Recipe for Mphangwe (Pumpkin Leaves) Vegetable by Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D. Professor of Sociology

Locate the dark green sprawling mphangwe, squash or pumpkin leaves plants. The first and most important action is that when you approach the long growing pumpkin plants in the garden, in harvesting the leaves for cooking, you nip off with a knife or your fingers only the first three tender or fresh leaves in front of the nose of the plant. This was my mother’s rule. These are the leaves that are the most fresh and tender. You do not just pick up any of the leaves. The coarsest the leaves the worse the taste of the pumpkin vegetables and the harder to cook.

Mphangwe ya Nyungu or Pumpkin or Squash leaves vegetable garden

Once a pound of  the leaves are collected, the tiny prickly looking growths around the stems are individually peeled off of each stem using your hands and fingers. If these prickly small things are not removed that would also ruin the taste of the cooked vegetable.

Wash and dice or cut the leaves into quarter or half inch width.

Recipe ingredients


Pour two tablespoons of olive oil into a medium size pot. Heat the oil on high for one minute. Put the diced mphangwe squash leaves into the pot two handfuls of at a time and stir. Once all the mphangwe leaves are in the pot, stir for a minute until all the leaves have shrunk.  Add in the diced tomatoes and onions and stir. Add the salt, the garlic and any other desired seasoning. Stir for two minutes. Cover the pot, lower the heat to medium and simmer for about 5 minutes. Taste every few minutes if you like your vegetables medium or well cooked. Take the top off, turn off, and take the pot off the burner to avoid over cooking the mphangwe vegetable. Serve with bread, rice, potatoes, or  a wrap. Zambians eat the mphangwe vegetable with the traditional nshima staple meal cooked from corn or maize meal.

Mphangwe Pumpkin or squash leaves with their long stalks.
You snap and bend back a small piece of the stalk and peel down.
Snip and bend small edge of the stalk and peel down
Peel of all the stringy prick lings.
Cut the mphangwe pumpkin or squash leaves
Dice a medium tomato
Dice tomato
Medium onion
Diced onion
Cooking the mphangwe vegetables
Cooked serving of the mphangwe pumpkin or squash leaves vegetable
The mphangwe pumpkin leaves vegetable is traditionally served the nshima meal cooked with corn or maize meal. But you can serve it with bread, a wrap, rice or as a side dish.

Do You Have Cravings for Truly Zambian Food?

For a traditional Zambian who lives so far away from home, life overseas is not all enjoyment of cheap blue jeans, night clubs, and easy life. There was a Zambian whose name will not be disclosed as authorities and perhaps the Interpol from the overseas country might still pursue him over international waters and land. He was a single young man living in one of a group of modest apartments on the fifth floor. After he had been in the overseas country for one year, he had dined on enough chips, hamburgers, an assortment of sea foods, chicken cooked in a hundred ways, sea fish, noodles and spaghetti. He terribly craved finkubala, (dry roasted caterpillars), chiwawa (pumpkin leaves) kapenta, delele, and fyakusashila (green leaves cooked with peanut powder). But most of all, he craved for a nice, little, salted, and Zambian well charcoal-roasted bird like a pigeon.

He had an idea. City tame pigeons usually played and perched outside on the ledge of the kitchen window of his apartment. One morning, with a hawk’s eye, he made sure no one was looking. He quickly slammed shut the open kitchen window. Four of the eleven pigeons were flapping in his kitchen. He wildly swatted at them with a towel and dove at one of the most dazed ones. In the confusion he apprehended only one and three escaped through the window which had swung open because of his strong breathing. He had a very delicious lunch of nshima with the well grill-roasted bird.

The delicious bird was hardly digested when there was a knock on the door. He opened the door and almost dropped dead. It was the long arm of the law – a police officer.  He politely told the Zambian gentleman that a neighbor with binoculars reported a suspicious activity in which eleven pigeons were seen in the vicinity of his swinging kitchen window and only ten were eventually seen to fly away. If deported, this could have turned into an embarrassing international diplomatic incident. After somewhat regaining his composure, the Zambian put up a courageous argument about counting of flying birds being difficult from a distance even if one had a degree in mathematics.

The police officer politely warned him that it was against city ordinance to cage, capture, restrain, sell, or dispose in any way of city public property without the express permission from the mayor. For the rest of his overseas stay, the Zambian suppressed his cravings and yearning for Zambian home food until he had landed at Lusaka International Airport in Zambia’s Capital City.

Mango, the Godly Fruit from Heaven

This is what I had dreamt about for months since September 2011; eating a mango fruit during the Christmas season in December in my native Zambia in Southern Africa.

