avocadoes or coconuts).

We should be applauding these communities for diversifying their diets and for reviving traditional knowledge, using it and sharing it. We should encourage the use of these foods as part of a diverse diet and help communities to access the other food groups to complement their current diet. We should investigate and promote other local sources of foods that are being under-utilized and forgotten. We should reduce our dependency on maize.

Instead, the article treats these foods (bamboo seed, mangoes and termites) as inferior, stigmatized, and something to be ashamed of.

As an example, the article describes the 2-hour task of preparing Bamboo seed to eat, but this should be compared to the laborious, expensive task of raising maize and processing it. Just to focus on the processing part here, Malawians regularly spend 3-days processing maize into white flour which includes pounding, winnowing to remove bran and germ, soaking, rinsing, drying in the sun, cleaning to remove dirt and bran from drying, measuring it in a tin, taking it to the mill for grounding, drying in the sun, cleaning again to remove dirt, and finally cooking. The end product has all the protein, minerals, fats and vitamins removed, leaving only a white starch.

This is where we need to change our mindset about what is food and what we are doing in Malawi with the resources that we have.

I applaud Action Aid for submitting a sample of the bamboo seed to MBS for analysis, I hope that this action is used for Malawi's other under-utilized resources and that these important foods become a regular part of our diets. Many people may be surprised to know that there are over 500 foods that we could all be choosing to grow and eat rather than the one or two that have promoted this current crisis. This would be true diversification and go very far towards ending Malawi's chronic "hungry season".

If you have any questions or would like more information concerning the wide variety of food plants that Malawi is blessed with, please feel free to contact us or visit our demonstration plot in Chitiedze.

Stacia Nordin, RD
Kristof Nordin, Permaculturalist

6 Response to Man should not live on nsima alone

  1. Thoko says:

    Thanks you for this wonderful discussion. I have been searching for information on what the dietary habits of Malawians were before colonization. Is there a place where I can find documentation on this and can you enlighten me on your findings.

  2. Mike says:

    I'll put you in touch with Stacia and Kristof they probably know.

  3. Thokozani says:

    Its so nice to know that we got such other staple food in Malawi. Would you please update me with others, dont forget the procedures.

  4. Juan Antonio GHAMBI says:

    The problem with we Malawians is that we are selective, why can't we diversify in our diet. The Chinese for instance eat everything and have never heard them crying about hunger. When I came here I was of the same mentality that I can't eat frogs, sponge leaves, bamboo seeds, but realising that I had come to stay for a long time I started to eat them, and let me assure you they are nutricious proveded you prepare them nicely.

  5. Mike says:

    The latest from Stacia and Kristof: practical strategies for breaking the cycle of food insecurity

  6. [...]

    A while back I included a guest post from Stacia and Kristof Nordin called Man should not live on Nsima alone. They just included me on another on [...]

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