Zambian Etiquette or Manners

When you visit Zambia, there are basic rules of etiquette that you have to practice or have to be aware of. Some elements of the etiquette may have some variations if one is visiting someone in the urban area or the rural more traditional environment. The Zambian etiquette applies to such issues as Greetings, Food and Eating, Conversation, Love and Intimacy, and Gift Giving.



Greetings always start with a handshake with the customary: “How are you?” “How did you leave your family or how was your journey?” Kissing and hugging a Zambian in public, as a form of greeting, especially by a total stranger creates obvious embarrassment and awkwardness.

When you are in Zambia be as patient as you can. For example, if you are visiting a home, you will receive a quick verbal greeting at the door as you walk in or arrive. But then the hosts will take time to find a chair, clear a couch, or send a child to get a stool, reed mat, or chair. Wait until you will be directed to a chair. Once you are seated, that’s when you will be given a proper greeting starting with a handshake.


Food and the Nshima Staple Meal:

The Zambian staple meal of Nshima, which is cooked out of corn meal or mealie-meal, is eaten in virtually all homes twice per day in Zambia; for lunch and dinner. The nshima and the second smaller dish, relish, ndiwo, ndiyo, or umunani are always served together and placed in the middle of the table. The ndiwo can be fish, beans, chicken, beef, and vegetables. The diners sit around the table.

Zambians traditionally use hands when eating nshima. The host or the youngest person will help guests in washing their hands. This recent change in how hands are washed before a meal in called D-Washa. Clean fresh warm water is poured from a pitcher over both hands of the diner over a medium size dish. The diner will slightly scrub their hands until both hands are sufficiently clean. This process is done for all the diners. The custom is that the guests, elders, older adults, younger people and children wash their hands in that order. It is considered rude for a young person to wash their hands first before the adults, older siblings and guests have done so. After everyone has washed their hands it is then that a prayer may be said before starting to eat.

Young people help to serve the adults and guests at the table in passing the pitcher of clean water to wash their hands with. A younger person or child should not stop eating and wash hands first, let alone leave the dining table, before adults do. However, if an adult sees a younger person or guest who has obviously stopped eating because they are full, the adults or the host will graciously grant “permission” to the waiting person to wash their hands. It is considered good customary behavior for everyone to wait seated at the table until everyone has finished eating and washed their hands.

Eating is always with only the one right hand. Both hands are never used when eating nshima. Only small children and perhaps strangers unfamiliar with the culture will use both hands at the same time when eating nshima. Westerners and other foreign visitors will be given forks and knives if the host notices that the guest is facing difficulties as fresh cooked nshima is always sizzling hot.


The right hand will get a lump of nshima, gently mold it with the one hand into a beautiful ball, and dip it into the ndiwo or relish before eating it. It is considered very dignified and enjoyable to eat nshima slowly while making and smoothing the lump carefully before eating it; making good casual and relaxed conversation in the process. Young people eat and listen and can participate in the conversation when asked a question. But generally a well-behaved young person is expected to listen and gain wisdom from the elders during these meal times.

Zambians ordinarily will not ask you if you want to eat something especially if you are visiting a home. The educated elite and the well off might ask if you want to eat or drink something and might give you a variety of choices. But generally a host family will offer you snacks like tea, soft drinks, beer and even a main meal of nshima; the Zambian staple meal, without asking for your permission. Traditionally, it is considered rude and perhaps even selfish and cruel if you ask your guests:

“Are you hungry and should we cook nshima for you?”

According to custom, a guest who might be really hungry will say “No” out of shyness and embarrassment and they will then be expected to leave. It is assumed that as long as you are staying and having conversation, it’s considered courteous to offer you anything that the family may have for you to eat. Refusing to eat completely is considered rude unless you are close acquaintances or good friends with your hosts. Even if you are full, you can always eat a little. This is considered polite.

Avoid asking the host what ingredients are in the food just before you start eating at the table. Although your intentions may be innocent and normal in Western society, this may sound like you are questioning the host woman’s ability to cook, or worse that you suspect the host is serving you poison; at least this is what it might sound like to your host. If you would like to know how to cook the food, the recipe, what type of food it is, or what ingredients are in it, ask at an appropriate time may be towards the end or after the meal. Make sure you mention that you are just curious or you liked the meal so much. Most Zambian food is bland not spicy at all, will not make you fat, or kill you unless of course you have some serious medical allergies to some foods like peanuts which are often an important common ingredient in many Zambia relishes.

The author recommends that you look at the following web site for a full description of the Zambian staple meal: Nshima. Thanking your host profusely just after the meal creates awkwardness and embarrassment. The author once took an American friend to his parents’ house in rural Chipata. His mother cooked a special meal including nshima. Just after finishing eating, his friend thanked the author’s parents so much that if they were white, they would have been blushing extremely red with embarrassment. It’s alright to say thank you or “Zikomo” as you leave after your visit.


Common Nshima Do’s and Don’ts:

There are several key dos and don’ts about customs surrounding how the nshima is traditionally served and eaten among Zambians.

a)*Do not serve clearly left over or half eaten nshima from a previous meal to any adult. This is considered the height of disrespect.

b)*When eating, a younger person should never stop eating and begin washing hands first unless permitted by the older person.

c)*Guests who suddenly arrive when you are eating should always be invited to join in sharing the meal.

d)*A lone guest should never be served the meal alone. Another person, often a young reliable child, should always eat the nshima with the guest.

e)A guest should always leave some nshima on the plate at the end of the meal for the benefit of the household children who will clear the dishes after the meal. Leaving some food is a sign that the guest has been satisfied.