mango I was standing slightly bent over near the wall on the green nicely manicured lawn of my uncle’s front lawn at the farm in Lusaka in Zambia in Southern Africa. I picked up a fresh bright yellow firm mango from a dish of mangoes in clean water. I rinsed it very briefly and bit into it. The sweet yellow juice gushed into my mouth as the deeply familiar intoxicating flavor from my emotional memory shot through my nose. I proceeded to quickly peel off the skin with my front teeth with familiar precision and skill. I devoured the mango fruit as some of the succulent sweet juice dripped down my elbow as I leaned over preventing the juice from dripping on my shirt. That’s the way to eat a mango for an experienced native eater. This is what I had dreamt about for months since September 2011; eating a mango fruit during the Christmas season in December in my native Zambia in Southern Africa.
mangosI had eaten mangoes all my life. But I had not eaten any since December 1989. The mango fruit is perhaps the most cherished as it is not only hearty but symbolizes so much of life in tropical African such as Zambia. The mango fruit grows naturally both in the fields and in the wild. It never needs fertilizer, manure, weeding, watering, or spraying it with herbicides to kill bugs for it to grow. But it naturally thrives year in and year out, its trees producing abundant fruits every year ripening around December 22nd. This is the beginning of the rainy and planting season when the food harvests from the previous season have run low all over rural Zambia. It is also during the festive holiday season. By the time the mango season finally ends in mid January people in rural areas are barely weeks from eating fresh food from the growing fields.
I have eaten dozens of different fruits in my life. The mango has to be a Godly fruit from heaven. When it is mature it is dark green and very tart and harshly acidic to the bite. When ripe it is bright golden yellow and can be spotted from a hundred yards away. Mangoes are so very filling that if you eat just a few before dinner, you may have to skip dinner. That’s why sometimes when I was growing up my mother used to admonish us for eating mangoes just before dinner because we would be too full to eat. But the mango is so irresistible.
The aroma of ripe sticky mangoes in the house with its succulent sweetness is one of the powerful symbols of the December holiday season. The long fiber from the fruit is good for cleansing the stomach and natural flossing of the teeth.
As I dreamt about devouring mangoes in Zambia all last fall, I was finally glad my dreams were realized. One of the dreams was to walk to many mango trees and simply hand pick one or two of the most beautifully ripe fruits and eat them right there and then in the field. mango treeThe first day I arrived in the village, I found out there was a loaded mango tree just ten yards behind my house where I was sleeping. In the entire field around our village there were more than ten mango trees. I spent two hours going from tree to tree with two curious eight year old nephews in tow. I ate at least one mango from each tree. When I was done I was so pleasantly full I thought I would explode. That evening my nieces brought me a dish full of more fresh mangoes that I kept by my bed side. I ate a few again before I went to bed and the intoxicating aroma of the fruit filled the hut as I slept.
There often has been speculation that if ever there was a Garden of Eden it must have been in tropical Africa. Besides bananas, grapes, guava, pawpaws, oranges, apples, and other fruits, God may have created the mango as just the right sweet, juicy, and very hearty fruit to feed Adam and Eve.

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.

Nshima and Ndiwo: Zambian Staple Food

Nshima and Ndiwo: Zambian Staple Food

Nshima mealFor ten million Zambians in a country the size of Texas or France in Southern Africa, the concept of “nshima” and what it stands for is the very basis of life. Nshima is the staple food eaten by not only Zambians but Malawians and many other African neighbors. Almost all indigenous African languages in Zambia probably call nshima by a different name according to the specific area language and dialect variation. The Chewa, Tumbuka, and Ngoni of Eastern Zambia and Malawi call it sima or nsima, the Bemba of Northern Zambia call it ubwali, the Tonga of Southern Zambia call it Insima and Lozi of Western Zambia call it Buhobe. A similar staple meal is called Sadza in Zimbabwe, Milli Pap in South Africa, Ugali is eaten in East Africa including in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. A similar staple meal called Fufu is eaten in West Africa particularly in Nigeria. Many Americans liken it to mashed potatoes or grits. But what exactly is this staple food eaten by perhaps an estimated 14 to 18 million people in Southern Africa alone?

washingDuring the mid 1950s in a village among the Tumbuka in Eastern Zambia, an incident occurred that was to have legendary significance about the nshima staple food in the diet of the African peoples. It was during British colonialism in the rural district of Lundazi. A village Headman, a Mr. Kasaru, had been summoned from his village to see the European British District Commissioner. As common practice in rural Africa, people making a long journey on foot usually set off at dawn.

Headman Kasaru, is said to have set off at dawn with his wife insisting that he waits so that she cooks him and eats a good nshima meal to last him during the better part of the hot tiring day. The man insisted that he was going to be alright and that after all it was only a ten to fifteen mile walk. He was sure to arrive at the District Commissioner’s Office by ten that morning. Indeed, Mr. Kasaru had a brisk walk and the hot sun beat on him. But he arrived sweating, tired, terribly thirsty with patched lips at the District Commissioner’s Office that morning. The Commissioner would not see Headman Kasaru right away. He had to wait standing in line.

Observers said that Mr. Kasaru suddenly had a glazed look in his eyes and collapsed. His daughter-in-law, who happened to live nearby, splashed cold water on his face to revive him. Later after a good hearty nshima meal, village Headman Kasaru is said to have attributed all his problems to having refused to eat nshima before he left the village for his long journey that morning. The legend and saying that circulated in the whole area was: “Njara nkhamtengo, yikatonda a Kasaru.” which translates as “Hunger is as tough as a tree, Headman Kasaru succumbed to it.”

In the minds of the Tumbuka people, and indeed in the minds of the majority of Zambians, this particular incident vividly reaffirmed the significance of nshima in the lives and diet of the people. Nshima fills you up and offers people a bounty of energy to last a walk of a long distance, working in the fields, hunting animals, fetching mushrooms in the bush far away from the village. It is for this reason that folk tales, customs, rituals, gestures of hospitality and kindness or cruelty surround someone being offered nshima or denied the meal by their hosts.

What is Nshima and Who Eats It?

