Zinja Hunger

When You are Lucky to Eat One Meal a Day –

Suppose a family of a mother, father, and their two children was paid fourteen thousand dollars in January with instructions that they would not be paid again until nine months later at the end of September. The lump sum of money should be spent judiciously primarily for food but also to buy some clothing, travel, emergencies and entertainment. What are the chances that this family will go hungry during some last weeks of September because they will have squandered some money prematurely? This is the closest characterization and analogy to the hunger period that the vast majority of rural African families experience in Savannah Africa every year.

It is the first week of January in the remote villages of the Lundazi District of rural Zambia in Southern Africa. Mr. Philimoni Nkhata wakes up very early in the morning in his hut, washes his face, grabs a hoe and carries it on his shoulder. He walks through the narrow bush path that is blocked by tall thick dew-saturated elephant grass which is bending over blocking the path. He is going to his family field to start tilling it with his hoe. But he is very hungry. Since the mango fruit season is almost over, he will be lucky to find one or two mangoes in the tree to eat for breakfast. His wife and two younger children would join him later at the field. They are the lucky few these days to still afford one meal of nshima (thick paste cooked out of cornmeal) with plain vegetables at the end of the day.

Hunger of Zinja Period

This is the severe hunger period that millions of rural Africans in Sub-Saharan Savannah Africa have to endure every year. The Tumbuka people of Zambia call it the zinja period and the Chewa people call it gwang’wang’wa. The more than two thousand African languages have their own indigenous term for this difficult but widespread experience;  eating only one meal or virtually no food to eat during this four to six-week period.

Understanding the dynamics of the hunger period is important since it was tragically transformed into famine in 2002 in many parts of Southern Africa in Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe due to severe drought. Thousands of people died and national and international resources were mobilized to distribute relief food in the affected countries.

But the questions that the reader could ask are: “Why are these Africans repeated victims of drought-caused famine?” Perhaps the second and more important question is: “How did these rural hapless Africans survive these hunger or zinja periods and sometimes drought-induced famines?” The possible answers may perhaps surprise and even shock the reader in their simplicity.

Cause of droughts

The cause of frequent droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa especially in the Savannah regions is a phenomenon known as the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). In the majority of other continents and regions of the world, rainfall is governed by limited, predictable movements of cold air, ocean currents, or humid or moist air currents rising and traveling over mountains, and large oceans. There are also encounters between tropical humid air and freezing cold from the frozen tundra regions of the extreme north and south of the earth that result in rain. The African continent is unique because it is the only largest mass of the earth that is almost traversed into two halves by the equator. Because of this, rainfall patterns in many parts of the vast continent are often marginal and sometimes unpredictable.

foodIn the Savannah areas of Africa, rain is caused by a combination of several unique factors. Cold and cool air from the Northern and Southern parts roam the surface of the continent blow toward the equator. Hot humid and moist air from the equatorial rainforest regions also blow away from the equator roaming the vast surface of the continent. Wherever these currents encounter each other, the hot moist humid air rises above the cool air, and rain is the result. These Savannah rainfall patterns are complicated by the constantly changing tilted movements of the earth on its axis as it orbits around the sun throughout the year during the four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and autumn. These complex patterns are how Savannah areas of Africa get their two distinct seasons; the rain and hot dry seasons. Because of the ITCZ, certain parts of Africa are vulnerable to these unique complex relationships between climate and geography. These drought-induced famines occurred periodically in the long history of Africa. For example, two documented consecutive years of drought occurred from 1899 to 1901 which killed millions in Kenya, Uganda, and Southern Somalia.

Zinja and Drought Induced Famine

What’s the difference between the zinja or the hunger period and the drought-induced famine? The hunger period in Savannah Africa happens because typically the Savannah region South of the equator, the rural dwellers get their food harvests in April. The stored food is supposed to last until the end of January the following year when some of the new crop planted in late November begins to mature. The hunger period starts during end of December because the food stores in the nkhokwe storage structure run very low or have been depleted. The worst part of the hunger period is in the month of January when families are lucky to eat one meager meal in a day.

Grain linesWas there a time when the hunger period was less severe or sometimes did not even exist at all on the African continent? Before 1960 and perhaps even going back to the time when European colonialism was imposed in Africa between 1880s and early 1900s, growing crops for cash crops did not exist in much of rural Africa. During that period, the Tumbuka people of the Lundazi District of the Eastern Province of Zambia, like many other subsistence farming tribes in Africa, grew maize, peanuts, finger millet, sorghum, beans, peas, bananas, paws paws, sweet potatoes, cassava, pumpkins, and many other foods. Many of these including wild fruits and vegetables were grown or collected, harvested, and stored away for family consumption.White Maize Africans traditionally did not need anything much beyond food. This author’s grandfather who died in 1992 remembered wearing bark cloth as a child in the early 1920s at the time of European arrival in Zambia. Infact, the eminent African scholar, Ali Mazrui makes a similar observation that Africans in villages across the continent were so self-sufficient that there was no reason to produce food for cash or commercial exchange.

The traditional subsistence farming and communal village life style of eating may have also prevented wide spread malnutrition. This was best exemplified among the Tumbuka and many tribes of Zambia by the village institution of the Mphala among the Tumbuka, Chewa, and Ngoni of Eastern Zambia. This institution was called the Insaka among the Bemba of Northern Zambia.


The Mphala was first and fore most a physical location on the edge of the village. In this sense, the mphala had a close resemblance to, for example, the physical location of a University, a house for a family, a church for a religion. The location of the mphala is designated by a thatch roof supported by five to six lone wooden supports placed in a round or circular fashion. It has no walls. A more precise definition is that it is a large hut without walls.