Nshima with ndiwo is the most important meal. It is so important and embedded in the traditional culture of the people that it features very prominently in the languages, expressions, tales of hospitality and wisdom and folk tales.

A guest will say the hosts are very kind and generous if they cook him nshima with ndiwo which may be chicken, beef, goat, or many other types of meat ndiwos. A young man courting a young woman will think highly of her if she cooks and serves him nshima with delicious ndiwo, umunani or relish especially chicken.


Health and Hygiene

Most well cooked food especially nshima and water from faucets, taps, or concrete wells in rural areas are clean in Zambia. Medical alerts and precautions about possible wide spread contaminated food and “dirty” water are often exaggerated and create unnecessary worry and paranoia for the average Westerner or visitor. When this author first came to the United States as a student, he had diarrhea or loose stool for three months. Today it would have been called AIDS. But he suspects his body and digestive system was getting acclimated to the new diet that included massive chemicals compared to the plain relatively fresh foods his whole body had been used to in most of his life coming from the Third World.

When he first went to a Caribbean Island, he had constipation for two days and diarrhea for three days. When the author takes American students to the same Caribbean Island who have not traveled outside their home area in the United States let alone abroad before, many have diarrhea for a few days. Your body always adjusts for the first time to never before encountered bacteria in new food and water, and often chemicals in Western foods if you have lived all your life eating unprocessed food in Third World countries. Your body will always tell you if you have serious illness of diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera from truly contaminated food or water. In which case, you would seek medical treatment immediately. This doesn’t mean you throw away all simple common sense hygiene precautions when you travel to Zambia or anywhere in the world for that matter.



After greetings have been exchanged and you are just socializing, it is considered normal for a guest and host to sit quietly without any conversation for while. That silence may be torture to a Westerner but most Zambians find it normal. So don’t try to fill empty silent moments by just saying something because you are feeling uneasy or bored.

For example, in the rural areas, greetings take time as host and guest have to exchange malonje after first greeting each other. Malonje is the traditional custom in which the guest describes in detail the purpose of their trip and the host responds and describes in detail the state of the family health and what every member of the family may be doing. It also takes hours to cook a chicken because it has to be chased and slaughtered before the meal is cooked. Take your time and be patient.

Both familiar and unfamiliar adults in Zambia always address each other as Mr. Banda or Mrs. Musonda using the person’s last name whether they are in the upper class, lower class, educated or uneducated, rich or poor, villager or urban dweller or the person is your employee, your taxi driver, waiter or waitress, boss or subordinate.

In fact in the Eastern Province of Zambia among the Tumbuka, Ngoni, Chewa, and Nsenga people, there is a special term that is used to depict when an adult is called by their first or last name without the linguistic prefix “a” or “ah” when addressing a man or “Nya” or “Na” when addressing a woman; it is known as kupepula which means insulting and belittling an adult. In circumstances of heated argument and disagreement, use of kupepula by one or both parties is often a clear prelude to a physical fight. Addressing or calling an adult aloud by their first name is considered disrespectful. You only call young children and adolescents by their first name. This comes directly from the Zambian traditional custom. If you are familiar with or close to the person, one of the most cherished ways to address an adult is to call them as father or mother of their child. For example: “Father of Musonda” or “Mother of Mutinta” or “Mother of Sibeso“.

Unless it is an emergency, it’s considered rude and annoying to hastily call or shout to a strange adult by their first name beckoning and gesturing to the person while impatiently clicking your fingers for them to come quickly. However, you can send a child to call the person. If you have to shout you can wave and shout for example: “Mr. Mundia ! Mr. Mundia! Come here quickly!” or if you don’t know the person you can shout: “Imwe! Imwe! Come here quickly!” Which translates as the plural “You! You! Come here quickly” which is a sign and gesture of respect when addressing another adult. There are local and regional linguistic variations.

Zambians are open, and foreigners may find that they enjoy a surprisingly good deal of freedom of expression in their conversations, and will discuss and joke with you about any political issue in Zambia and on the planet. The opposition parties, for example, thrive and are lively with these open criticisms, discussions and disagreements reported in the many Zambian daily newspapers. Although Zambians among themselves and in the press may discuss the President and other political leaders in very critical and sometime unflattering terms, they are sensitive about foreigners insulting, belittling, being disrespectful, and otherwise openly mocking and making demeaning and humiliating remarks about the President and other top leaders of the country. When you are their guest especially in the home, they have expectations that their guest will discuss the country’s top political leaders especially the President with respect.

There was an incident reported in the local press during Zambia’s former President Kaunda’s rule that vividly illustrated this reality. A foreign cabaret singer was performing at a local top hotel one night in the capital city of Lusaka unaware of the unspoken etiquette. During his performance, he made some “funny” “mocking” remarks about the President that drew uneasy giggles and laughter from the small elite hotel audience. Twenty-four hours later, the performer was on a plane flying out of the country under deportation.

At the same time Zambians at private parties in their homes often made fun and joked about the President’s well-known mannerisms, and his trials and tribulations with his political adversaries at the time. For example, many Zambians made humorous imitations of President Kaunda’s famous speeches, and some danced while clutching and waving in their hand the former President’s characteristic white handkerchief. Although the deportation of the foreign performer may sound draconian and hypocritical, but those are sometimes the rare but extreme consequences and the possible power of breaking the rules of Zambian or any other culture’s unspoken rules of etiquette.