It is a food cooked from plain maize or corn meal or maize flour known as mealie-meal among Zambians. The price of corn meal and ultimately nshima, is a crucial matter in urban Zambian political and economic life. The government suddenly raising the price of corn meal sparked the political riots of June 1990 in the Zambian Capital City of Lusaka. The political crisis that ensued eventually let to multiparty democratic elections in Zambia in October 1991. The ruling party of United National Independence Party (UNIP) that had monopolized power for over 20 years was voted out of office. The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was voted into power by landslide.

Nshima has always been the basis of life in Zambia for as far back in history as people can remember. During the best of times the nshima meal is always eaten for lunch and dinner. This is the case during and after the harvest season in the villages in rural Zambia. This is from about April to November when the food reserves are generally adequate. During the lean months, “hunger period”, or what the Tumbuka call zinja, between December and March, the majority of rural people can often afford nshima only once per day during late afternoon.

Many of the urban dwellers, ranging from those in the low-income sector, the middle, and the affluent eat nshima during lunch and dinner. The poor, unemployed, and those in the urban shanty compounds often barely afford one meal of nshima once per day usually for dinner. What else do Zambians eat besides nshima?

Zambians are generally raised to believe that only nshima constitutes a full and complete meal. Any other foods eaten in between are regarded either as snacks or a temporary less filling or inadequate substitute or a mere appetizer. Lets say you meet a Zambian late in the afternoon and ask him if he or she has eaten. Most likely they will tell you that they haven’t eaten all day although they might have eaten a sandwich, peanuts, milk, and a few other non-nshima foods.

Nshima is such a key factor loaded with such emotional investment in the diet that many rituals, expectations, expressions, customs, beliefs, and songs have developed in the culture around working for, cooking, and eating of nshima. For example, nshima is best when eaten steaming hot. A Chewa speaking man in Eastern Zambia, in moments of great masculine exuberance might say:

“Ndine mwamuna ine, yikapola ndi ya mwana!” “I am a man who eats only hot nshima, if its cold I give it to children.”

There is a legend of an irate husband among the Chewa people of Eastern Zambia in the mid 1960s, who always admonished and insisted to his wife that the pot she was using for cooking nshima was not big enough. He wanted her to abandon the pot and use an even bigger one. The woman sung the following song:

Yacepa yacepa sefuliya

Yacepa yacepa sefuliya

Bamuna aba

Acita uluma a a ha! ha! ha! ngati mkango

This pot is small

This pot is small

My Husband

He roars Haa!! Haa!! Haa!!

Like a lion

The famous observation that while Europeans might have one or two terms for describing snow and Eskimos might have more than 15 also applies to Zambian description of nshima. There are anywhere from 10 up to 20 terms depicting various types and states of nshima. The good or perfect nshima, if cooked from corn meal, is one which is steaming hot, snow white, smooth, not too soft or too hard, and served promptly on clean beautiful dishes. The good or near perfect second perhaps more important half of the meal, the relish or ndiwo, must be well-cooked meat, fish, or poultry with delicious well-seasoned gravy or what is called soup among Zambians.

Nshima Recipe

Nshima is the staple food for 10 million Zambians. It is eaten at least twice per day; for lunch and dinner. Another second dish, known as ndiwo, umunani, dende or relish, must always accompany nshima. The relish is always a deliciously cooked vegetable, meat, fish, or poultry dish. By comparison to other cultures, Zambian recipes tend to be bland and hardly use any hot spices at all. However, they use other traditional ingredients and spices that give Zambian foods that distinctive unique taste and flavor.

Lusaka corn mealPAN
4 Cups Water

2 Cups plain corn meal

Method: Pour 4 cups of water into a medium size cooking pot. Heat the water for 3 – 4 minutes or until lukewarm. Using one tablespoonful at a time, slowly sprinkle 3/4 cup of the corn meal into the pot while stirring continuously with a cooking stick. Keep stirring slowly until the mixture begins to thicken and boil. Turn the heat to medium, cover the pot, and let simmer for 3 to 5 minutes.

Cautiously remove the top. Slowly, a little at a time, pour into the pot 1 and a quarter cups of corn meal and briskly stir with the cooking stick until smooth and thick. Stir vigorosly. Sprinkle a little more corn meal and stir if you desire the nshima to be thicker or less if you want softer nshima. Cover, turn the heat off and let nshima sit on the stove for another 2 to 3 minutes. Serves 4 people.

Must always be served hot with a vegetable, bean, meat or fish dish or ndiwo.

The Ndiwo Dish

ndiwoOne of the most significant aspects of the Zambian staple meal by which the nshima is ultimately identified with what in English might be called the “relish”. The relish is an English somewhat poor equivalent or translation, which obviously, does not precisely reflect or capture what Zambians often realize is the very fundamental and transcending essence of the dish. The relish is a second dish that is always and without exception served with the nshima. It has many indigenous equivalent names. Among the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia it is known as dende, among the Ngoni and Chewa of Malawi and Eastern Zambia it is known as ndiyo or ndiwo, and umunani among the Bemba speaking people of Northern Zambia and the Copperbelt Province.

ndiwo second dishThe ndiwo second dish which is always served with nshima is often cooked from domestic and wild meats that include beef, goat, mutton, deer, buffalo, elephant, warthog, wild pig, mice, rabbits or hare, antelope, turtle, alligator or crocodile, monkey, chicken eggs. Green vegetables include domestic or garden grown like collard greens, known as rape in Zambia, cabbage, pumpkin and squash leaves, pea leaves, cassava leaves, bean leaves, kabata, nyazongwe, or bilozongwe leaves. There are numerous wild green vegetables that include katambalala, chekwechekwe, katate, lumanda, and numerous others, which are all, referred to by the very well known generic name of delele or thelele among people of Eastern Zambia and Malawi. There are anywhere from 20 to 30 of this group of thelele vegetables.