This is the place where all men of the village meet to eat, chit-chat, mend tools such as hoes, axes, spears, knives. They also carve household implements from wood like stools, pestles and mortars, drums, wooden cooking sticks and spoons better known respectively as mthiko and lukhezo. Baskets and mats are also made at the mphala.

It is at the mphala where village disputes are settled by the headman, vital and critical decisions concerning the internal or external welfare of the village are discussed and made. For example, the bride wealth for a bride to be given by the groom’s family will be decided at the mphala. Decisions to participate in a local co-operative project, what issues to discuss at the upcoming Parents Teachers Association (PTA) meeting are all discussed here.

Every village in the Lundazi District of the Eastern Province of rural Zambia had a mphala. In order to illustrate the perversity of this institution, the Lundazi District has a geographical size of 31,680 square kilometers, estimated population of 117,961 and an estimated density of 3.9 persons per square kilometer. The South-Eastern or Mwase region and the North-Western regions of the District have combined total of approximately 800 villages. Each village has approximately a population ranging from 42 to 130 people. The entire District might have well over 1500 to 2,000 villages. With each village having a mphala, this means that the institution must have a significant and pervasive influence on the inhabitants.


Most meals were eaten at the mphala in the village up to as late as the late 1960s. This was during the dry season from April to November. All the male children over the age of eight, adolescent boys, and men ate their meals together at the mphala. All young children, adolescent girls, and women ate their meals together at the village Headman’s wife’s house. Typical meals consisted of a meal of nshima and ndiwo or relish from each of the village households. For example, there could be forty plates of nshima with 8 servings of varieties of meats, 10 servings of beans or peas, and 22 servings of assortments of green vegetables dishes cooked or garnished with peanut powder. This often ensured that each child and adult ate a reasonably balanced diet.

Impact of Colonialism

Colonialism and later the introduction of the cash crop economy destroyed these patterns of communal village life. As individuals and families began to grow cash crops, there was less emphasis on subsistence production. There was less subsistence food to be consumed by the family let alone for the mphala communal consumption of meals. Since a family growing food using a hoe can grow only so much cash crop and surplus food, dwindling family food harvests only mean longer and more desperate zinja or hunger periods. Besides one of the possible outcomes of the emphasis on cash crop production using hybrid seed over the last thirty years is the costly compromising of food seed bio-diversity. This is connected to how millions of Africans in Savannah Africa survived hunger periods and severe drought-induced famines like the one that affected parts of Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe in 2002.

During the hundreds of years of subsistence farming, Africans had developed a tremendous food-seed and food diversity. There were in existence large varieties of domestic food crops most of which were ecologically very adapted to the Savannah drought conditions. These included foods such as maize, sorghum, peanuts, finger millet, sweet potatoes, beans, peas, pumpkins, and cassava, large varieties of over thirty domestic and wild green vegetables. There were also large varieties of wild fruits such as masuku, mangoes, mbula, masuku, and mazaye. There were also large varieties of sources of protein including domestic and wild animals. The indigenous food-seed diversity meant that when there was severe drought many crops that did not require as much rain still matured such that people were still able to get a modest harvest enough to survive to the next growing season.

Western Agriculture

Over the last thirty years, well-meaning intensive international Western-initiated agricultural programs were introduced by African governments. The campaigns and resulting policies were meant to improve agricultural production and food security for African populations that were growing at the rate of as high as 3%. Hybrid seed maize, for example, was introduced that often required expensive inputs that could only be obtained through agricultural loans. The new hybrid maize and beans required fertilizer, insecticides, more weeding, and required increasingly larger proportions of land and labor to increase output such that the village farmers could feed their families and make a profit.

These new hybrid foods also introduced new less preferred tastes in the food. The hybrid farming that was to enhance the Green Revolution encouraged mono crop subsistence farming at the expense of food-seed diversity that may have helped rural Africans better survive annual seasonal hunger periods but as well as serious drought-induced famine. As a result, millions of rural Africans who live in the Savannah regions of Africa, are more vulnerable to famine because, for example, hybrid maize, beans, or rice, may have been adopted as the only and major staple food. The solution to averting future drought-induced famine is to encourage the growing of a large traditional diversity of indigenous seed-foods among the rural people. Such that if the maize crop is affected by insufficient or less than the normal rain or drought, cassava, finger millet, and other grains and tuber substitutes could still grow and be harvested and eaten. The penetration of the modern or global consumer culture into the rural Lundazi District and elsewhere means people are growing both maize and the cotton cash crop. The deteriorating international exchange rate with the local currencies means that the purchasing power of the come from the larger amounts of the cotton cash crop is very low if not shrinking. Effort and the time rural people spend on growing the cotton cash crop is time away from food crops that could improve food consumption and prevent malnutrition among children.


Tembo, Mwizenge S., “An Assessment of Appropriate Technology Needs of Gwazapasi and Mkanile Villages of Lundazi District of Rural Zambia”, in Eastern Africa Journal of Rural Development, Kampala, Uganda: Makerere University, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1981.

Tembo, Mwizenge S., Conceptualization of Appropriate Technology in Lundazi District of Rural Zambia: Dissertation for the Degree of Ph. D, East Lansing, Michigan State University, 1987.

Mazrui, Ali, (Presenter), The Africans: PBS Nine Part Television Series, Produced by WETA-TV, Washington, D.C and the BBC, The Annenberg/CPB Collection, 1986.

Neff, Jeffrey W., “Africa: A Geographic Preface,” in Gordon and Gordon (Ed.), Understanding Contemporary Africa, Boulder & London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992.

Ambler, Charles H., Kenyan Communities in the Age of Imperialism: The Central Region in the Late Ninteenth Century, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Madeley, John, Big Business Poor Peoples: The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, London and New York: Zed Books, 2000.