Love and Physical Intimacy:

Men and women who are in love rarely kiss, hold hands or each other in intimate embraces in public parks, benches, street sidewalks, or bush paths. Such exhibits of intimacy are frowned down on in public as they cause awkwardness and embarrassments to others. On rare occasions that this happens, it is often among a couple who belongs to the top elite and was raised predominantly with Western standards, or the couple is regarded as being immature or childish.

Courtship is a period in which breaking or following rules of etiquette can make or break a relationship. The traditional eating etiquette is that the woman should cook nshima and delicious chicken as much as possible to serve and impress her lover and future husband that she is generous and a good cook. The man must show restraint during the meals.

For example, he must leave some nshima at the end to show consideration for the children who will clear the dishes. The man must not eat too much of the full plate of the nshima, and must avoid crushing the chicken bones and sucking the bone marrow. In rural areas, this was a sure sign that the man might be a glutton and therefore the potential wife may be afraid expecting to spend endless hours by the fire cooking large meals for her husband above and beyond feeding her children. Besides, there is a strong cultural belief that men gluttons rarely make strong and hard working farmers.

One of the sharpest contrasts between Zambian and Western culture is breast-feeding of babies in public. The majority of Zambian women freely and openly breast feed their babies in public on sidewalks, in their homes, on bush paths, on buses, soccer stadiums, in the market, trains, restaurants, shopping centers. This is considered so normal that both men and women never stare or even notice it as everyone just goes about their business. In the West, breast-feeding is prohibited in public as it may be regarded as either very primitive or the female breast is so sexualized that it would create a scandal if a woman openly breast-fed her baby in public. Even in their own homes, Western women must breast feed secretly in their bedrooms or bathrooms.


Gift Giving:

A dignified way to give a gift in Zambia is to first sit down with your hosts and greet each other and converse for a while. If it is at a home, find a young child and ask the child to take the gift to the parents; mommy or daddy. You can then say:

“I brought something small to help you in the house, for children to share, clothing, a car spare part, a kitchen utensil to help in the kitchen” depending on what the gift is meant for. Then your hosts can properly thank you sometimes with the traditional clap of the hands. It is considered rude or awkward to simply walk through the door of the house and within seconds hand the host a package or the gift. Some form of a small ritual or modest ceremony is expected when gift giving.

Gifts can be foods, household decorations, children’s books, kitchen utensils, car spare parts and seat covers if you know the make of the car, photo albums, generic clothing like t-shirts, and toys for children should be something all the children can play with together like a ball or a small bag of sweets or candy. In fact since most Zambian households have many people including extended family living there, always get something that the whole family can enjoy or share.

For example, if you buy toys for the host’s two children, there might be three or more other children in the household who might feel left out. Rural families appreciate first aid medication for sores, (such as antibiotic creams, and band aids) children’s picture books, simple pencils and exercise books for school going children to write in. Avoid giving Christmas, birthday, and other greeting cards, fresh flowers, exotic framed photographs even of famous people to lower class, poor, and rural families. They have very limited use for these items in their daily lives or households.

Avoid giving gifts that are meant for one child or person in a family context. If you want to give money as a gift, it is considered very dignified to put the money in an envelope and give it to your host or head of the household at the very last minute when you leave with the message: “I am so embarrassed that I did not bring the family something. I thought this might help you in the house”. Then after the hand shake you end the visit by saying:

Zikomo kwambiri” in Nyanja language or

Tatotela Sana” in Bemba or “thank you very much for your generosity.”

The nature of the Zambian extended family can sometimes lead foreigners to make misleading and unfortunate assumptions. This author and a British friend were visiting the author’s sister’s family in rural Chipata in the Eastern part of Zambia. The author’s sister and her husband were schoolteachers who had six young children of their own and four other children from the extended family. When dinner was served, the British friend initially was reluctant to eat because he said there were so many children in the household that he felt guilty eating because they would starve, as there wouldn’t be enough food to go around. He was persuaded to eat only after the author assured him that Zambian families always plan such that feeding guests will not necessarily starve the children.



The best strategy to have when you are a visitor in Zambia is to be patient, either ask or look around, observe and wait and see how people do things or behave. Then you can try to do them the same way too. If you want to enjoy your new experience in the Zambian culture, it is always wise to follow the old adage: “When in Rome, do what the Romans”. But by all means avoid what some typical Western tourists do: “When you are in Zambia, do what the Westerners would do”. Zambians are some of the friendliest people in Africa and have a very subtle sense of humor.

Delicious Insects of Zambia

One of the most delicious traditional meals that many Zambians eat is that of the nshima staple meal served with roasted or pan fried insects.  The use of the English term “insects” is a misrepresentation as nearly all of the ten million traditional Zambians never characterize what they cherish eating as “insects” in the more than eighteen major African indigenous languages spoken in the Southern African country.  The Chewa speaking people of eastern Zambia and Malawi, for example, call flying ants “inswa”.  The Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia and Northern Malawi call the same flying ants “mphalata”.  Caterpillars among the Bemba speaking people of Northern Zambia are called “finkubala” and among the people of Eastern Province they are called “matondo” or “matole”.  Non edible insects on the other hand are called “vidoyo in Eastern Zambia.  It is only English speaking Western people and other foreigners who call what most Zambians regard as delicacies as “insects” or the more pejorative “bugs”.
Types of Edible Insects
There are five major types of insects that are eaten in most parts of Zambia if not Southern Africa.  Inswa (flying ants), mafulufute, shongonono (green grasshoppers), nyenje or chenje (cicadas), and finkubaba or matondo (caterpillars).  All these edible insects are seasonal and therefore have enabled people to take advantage of what is provided in the natural environment.  The edible insects are available either during the rainy season between November and April or during the dry season from May to October.