ndiwo and nshimaBecause the delele and other groups of vegetables are always so plentiful and easily available in the natural environment, it is one ndiwo that is frequently held in contempt. In rural Zambia the daily conversation will often focus on how difficult it is to get ndiwo. Someone will invariably complain that they have been eating delele for three straight days. Since any type of meat protein is the most scarce, it is the most valued or desired. Infact there is a special term that is used for that irresistible desire or yearning for meat which is known as nkhuli in Eastern Zambia and Malawi.

The pair of nshima and dende or ndiwo is therefore the most significant Zambian meal. One is rarely possible without the other. The two are like siamese twins, the left and the right hand, student and teacher, husband and wife, male and female or mitt and glove in American baseball parlance. Having one without the other is possible but is always regarded as a serious anomaly or oddity. If the cook induces the condition of eating nshima or ndiwo on its own, it would be regarded as lack of proper planning. If the diners induce the condition, they would be regarded as having poor judgement or being immature.

Other types of ndiwo or dende include fish, peanuts, peanut butter (chibwabwa or chimphonde), numerous types of wild mushrooms, and many varieties of beans and peas.

One excellent reason for why nshima and ndiwo always go together is that they complement each other. Nshima eaten by itself is rather relatively plain and bland. Although if you are an experienced, seasoned, and traditional eater of the meal, the nshima has its own subtle differences in taste and flavor depending on the type of mealie-meal and how it was cooked. In fact when Westerners who visit Zambia first eat nshima their typical reaction is: “God, why don’t you add butter, sugar or something to give it some taste or flavor?” But that is exactly the beauty and deeply acquired taste and appreciation of nshima in that it is the dende, ndiwo or relish second dish that gives it the unique taste or deliciousness. The nshima therefore accentuates the ndiwo and the reverse is also true. Eating the nshima by itself will fill the eater but without any taste ecstasy. Eating the ndiwo by itself might be gratifying but the individual will not feel full or satiated. Eating nshima by itself is known as kusoza among the Tumbuka people of Zambia. Kusinkha refers to eating ndiwo or relish by itself.

Types of Nshima

In traditional village Zambia, nshima has many types and states. There is nshima that is cooked from cassava meal (sima ya chikhau or chinangwa), sorghum meal (sima ya chidomba), finger millet meal (sima ya kambala). Potentially nshima can be cooked from any grain and tubers that can be transformed into meal or flour. There is nshima that has lumps in it (sima ya mambontho). This nshima is often the result of hasty cooking and only young inexperienced girls, men, and novices are expected to make this mistake.

There is nshima yopola. This is nshima that has gotten luke warm to cold because either it was cooked too early or eaters, guests, or diners delayed in getting to the table. This nshima is rather hard and might even crumble as the eater tries to get a lump. There is nshima ya cimbala. This is nshima left over from the previous night. It is usually stone cold and wet from steam condensation over night. Children are the only ones expected to eat this type of nshima sometimes for breakfast. Adult men are not advised to eat nshima ya cimbala as it is believed to cause weakness in the joints and also likely to usurp a man’s sexual energy.

Nshima yibisi means raw nshima. This is the nshima that was badly and hastily cooked perhaps with a very weak flame due to inadequate firewood or impatience on the part of the woman or the cook. One extreme way of testing if the nshima is raw is to push one’s middle finger deep into the just cooked nshima on a plate like one would push a dip stick when determing oil level in an automobile engine. If the nshima is well cooked, the finger will hardly penetrate, as it will be too hot for the tester. But if the nshima is under cooked, the finger will penetrate all the way and the individual tester will hardly feel any discomfort.

There is nshima ya mgayiwa. This is nshima that is cooked from corn or maize that is not hand processed. It is corn meal ground directly from corn using a hammer mill. This type of nshima is darker and very coarse or rough. Many Zambians will only eat this as a sign of hardship, in an emergency, or if they are in institutions like the boarding school, armed forces, or prison. In extreme cases it might cause diarrhea because of too much roughage for those not accustomed to eating it.

There is nshima ya kambandila which is cooked from maize or corn meal that is made from corn that has hardly dried in the fields just before harvest. This is also often done in desperation as the family might have run out of corn from the previous season’s harvest.

Nshima yosoza refers to eating the nshima without the second dish; the relish. This again is an extreme tremendous sign of suffering if individuals have to resort to eating nshima without relish. This extreme case is rare as in most cases individuals who eat nshima yo soza are said to be careless. There is a learnt skill in eating a large plate of nshima matched with often a smaller potion or serving of relish. One has to learn to match the rate of eating the nshima with the specific served portion of the relish. Going to the relish pot for some more is usually unacceptable or impractical. So in the unfortunate situation of mis matching the rate of eating nshima and the relish, the individual might end up eating nshima yo soza.

Nshima features very prominently in many other cultural aspects of the community. For example, a traditional healer will often prescribe that a patient gets the herb soaked from roots of a certain tree and use it for cooking nshima. The patient has to eat this type of nshima for two to three weeks to a month. This is true for a child who is being treated for childhood epilepsy or seizures for example. This type of nshima is known among the Tumbuka people as kasima ka mnkhwala or a tinny nshima cooked for medicinal purposes.

Balanced Nutrition and Eating Habits

The perception and eating customs of nshima among rural and urban people sometimes differ. Rural people are very frugal in the way they eat nshima. They prefer to eat nshima with only one ndiwo or relish dish at each meal. This is out of necessity as cooking one ndiwo for the two meals everyday is very demanding on the time of virtually all mothers or wives in rural villages. Cooking multiple ndiwos is therefore often impractical. Urban educated middle and upper income people however regard eating multiple relishes during each nshima meal as one of the principle demands of proper nutrition and prestige. This is usually nshima with at least one vegetable and one meat or fish relish. This contrast in attitude and customs was demonstrated one day during research fieldwork in a conversation with a middle-aged man in a village in the Lundazi rural district of Eastern Zambia. Asked whether he would appreciate and enjoy a meal of nshima with several ndiwos of beans, meat, and vegetables, his vehement and puzzled reply was:

“Yayi! Uku nkhwananga dende.”

“No! Why waste so much relish on one meal?”

In other words, his reply was that it was being wasteful and rather extravagant to eat nshima with more than one ndiwo during one nshima meal. Those ndiwos would serve a better and more economic purpose by eating each one of them during separate nshima meals.

The Making of the Corn Meal or Mealie-Meal for Nshima

The traditional making of the maize or corn meal is very demanding and labor intensive. The proliferation of diesel run hammer mills has helped in relieving many of the rural Zambian women. The aim of the whole process is to make very white corn meal that will cook a very white smooth to the taste nshima. Depending on the urgency and planning habits of the individual woman, the whole process might take anywhere from three to ten days. Most women will start the process of making new corn meal when there is about a week’s supply of corn meal left in the house.

The process starts with the woman retrieving dry corn on the cob, which had been stored safely after harvest in a structure known as nkhokwe among people of Eastern Zambia and Malawi. The woman will elicit the help of children, aunts, female relatives and close friends in the village and in many cases men to remove the corn from the cob the process known as kugumuza.

The girls and women then pound the corn in pestles and mortars to remove the husks. Although this is a physically demanding task, the work is easier by making it communal when ever possible. Song is also used during the pounding, which can often be heard three to four miles away. In some cases, all the women in the village will arrange to pound the maize for their households at the same time. They agree to wake up at 3 a.m to begin pounding the corn together while they sing. The work would then be completed by mid day. There are numerous pounding songs, in all villages of rural Zambia, like this popular one among the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia.

Leader: Amama Ae – e – e – e ! ! !

All Women:

Ine Amama nkhuwela ! ! !

Nabanangilaci ine analume aba

Ine Amama nkhuwela

Vitolanenge waka viminkhwele pera

Chikhumbo namtima ine nkhawele

Leader: My mother Ae – e – e ! ! !

All Women:

Mother I’m coming back home from my marriage

What have I done to offend my husband?

Mother I’m coming home from my marriage

Let monkeys marry one another

The Heart grows fonder I’m coming home

ndiwo grindingThe songs composed by the women are often a social commentary on the goings on in the community and for expressing any stress and tension in marital and other social relationships in the community. In this song, the woman is threatening saying she is going to go home to her mother leaving the marriage. She is lamenting why she ever got married to her husband. She is mocking him that if he goes on to marry a second wife then “let monkeys” marry one another. Although the heart grows fonder because of love, she is still going to return to her mother.

After the husks have been removed from the corn, the corn is no longer called by its usual name of vingoma (maize) but mphale. The mphale-processed corn is then soaked in water for at least three days. During this period, the mphale becomes soft and the water in which it is soaking has a sour taste due to fermentation. The sour liquid, known as mteteka has an additional use. It is often used to cook sour porridge with peanut powder for what amounts to a delicious breakfast that is tangy and stimulates one’s taste buds. The various ways and ingredients for cooking porridge for breakfast are discussed elsewhere.

soaking 3 daysAfter soaking for three days, the mphale processed corn is removed, thoroughly washed in clean water, and spread on special large mats (mphasa) in the sun to dry. During the drying process, young children and in may cases women themselves have to watch, continuously guard, and shoo away village goats, chickens, pigs, cows, insects, and wild birds. After the mphale-processed corn is relatively dry, the women in rural Zambia to day have two choices for turning the corn into meal or flour. First, they could pound the corn into meal in mortars with pestles.

hammer mill Second, the women could obtain some money. They could carry the mphale-processed corn on their heads for sometimes a three to six mile round trip to a hammer mill. Bicycles are sometimes used if available. The corn is then grounded into mealie-meal for a fee using a diesel driven hammer mill. Once the corn meal is made, it is again spread on the large special mats (mphasa) in the sun to dry. These mats might be as large as twelve feet long and eight feet wide. After this, the white corn meal is stored away ready for use for cooking the nshima meal.



The Role of a Good Wife and Mother and Ndiwo

Finding different types of ndiwo or relish for each day’s meals is one of the most demanding and challenging tasks for all mothers and housewives in Zambia. The responsibility stretches every woman’s creativity virtually everyday. There are two extremes in the choice of ndiwo by the woman. A woman who is poor at it might cook one type of relish and serve it to her family for two straight days. The ndiwo gets boring or kutinkha and family members will not enjoy the nshima meals. The condition of eating the same type ndiwo with nshima for more than four consecutive meals and feeling bored with it is known as kutinkha. This is every mother and wife’s nightmare. This happens even with the most delicious ndiwo like poultry, fresh mushrooms, or meat.