One of the most anticipated seasons of the year in rural Zambia is that of the rainy season.  After six months of cold, dry, and then finally scorching dry October heat, the first torrential rains are welcome in November.  By this time of the year, most rural Zambians will have depleted over half of the stocks of crops that had been harvested and stored away in a nkhokwe traditional storage structure six months earlier.  The rains are always a relief from the heat and constitute a strong symbolic renewal of life as people plant their crops for the new growing season.

One of the most fascinating changes in the natural environment after the first rains is a sudden explosion of green vegetation and the emergence of myriad insects from their hibernation or seasonal synchronized hatching cycles.  Among the thousands of insects that suddenly emerge after the first rains are several edible ones including the inswa (flying ants) and mafulufute. The inswa breed and establish large colonies in large anthills of the savannah that often dot the grasslands.  The breeding cycle of the inswa is such that they come out of and fly in massive numbers during several nights after the first rains.
Inswa and Mafulufute Edible Insects
The average inswa or flying ant is about 3 mm long and weighs less than half an ounce, has a lot of fat, and is high in protein.  People locate live anthills near the village.  They check to see if there are any white ant workers and magenge (soldier) ants which prepare and guard the exit points of the inswa or flying ants.  Men set traps around the anthills.  They clear one side of the anthill and erect a short structure about one and a half feet high made out of thin sticks, covered with grass and leaves.  The structure is open on one side where large five gallon bucket size containers of water are inserted.  As night falls, the flying ants come out to fly away from the anthill.  They fly right into the bucket of water where their wings become soaked.  The inswa or flying ants are trapped and caught in this way.  Any one very active anthill can yield up to three large 5 gallon buckets of inswa.

Many things can go wrong when catching inswa in the dark.  Snakes that may be poisonous are known to eat inswa too.  They may be near or at the anthill.  Sometimes the inswa might not come out in spite of all the tell-tell signs that they are supposed to have done so.  In this case the people might go home to bed and return the following evening.  In limited desperate cases the men have been known to blow a few puffs of marijuana smoke through hollow reeds into the “ripe” anthill holes.  This is believed to entice the inswa to come out.  In cities and towns, the inswa congregate and fly around bright street lights and house porch lights.  Township residents will gather at the bright street lights and catch the inswa.

After the night’s catch, the women process the inswa the following morning.  The inswa are de-winged by spreading and drying them in the sun on large reed mats which may be nine feet by seven feet large.  The women then roast the inswa on a plain hot pan and salted.  The pan gets very greasy and the aroma spreads in the neighborhood.  After this roasting, the inswa is dried in the sun again so that it will be suitable for long term storage in a dry container.  The inswa are almost always served with the nshima Zambian staple meal.  Sometimes the inswa may also be eaten as a snack the way one would eat roasted peanuts.  People who live near large towns often catch surplus inswa and sell them in the city or town markets.

The mafulufute are another edible insect that comes out after the first rains.  They come out of the ground usually on a sunny day at bright noon.  Young boys and girls will usually walk around with a container with a tight top.  They will chase the mafulufute and catch them as they fly around.  They will also wait by their hole and snatch them as they fly out.  A mafulufute insect is three times the size of an inswa but has a large fatty abdomen.  It almost looks like a wasp.

Children may spend an active afternoon and catch up to four cups of mafulufute for their family.  The mafulufute are de-winged by hand, fried on medium heat on a plain hot pan until they are crunchy.  They are then salted.  They are served with the nshima Zambian staple meal.  The mafulufute are never processed for long term storage as they are often caught only in small quantities.
The Shongonono Grasshoppers
The shongonono grasshoppers are caught between January and March during the rainy season.  The shongonono grasshopper is green, one and a half cms. long and weighs about one gram.  Adults and children wade through plush green vegetation of a garden or field where various crops including maize, beans, peanuts, and pumpkins are growing.  As the shongonono hop about, they are caught and put in a container with a tight lid.  In urban areas, large numbers of the green grasshoppers congregate and fly around any bright street lights at night.  Residents catch them in large numbers.

The shongonono green grasshoppers are de-winged, fried on a hot pan until they are crunchy.  They are then salted.  The most striking aspect of frying the grasshoppers is that they have a distinct aroma of frying eggs.  They are served with the nshima Zambian staple meal.
Bee Larvae

During the hot dry season, rural Zambians hunt using bows and arrows far away from the villages and known sources of water.  The hunting party will sometimes come across a bee hive often in a hollow tree trunk.  The hunters will collect the honey as well the white bee larvae which the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia calls masa. Some of the white larvae are eaten raw on the spot as they are believed to quench thirst if the hunters have been unable to locate drinking water.  The rest of the bee larvae are taken home where they are cooked and served with the nshima staple meal.  The bee larvae have a sweet taste to them.
Cicadas and Caterpillars
Cicadas are known as nyenje or chenje in the Eastern province of Zambia.  They come out of the ground during the sizzling dry heat between August and October.  During the day they sing really loud and fly from tree to tree.  Young boys make ulimbo (very sticky substance) from seeds of a wild tree.  They insert the ulimbo on a tip of ten foot long thin sticks.  The boys walk in the bush listening for cicadas.