A woman who is good and creative with finding ndiwo will cook one type one day and a different one the following day. For example, the ndiwo for one day might be a delele green vegetable, the following day it might be fire dried beef from two months ago, the following day she might cook beans. In this way, her husband and entire family will enjoy their nshima meals tremendously.

How the Ndiwo Dish is Cooked

There are three basic methods of cooking relish or ndiwo in the Zambian traditional cuisine. All fresh meats and fish are generally boiled in plain water until soft and salted. If available, onions, tomatoes, and vegetable oil might be added which improves the taste of the meat especially the gravy in which the nshima lump is always dipped during meals. Since most of the meat and poultry from both domestic and wild animals is natural, it is very lean with virtually no fat and has a very strong aroma.

Second, some genres of ndiwos or relish like mice, termite ants, caterpillars, and certain birds like baby doves (vibunda) are strictly roasted and fire dried. There is no other way in which they are customarily cooked.

The third and perhaps most unique but common method of cooking ndiwo in traditional villages of especially Eastern Zambia and Northern Malawi is that of cooking with chidulo and kutendela. If there is any cooking recipe besides nshima that so deeply pervades the entire diet among rural Zambian people it is chidulo and kutendela. This is so perhaps because the two methods make some of the many wild foods so tender, delicious and edible.

chiduloChidulo is an ingredient that is used for cooking virtually all wild and some garden variety dark green leaf vegetables and wild mushrooms. The chidulo liquid is made from burning dry banana leaves, peanut leaves, or pea leaves, bean stalks and leaves or dry maize stalks and leaves. If the chidulo was being made from dry maize stalks and leaves, the woman who wants to cook wild or garden dark green leaf vegetables will collect a pile of dry stalks. She will then torch and let them burn completely. She will collect the cool ashes and put them in an old container with holes at the bottom. The container could be an old gourd or pot. Plain cold water up to a gallon will be slowly poured into the ashes. The water soaks into the ashes, drains through and collects into a container inserted at the bottom of the ash container. The process is known as kucheza. The liquid, known as chidulo, that is collected has a light yellow color and tastes like vinegar.

chidulo 2This is the liquid in which the wild vegetable will be cooked. Apart from the unique sought after vinegary taste it gives the vegetables, the chidulo has another perhaps more important function of softening the other wise tough and course wild greens. If many of the wild greens like cassava leaves, collard greens, kabata and many others were simply boiled in plain water, they would never be edible, tender or taste so delicious. The chidulo has other additional advantages. When anybody is ill with throat sores, they are offered delele cooked with chidulo. The salty vinegary taste helps heal throat sores faster.

Cooking green leaf vegetables in chidulo alone in never adequate. There must be the additional process of kutendela. This is adding peanut powder to the vegetables. The addition of peanut powder to vegetables is highly valued and appreciated as it adds flavor, a unique taste, and a nice aroma to the vegetable relish.

The peanut powder, used for cooking kutendela vegetables, have to be made afresh each time a woman cooks. The woman starts by getting dry raw peanuts stored away in the shell in a special dry structure known as chilulu. The raw peanuts are shelled and put in a mortar. They are pounded for a few minutes using a pestle. The pounded peanuts are taken out and sifted for fine particles of crushed peanuts to be separated and removed. The more solid particles are returned to the mortar and pounded once again. This process is repeated until enough fine peanut powder or nthendelo among the Tumbuka, is collected to cook the vegetables with. The recipe for cooking vegetable with chidulo and kutendela is as follows:


Collard or Rape Green Leaves with Peanut Powder

7 Cups or 1 lb. chopped collard greens

1 Large size chopped tomato

1 and a half Cups raw peanut powder

2 Cups water

1/2 Teaspoonful Arm and Hammer Pure Baking Soda or 1 Cup Chidulo

1/4 Teaspoonful salt

Method: Pour 1 cup of water into medium size cooking pot. Add half a teaspoon of pure baking soda and stir until thoroughly dissolved. Place pot on burner on medium heat. Add 7 cups of chopped collard greens and the 1 chopped tomato. Cook on medium to high heat for 5 to 8 minutes. Add 1 and a half cups raw peanut powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup of water. Stir thoroughly and lower the heat to below medium. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes stirring every 2 to 3 minutes to prevent bottom from burning.

Serve hot with nshima

Serves 4 people

ndiwoThis is the most basic and popular recipe in Zambian traditional cooking as it is used for cooking the majority of the many green leaf vegetables including squash or pumpkin leaves, bean and pea leaves, cassava leaves, and wild mushrooms.

The peanut powder has multiple uses in the cooking of many traditional Zambian foods. Bala lotendela is porridge cooked with peanut powder. Mpunga wotendela is rice cooked with peanut powder.

Mthiko is the cooking stick that is specially made for cooking nshima and ndiwo. The significance of the mthiko cooking stick is reflected in the beliefs and customs of the people. Men and boys are traditionally prohibited from using or eating off of the stick. The masculinity of men and that of boys of puberty age is believed to be compromised if they use the cooking stick in this manner. A woman’s femininity is often also measured, among other criteria, by how well she cooks or ‘handles the mthiko cooking stick’.

All of this requires tremendous skill and effort on the part of the woman. She has to know a good source of chidulo liquid, how long to cook the greens or mushrooms, when to add peanut powder and how often to stir the cooking ndiwo or relish. All Zambian women who grew up in a traditional home, particularly in the rural areas, acquire these skills during their childhood.

Although there have been remarkable changes in the customs surrounding how the nshima and ndiwo meal is served, there are certain basic traditional practices that have remained constant.

Once the woman has finished cooking the nshima, she serves it according to the number, ages, and types of people partaking in the meal. Children under the age of eight will eat with their mother and other female kin. The father, other males and boys over eight years old are served and eat separately. The pair of nshima and ndiwo, drinking water and basin of clean water are placed in the middle. The dinners sit around the meal making a circle. The oldest person washes their hands first and the youngest last. In cases where the nshima is served in covered dishes, the oldest person must always uncover the nshima and ndiwo first.

Zambian Nshima Eating Manners, Customs, or Etiquette

diners washingThe diners sit around the table or if sitting on the floor, they make a circle around the nshima. Zambians traditionally use bare hands when eating nshima. From time immemorial up to 2004, the custom was that all the diners first washed their hands from a dish of clean water. This custom has been changed in the entire society. A directive was apparently given from the Ministry of Health that due to reasons of maintaining better hygiene, the new custom of “D-Washa” was introduced. The new or modified custom is that the guests, elders, older adults, younger people and children wash their hands in that order. The youngest person or the host, will pour water from a pitcher or water jug so that a diner will wash both their hands thoroughly with soap and let the dirty water drop or collect in a dish. The same procedure is followed once the meal is completed. The dirty water is discarded either in between or at the end the end of the meal depending on whether the water is moderately or very dirty looking.

Manners  washingIt is considered rude for a young person to wash their hands first before the adults, older siblings, and guests have done so. Young people help to serve the adults and guests at the table to wash their hands pouring the water from a pitcher while each dinner washes their hands. 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. One hand only is always used when eating nshima. The right hand only for the right handed individual and left hand only for the left handed person.

The customary procedure is to cut a good size lump of nshima and slowly shape it into a smooth round ball using the palm and fingers of the one hand. The nshima is then dipped into the second dish, the ndiwo, before it is eaten. All of this is often done in a relaxed deliberate way while the diners hold casual conversation. The older person is always the one to stop eating first when satisfied. He or she must leave a portion of the nshima for the younger persons and children to finish off or take to the kitchen when clearing dishes. The oldest person will wash their hands first.

It is considered very dignified and enjoyable to eat nshima slowly while making and smoothening 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, its 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.

Common Nshima Dos and Don’ts

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

*Do not serve left over nshima from a previous meal to any adult.

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

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

*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.

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 very delicious ndiwo which may be chicken, beef, goat, or many other types of ndiwos. A young man courting a young woman will think highly of her if she cooks and serves him nshima with delicious ndiwo especially chicken.

In traditional Zambian folk tales, Kalulu the hare is the celebrated trickster. In many folk tales, Kalulu the hare will visit lion who will cook him nshima with delicious chicken. A typical story is like the following from a reader which is a compilation of Zambian folk tales from Eastern Zambia.


The Lion had a reputation all over the earth that he was a good doctor. The Lion had all kinds of medicines to treat all kinds of illness.
One day, the Lion received word that the Leopard was stabbed and injured by a wild pig while hunting it. When he heard this word, the Lion called the Zebra and said:

“Friend, the Leopard is sick. Would you like to come with me and visit him?

The Zebra agreed and said:

“Yes king, I will come with you. ”

So, the Zebra carried the Lion’s baggage.

Before they could walk very far, the Lion stopped and said to the Zebra:

“Look here my friend. You should remember this wild ndiwo green vegetable when we arrive at the Leopard’s home. When the Leopard gives us meat, you should come here and get this relish.”

The Lion pointed out the type of wild vegetable to the Zebra. After they had walked for some distance, the Lion stopped again and said:

“Look here friend, when the Leopard cooks us any food, come here and collect that ndiwo vegetable over there.” The Lion again showed the Zebra the type of ndiwo. When they arrived at the Leopard’s house, the Lion rubbed his medicine on the Leopard’s body. Soon afterwards the Leopard was healed.

The Leopard then gave wild pig meat to the Lion and said:

“King, this is yours. Eat it.”

The Lion then told the Zebra:

“Look, friend, we cannot eat this meat unless we have some extra ndiwo. Would you go and get some of that ndiwo vegetable I showed you on the way when we were coming.”

Without delay, the Zebra ran to go and fetch the ndiwo.

When the Zebra returned, he found that the Lion had already eaten all the meat. The Zebra slept hungry. The following morning, the Leopard cooked them a nice nshima meal again. The Lion played his trick again. He sent the Zebra to go and collect the same vegetable from the bush. While the Zebra was away, the Lion again ate all the food. When they both returned home, the Lion was very fat from eating all the good food while the Zebra was very thin because of hunger.

After several days, the Elephant fell sick. So he summoned the Lion for help. The Zebra refused to go. Therefore the Lion had no one to carry the baggage for him. When the Lion saw Kalulu the Rabbit walking along the road, the called him and said:

Kalulu, come here! You walk around all day stealing other people’s things. Come on! Let’s go. You can carry my baggage.”

Kalulu the Rabbit quickly agreed and said:

“King, put the baggage on my head. Laziness is really a bad thing.”