As soon as they locate one, they use the long stick to poke at the cicada.  The cicada gets stuck to the ulimbo sticky substance and is unable to fly to escape.  The cicada is then captured and stored in a container.  Young boys will catch cicadas for most of the day and have enough for a meal.  The cicadas are de-winged, fried on a hot pan until they are crunchy, and salted.  They are served with the nshima staple meal.

In late October and early November of every year, caterpillars hatch in massive numbers in trees that have a tender fresh bloom of leaves during this period.  There are up to five species or varieties of edible caterpillars.  Although men, women, and children will walk through the bushes with gourds looking at trees in search of the caterpillars, this is found to be time consuming and very labor intensive.  The more common practice is for the men with axes to accompany the women and children from the village in search of caterpillars.  Once a huge tree with caterpillars is located, it is chopped down and the caterpillars are collected.  This practice is somewhat discouraged by government as it is blamed for the threat of massive deforestation and worsening of soil erosion in rural Zambia.

Once the caterpillars are brought home, they are gutted, boiled very briefly, salted and spread to dry in the sun on large reed mats which may be up to ten feet long and eight feet wide.  The caterpillars are dried for many days in the sun until they are bone dry.  Once this is done, they are ready to be served with the nshima Zambian staple meal.  Zambians who live near urban areas will often sell surplus caterpillars in the city markets at affordable prices particularly for the urban poor.

All the edible insects are prepared and served only in the ways described.  The insects provide a very important source of food supplement especially for rural Zambians.  The insects have been endorsed as a very important source of protein in the diet of Zambians.
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Kay, George., “Chief Kalaba’s Village:  A Preliminary Survey of Economic Life in an Ushi Village, Northern Rhodesia,” The Rhodes-Livingstone papers, No. 35, 1964.

Ngulube, Naboth M. J., Some Aspects of Growing Up in Zambia. Lusaka:  Nalinga Consultancy/SOL – Consult A/S Ltd., 1989.

Republic of Zambia, Country Profile:  Zambia 1984. Lusaka:  Central Statistical Office, 1984.

Preston Thomson, Betty., “Two Studies in African Nutrition:  An Urban and Rural Community in Northern Rhodesia,” The Rhodes-Livingston Papers, No. 24, 1954.

Skjonsberg, Else., The Kefa Records:  Everyday Life Among Women and Men in a Zambian Village. (Oslo: U-Landsseminaret, No. 21, 1981).

Tembo, Mwizenge S., Titbits for the Curious, Lusaka:  Multimedia Publications, 1989.

Tembo, Mwizenge S., Mwila, Chungu., and Hayward, Pater., An Assessment of Technological Needs in Three Rural Districts of Zambia.  Lusaka:  Institute for African Studies, February 1982.

Tembo, Mwizenge S., What Does Your African Name Mean?:  The Meanings of Indigenous Names Among the Tonga of Southern Zambia, Lusaka:  Institute for African Studies, 1989.

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The Significance of the Mango in Zambian Life



Mango Humans today have at their disposal dozens of both domesticated and wild fruits. These include oranges, apples, pawpaws, guavas, pineapples, cherries, strawberries, mangoes, kiwi, bananas, grapes, pears,  peaches, and many other domesticated but less well known fruits all over the world. Some of the wild fruits found in Zambia and perhaps elsewhere in tropical countries in Africa include, masuku, mbula, mbulumbunje, futu, kachele, nchenja, kasokolowe, matongo gha kalulu, matowo, nthumbuzgha, mazaye, kabeza, msekese, chigulo, and many others. Among all or most of these fruits, the mango has to be the best and most delicious fruit. This article describes the mango fruit, how it is grown, its significance as a strictly seasonal food in Zambian and perhaps African culture.


The Mango Fruit


mangoThe Mango fruit is generally oblong and the average size of a fist and very dark green when mature and unripe. When the fruit is ripe it is generally bright yellow to red and some have patches of green and yellow when ripe. Some of the mangoes remain green when they are ripe. The only way you would be able to tell they are ripe is if you press your finger on the fruit known as kutofya. It is soft then you know the Mango is ripe. Because the Mango fruit has been subjected to virtually no commercialization for the most part, it has a wide variety of types. There are 2 extreme types of Mangoes; there are the large big type of Mango known as Dudu in Eastern Zambia and on the other extreme are the smallest variety. In between there are dozens of types of Mangoes.

The tastes, textures, and aromas have many varieties. Often only people who have eaten dozens of these varieties of Mangoes can distinguish some of the subtle but very significant differences in the taste and texture of the Mango fruit. People will often say you have develop a deeper taste for some foods in order to be conscious of the subtle nuances in their taste. Often people will say you will have to develop a taste for wine, coffee, or tea. It is the same thing with Mangoes; only if you either grew up eating dozens of varieties or you have eaten dozens of different varieties, it may be difficult to experience and fully appreciate the full range of qualities of Mangoes and their varying tastes, flavors, and aromas.