The Lion and Kalulu walked away together. On the way, the Lion stopped and said:

“Look Kalulu, when the elephant gives us food, you should come here and get this ndiwo vegetable.”

Kalulu the Rabbit replied: “That’s alright King. I understand what you say. But I have never seen ndiwo of this kind before!”

After walking for a distance, Kalulu the Rabbit stopped and said:

“I am sorry chief. I think you should be the one in front to lead the way. I forgot my knife where we stopped a while back.”

Quickly, Kalulu ran back and collected the vegetable and put it in his pocket.

When they arrived at the Elephant’s house, they were warmly received. The Elephant cooked food and served it to his two guests. The Lion sent Kalulu the Rabbit to go and fetch the ndiwo vegetable from the bush.

Kalulu took out the green vegetables and said:

“Here King! I got the ndiwo already so that there would be no delays when we eat food.”

In this way the Lion’s trick failed this time because Kalulu the Rabbit also ate the food and was satisfied.

When it was dark in the evening, the Elephant showed the Lion and Kalulu a place where they could sleep. The Lion got a nice mat where he could sleep. But Kalulu only slept on hard tree fibers. At dawn, Kalulu began to sing a song.

“Those who sleep on hard tree fibers are tough; yea! yea!
Those who sleep on a nice mat become tired; yea! yea!”

When he heard Kalulu’s song, the Lion woke up and said:

“What are you singing about Kalulu? Would you stop it because I am trying to sleep!”

But Kalulu the Rabbit said:
“Forgive me King, my grandfather taught me this song. He said if you are on a journey and you want to sleep comfortably, you should sleep on tree fibers.”

In this way the Lion was attracted to Kalulu’s idea. and said:

“Please Kalulu let me try to lay down on the tree fibers.”

The Lion fell asleep very deeply. Kalulu the Rabbit woke up and used the tree fiber to tie up the lion. After tying up the Lion in this way, Kalulu got some fire and set the fibers alight. When the Lion felt the heat and the pain from the fire, he tried to free himself but could not.

The Lion began to shout: “Oh! My! Oh! My! I am dying. Kalulu please untie me!”

But Kalulu the Rabbit ran away out of sight as fast as he could.

About the Author

Mwizenge S. Tembo obtained his B.A in Sociology and Psychology at University of Zambia in 1976, M.A , Ph. D. at Michigan State University in Sociology in 1987. He was a Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies of the University of Zambia from 1977 to 1990. During this period he conducted extensive research and field work in rural Zambia particularly in the Eastern and Southern Provinces of the country. He is currently Professor of Sociology at Bridgewater College in Virginia. This material was gathered during a research field trips (1980 and 1985) sponsored by the Institute for African Studies and in August 1993 partially sponsored by a grant from the Bridgewater College Flory Development Fund and supported by the Institute of African Studies of the University of Zambia to whom he is very grateful. Thanks to all respondents in the villages and the Lundazi District Governor’s office.



Mwizenge S. Tembo, Legends of Africa, New York: Michael Friedman Publishing Group, Inc., 1996

Mwizenge S. Tembo, Afrikaanse Mythen en Lengenden, (Translated into Afrikaans, the language of about two million white Dutch descendants in South Africa), New York: Michael Friedman Publishing Group, Inc., 1996


J. Brewer, Kalulu ndi Nyama Zinzace, (Kalulu and His Brother Animals), Longmans, Green and Company, London, 1946. Translated from Nyanja Zambian language into English by Mwizenge S. Tembo, March 1986. (translated version unpublished.)

Tembo, Mwizenge., What Good is Etiquette?: Understanding the Norms of Good Behavior in Zambia, The World & I, November 2002.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Coming from the Earth: Foodways of the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia, The World & I, May 1997.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. When Daybreak Comes: Folktales from the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia, The World & I, March 1997.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. The Cunning Prey: Animal Tales from the Tumbuka of the Eastern Zambia, The World & I, January, 1997.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Dimbas and Dambos: Village Gardens of Eastern Zambia, The World and I, June 1994.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Delicious Insects: Seasonal Delicacies in the Diet of Rural Zambians, The World & I, October 1993.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Tasty Mice: The Significance of Mice in the Diet of Zambia’s Tumbuka People, The World & I, November 1992.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. Where Chickens Sleep in Trees: The Importance of Chickens in Rural Zambia, The World & I, September 1991.

Tembo, Mwizenge S. An Assessment of Appropriate Technology Needs of Gwazapasi and Mkanile Villages of the Lundazi District of Rural Zambia, Eastern Africa Journal of Rural Development, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1981.

Tembo, Mwizenge S., Mwila, Chungu., and Hayward, Peter., An Assessment of Technological Needs in Three Rural Districts of Zambia, Human Aspects of Technology in Zambia, Preliminary Report, Institute for African Studies, University of Zambia, No. 1, February 1982.

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.
Hoppers, W., Banda, C., Kamya, A., Schultz, M. and Tembo, M., Youth Training and Employment in Three Zambian Districts. Lusaka:  University of Zambia, Manpower Research Report No., 5, 1980.

Institute for African Studies, The Zambian Economy Under the Interim National Development Plan:  A review of the First Year, edited by Chitalu Lumbwe, Perspectives on the Zambian Economy Series, Lusaka:  University of Zambia, May 1989.

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.

The American University, Zambia:  A Country Study. Edited by Irving Kaplan, Washington, D. C. 1979.

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.