Growing Mangoes


mango treeThe Mango fruit as eaten today in Zambia, perhaps in most of tropical Africa, and elsewhere has to be a fruit that grows and thrives very well but needs the least human intervention, labor, and resources for it to grow. If you travel in both urban and rural Zambia, you will notice Mango trees virtually everywhere. You can see them in the backyards of homes, in school yards, along streets, around villages, in the wild bush, and especially in fields in which people cultivate crops. Although Mango trees will be trimmed if they obstruct something, no one ever waters them, sprays them with pesticides to kill bugs, no one puts manure or fertilizer around them. It is a fruit that seems to be best adapted to wherever humans live in tropical Zambia. Although there are efforts often for people to plant them, they seems to germinate on their own where ever humans have randomly thrown or deposited their seeds when eating the fruit.

In tropical Zambia, the Mango trees have small white flowers sometime in April and June. The small little fruits are visible on trees by September of each year. In December of each year at the beginning of the rainy season, the fruit reaches its full green maturity. Some of the Mango fruit begins to ripen as early as first week of December and most of it ripens by the third week of December during the Christmas Season. The last of the ripe Mango are during the end of January and beginning of February.


Food Significance


The Mango is not just a fruit but it is one of the most cherished foods in traditional Zambia. While urban Zambians may regard the Mango fruits as something they purchase at the market during December, the fruit is at the center of rural Zambian society as a source of food that is so anticipated and cherished. Europeans and some of those who live outside tropical Africa have established the reputation that the Mango fruit has a purely utilitarian purpose among indigenous Zambians.  This reputation has historically created in in the non-African minds that the Mango fruit is purely a food supplement for the otherwise near starving suffering rural Zambian or African dwellers during the hunger season.  The reasoning was that the food reserves for the subsistence of the rural dwellers were running low at this time and therefore the Mango provided much needed scarce food during the hunger season. Although there is no doubt that this may have been the case during some specific periods and in some specific geographic locations, this author’s experiences with Mangoes in the village in the 1950s and recently in 2011 may contradict this gloomy picture.

mangoWhen this author lived in the villages of rural Zambia in Lundazi in the 1950s with his grandparents, he remembers eating and enjoying Mangoes virtually every day during the Mango season. Grandparents and mothers used to prohibit us children from eating Mangoes in the late afternoon, because then we would not be able to eat dinner or supper of the Nshima staple meal. Mangoes are such a filling fruit. At the end of the growing season in early March, my grandparents and virtually all household  still had maize and peanuts stored from the previous season still available which they called chomba or old harvest food from the previous season which was usually April of the previous year.

The Mango fruit when it ripens is available in abundance as trees are everywhere such that people casually eat them when they walk by a tree, take some home to store in the house for easy eating as a snack, they eat it in the field after hoeing for a few hours. The aroma of the beautiful Mango ripe fruit is in in the air when one walks by a mango tree, it is in homes, and perhaps even in people’s dreams. Some people who live near urban areas will pick the free Mango fruits in their neighborhood, village, or field in large baskets and take them to the city or town to sell.


MangoThe Mango has to be the best fruit because when ripe it is hardly tart, but very sweet. A ripe Mango seems to lend itself easiest to peeling using one’s teeth. There is hardly anything unpleasant to spit out as one peels the mango using one’s teeth and mouth. One can even choose to chew even the skin in certain instances of very ripe Mangoes. One can also very easily use a knife. The sweet juice that sometimes tastes like nectar is so plentiful that it drips down your arm or hands as you take a bite. There is no bitter aftertaste in one’s mouth after eating Mangoes as characteristic sometimes of some fruits. The balance of water and sweetness is so good that you never have to drink water after eating Mangoes. The fiber and the flesh of the fruit are such that they fill you up after you have eaten a few Mangoes. The fiber also acts as good natural flossing of teeth as it is very normal after anyone eats Mangoes, without the use of a knife, to spend some time to pick the fiber off between one’s teeth. Hardly none of the indigenous eaters of Mango ever find this removing of fiber from the teeth to be inconvenient.  It is regarded as one of the normal acceptable ritual associated with enjoying the eating of  Mangoes. The Mango also enhances digestion as the very active live enzymes and plenty of fiber thoroughly cleans one’s colon virtually every day at the peak of the Mango season which is from December to early February in Zambia.

Social and Culture Significance: Mango Stories


The Mango fruit is enormously significant in the social and cultural life of rural Zambians. Children as young as 2 will pick their own ripe fruit from the trees that are around houses, and all over the village or the field. The children like the autonomy of eating a food about which an adult cannot prevent or stop them from getting and eating. Adults try to keep an eye on how much the children have eaten especially late in the afternoon so that mothers do not cook a large nshima staple meal and have it go to waste because the children are too full to eat dinner or supper.


MangoAdults will eat a few Mangoes if they feel like it when they walk past a tree with ripe fruit in the course of doing daily chores especially hoeing in the field. As I travelled by bus from Lusaka the Capital City of Zambia  to the remote Lundazi Villages in Eastern Zambia, so many times I saw adults sitting on the ground or a log in the fields eating Mangoes. I knew they were taking a much needed snack, refreshment, or food break as they continued to hoe in the field.


When the Mangoes begin getting ripe, the culture has an accepted communal practice that anyone can walk to any field or Mango tree and pick a few Mangoes just to eat right there and then. The only objection is if someone goes to another person’s field or tree with a large basket to pick up large quantities of Mangoes either to take home or for some other objectionable reasons. Since Mango trees are everywhere, this ensures that all adults and children can have access to the fruits to eat at any time wherever they are during the day. When anyone is picking ripe Mango fruits from a field, the only thing they have to watch for is not to trample the maize, peanuts, and pumpkin crop that may be only a few inches to knee-high at this time of the early growing season. The other objection is to be careful to not  accidentally take down plenty of green unripe mangoes in the process of trying to get one ripe Mango. This wastes a lot of Mangoes. The objections to this behavior create childhood Mango stories.


My Cousin Loses His Shorts


When I lived as a child  in the village in the 1950s one day during the rainy season, my friends and I decided we were tired of eating the small or little Mangoes. We wanted the bigger tastier Dudu Mangoes. But they were only available from Mr. Ngamira field a couple of miles from our village. The 8 of us boys ranging from 7 to 12 years old decided we would go to the Ngamira field late in the afternoon to eat a few of the Dudu Mangoes. We walked in the winding bush path in a single file to the edge of the field that had just been hoed with beautiful ridges with small or young peanut and maize plants growing on top of the ridges. There seemed to be no one in the field. That’s exactly what we had been hoping for.

young boysWe hastily and noisily scampered towards the tree looking for the ripe large tasty Dudu mangoes. When we were about thirty yards from the thick large tree, a green Mango suddenly shot from the tree and landed may be a few feet from me. Before we could figure out what was happening another Mango shot out of the tree and landed a few feet from my cousin. We were under attack. There was a scream to run. We all fled into the path towards our village. My 11 year old cousin Thauro who was running in front of me didn’t have a belt. His shorts fell to his ankles, he tripped and fell exposing his bottom as he quickly stood up pulled up his shorts holding on to them as he  continued running. After about half a mile, we all stopped gasping for breath. We began to laugh uncontrollably at my cousin Thauro for tripping, losing his shorts and exposing his bottom.

mangoesWhen we returned to the village, we told my grandmother about how something or a creature threw Mangoes and nearly hit us at the Ngamira field when we were looking to eat Dudu Mangoes. Could it have been a man? My grandmother didn’t seem concerned. She said we would have deserved being hit since were probably walking all over ruining Mr. Ngaramira’s young maize crop.



Dangers of Mango Hunting


In the late 1960s when I lived in a rural area north of Chipata in Chief Mshawa’s area, I had an experience that I will never forget. My cousin and I were both 14 years old. We decided we would wander far from our own field in search of even newer, fresher, better and sweeter Mangoes. We must have walked a couple of miles beyond our familiar grounds, when we found this very large tree with beautiful large yellow ripe Mangoes. As were nervously maneuvering around the tree to spot the best looking ripe Mangoes, a fierce looking man with a thick beard and wide eyes suddenly emerged out of the nearby bushes on the edge of the field yelling:


Eating Mangos“Hey!!! You!!! What are you doing trampling my maize and eating my Mangoes!!” He was wielding an axe.


I have never been so scared in my life. We ran very fast over the ridges with the axe-wielding man trailing us for about a hundred yards. He couldn’t gain on us. My cousin and I stopped once we realized the man was not chasing us anymore. Our hearts were pounding so fast as we nervously laughed saying that was a close call. When we arrived home, we never told my Sister and Brother-in-law of the scary incident because we knew we had no business wandering that far away from home into a stranger’s  fields.


The Last Mango


I was 11 years old at Dzoole School in Chief Chanje area about 7 miles from Mgubudu stores on the Chipata-Lundazi Road in the Eastern province of Zambia. That’s where my father was teaching at the time.

Plate of MangosIt was at the very tail end of the mango season sometime at the end of January. The Mangoes were getting fewer and fewer. One sunny afternoon, I was hunting birds with a legina (sling shot), when I suddenly saw this bright red-yellow Mango right on top of a big tall Mango tree. I didn’t even think. I just raced to go and climb the tree because I had to have that delicious Mango. I had not eaten one in more than a week.

As soon as I walked into the think underbrush, it was very dark as I crunched the dry mango leaves on the ground with my feet. As I hastily climbed the tree, I kept my eyes up to where the mango fruit was with rays of bright lights breaking through the thick green leaves.  Half way up the dark tree, I heard the loud buzzing around my head. I knew right away what they were. Instead of climbing down, I just let go and fell the rest of the way; thud!! to the ground and got up and ran.

With  the large big black buzzing of all the ferocious mabvu, masanganavo or wasps, I was lucky because I was bitten only once right above my left eye brow. I thanked my quick reflexes and instincts.  Talking about mabvu or masanganavo or wasps, if you were a boy, being stung while hunting birds and wondering in the woods and bushes was a rite of passage.

But I had a huge problem. How was I going to hide this from my mother? My eye was already swelling and soon it would be swollen shut. Some thoughts went through my mind. I could go home late after dark and then slip into bed, or I could run away for a few days. But where would a kid with a swollen eye go? I didn’t know anyone I could ran away from home to. I decided to go home but I would try to hide this calamity from my mother. I must have walked home sheepishly because right away as soon as my mother saw me she asked:



“What’s wrong?”


“Nothing,” I replied as I kept the left side of my body away from her.


The next thing I heard from her is:


“You have been stung by wasps, what were you doing?”


“I was trying to get a mango,” I confessed since I figured she caught me. There was not sense trying to lie.


“You act as though I do not feed you,” my mother said sarcastically. “ You just had a big lunch of delicious nshima. Why were you looking for a stupid mango for? How hungry can you be? You deserve to be stung. Now,  I hope you have learnt your lesson.”


My younger siblings came and gawked at my left eye which was swollen shut by this time. My mother didn’t know I was so relieved it was over. I had expected worse. Fortunately my father was not even home. The following day the swelling was gone and I was back in the bush again.


Fond Memories


Among numerous fond memories of Mangoes is the season in January 1976. I was a senior at University when I lived in the village for one month with my parents. As soon as I arrived in the village, I immediately joined my parents in the growing season everyday routine of hoeing and tilling of the land to grow maize, peanuts, sweet potatoes and a dozen other foods. I woke up at 5:30 am, washed my face, and carried the hoe on my shoulder walking through the bush path to our family field. Mango trees were all over the village and the field. But there was this one Mango tree which was about a hundred yards along the path. Every morning, I detoured to the Mango tree in the bush and would pick up 3 or 4 large delicious Mango fruits that had ripened overnight. I would eat them and continued on the path to the field.


Mangos on dashboardMy father would already be in the field. I would join him. My mother and some of the younger siblings came later with my mother. My mother would be carrying late breakfast and lunch which we would eat in the mphungu grass shelter. One of the siblings would also be carrying a basket of fresh mangoes to the field.


We would eat porridge with peanut powder and sometimes drink the sweet mthibi traditional brew which is cooked from finger millet. Once we finished hoeing, at about 4:00 pm we would return to the village where I would take a bath. After wards, I would eat supper of nshima sometimes with fish or beans, and other vegetables with my parents. The following morning, I would wake up following the same routine. I would detour to the same Mango tree to eat a number of them that had become ripe overnight. I remember telling myself that the Mango tree was my breakfast table. Indeed, growing up and going to school at Boyole, I remember we students naming one of the Mango trees by the edge of the school “JemuJemu” which translates at “bitebite”. When school would dismiss, some of us would climb up the tree and eat one Mango before we headed home. We would be playing all the time.


Looking Back


Every community and villages in rural areas love and know all their children. Both the scary incidents were meant to protect the young crop and also unripe green mangoes as children are generally careless. Mr. Ngamira probably had heard us coming to his field through the path long before we had arrived. He had probably climbed and hid in the tree. When he thought we were near enough he had thrown the two mangoes one after another knowing neither one of the Mangoes would hit or hurt us children. We experienced something scary and exciting. We ran and told other children back in the village not to wander into Ngamira field as there are mysterious creatures that throw mangoes at you if you go there looking to eat Mangoes. Adults including my Grandmother probably knew what had happened all along.

The axe-wielding man also merely pretended to want to axe us. At one time during the brief chase, he was close enough to really use his axe to hurt us. But he didn’t mean to and knew that scaring us would ensure that we would tell the story to other young boys. I am sure the man for the next few years had no children trampling and destroying his crop while looking for Mangoes. He probably even knew my brother-in-law and shared the funny story with other older men.





Contemplating the natural goodness of the Mango fruit and how people in my rural community enjoy the fruit so much, my thoughts focus on the possibility that the fruit may have been created from the goodness of God. In many instances just as I cannot explain some of the wonders of life and the universe, my thought never wander too far from the power and goodness of God. How else can I explain the natural magnificence and beauty of the fruit that I and so many people love so much?

The Mango Fruit

A Poem

March 24, 2012


The tell-tale signs

Of the Mango fruit genesis

Tiny white flowers

Bloom on the tree

Dark green leaves

Small and big insects buzz

Feed on the sweet nectar

In the cold month of June

In Savannah Africa

Barely four months after

The last delicious Mango fruit


The bitter acidic taste

Of the raw Mango fruit

In the hot dry month

Of October Independence Day

The city shanty compound

Markets choked with

Unripe Mango fruits

How crude and untimely?


Come the month of December

Rains quench the parched earth

Three whole weeks

Before Christmas Day

Bright colored birds

Sing sweet melodious songs

Fly in tall green elephant grass

In the foggy early morning


Time to plant seeds

For a good harvest

This season

Time for  a million plants

Insects and Mango trees

Explode with green life


Small mangoes, big mangoes named Dudu

Short mango trees, tall mango trees

Wild mangoes with bland taste

Garden whole golden yellow

Ripe mangoes

With green and yellow patches

Mango fruits ripe everywhere

On the ground and dangling

Beckoning humans, insects, animals

Alike invitingly on tree limbs


No more empty bellies

For now during the harsh

Hunger season named  zinja

People, birds, insects, ants, flies

Of a thousand shapes, sizes, and colors


The sweet smell of the mango

It is in the air

In the house

And in dreams


The thought and dreams

Of a thousand sweet delicious

Different tastes of

The mango draws

Tears to the eye

Many fond memories

Taste buds titillated with

Unfulfilled fantasies

Of the sweet juicy mango

The bite squeezes

Yellow juices drip quickly

Down the arm soiling

Child’s only Sunday shirt

Mother chastises

Oh! what to do with stubborn

Yellow stains


The dull mango

The sweet mango

The juicy mango

The wild mango

The bitter mango

A thousand tastes flavors

And colors in between

Oh! what a joy it is

To experience

The titillating taste

Of a Million mango tastes

Oh! What a joy it is

To be alive

To live another day

To savor another mango




The author wrote this poem in 1997. He revised it recently after eating mangoes in Zambia this past December after 20 years.