The thoughts, sights, and sounds of my summer as an EWB Junior Fellow

Making nsima, the Malawian way

Note: This post is a reflection on some of the pre-departure cultural learning I am doing in Canada, and is based solely on the things I have interpreted from others’ experience in Malawi and Zambia. If anyone from one of the countries mentioned (or anywhere else, for that matter) happens to be reading this blog, please comment! I would love to get feedback during my in-Canada learning and throughout my placement in Ghana. My goal is to start a conversation and to have my assumptions challenged.

Nsima. Pronounced shee-ma (in Zambia at least). It is the staple food in many African countries, including Zambia and Malawi where all of the current Return Junior Fellows (RJFs) at the University of Saskatchewan chapter worked when they were overseas. Consisting solely of finely ground maize flour, it provides a filling and easily digested meal when topped with one of many possible relishes. Two weeks ago, Erin (my fellow USask 2012 JF, check out her blog here)  and I had the privilege of learning the art of making nsima. The procedure is as follows (as remembered after my limited instruction):

Get a big pot and fill it about 3/4 full with water

Put it on the stove to “a temperature” (it doesn’t really matter because what is the “temperature of fire”, anyway?) Nsima is normally cooked over a fire as that is the source of cooking heat available in many cases in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once the water has started boiling, dump some maize flour in, just until the water looks milky. Don’t put too much in at this point.

Stir with a big wooden spoon for a few minutes, until the boiling becomes so vigorous that water splashes on you and you jump back in surprise.

Pour more maize flour in now, such that the mixture is the consistency of heavy cream.

Now stir, with both hands, being careful to scrape from the bottom of the pot as well as mixing everything together well.

When the mixture becomes too thick to stir any more, you’re done! Now put the pot on a mat on the floor (or ground!) and take your nsima spoon (I am holding one in the picture) to shape the nsima into convenient disk-shaped patties, wetting the spoon with water periodically to prevent the nsima from sticking.

Now I should mention that during this time you should have also been making your relishes. The relish(es) (depending on the wealth of the family there may be one or many different relishes at a meal) can consist of vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbage (my favourite so far), okra, beans, meat, fish, or really anything. Let your imagination run wild.

To eat the nsima, you take a small portion it in your right hand (NEVER your left hand, this is reserved for other business), shape it into a convenient scoop for the relish, load up with relish, and transport it to your mouth. Repeat. You have had a small taste of Africa.

Before meals, everyone washes their hands. A family member, usually the youngest/lowest in rank, pours water over each person’s hands into a bowl. Don’t bother drying your hands.

We spent the evening happily eating nsima and relish, listening to Tamara (the Malawi RJF who so graciously invited us to her house for the meal) read from her diary from her time overseas. Stephanie (one of last summer’s JFs from Zambia and a great mentor for me throughout this school year) also shared some of her memories from Zambia, and I soaked up as much as I could, asking way too many questions like “What would be my host family’s reaction if I accidentally took something with meat in it (like I did that evening) and had to leave it?” I am a vegetarian with very strong vegan tendancies, and I have worried about this a little bit even before my interview for the JF program. Luckily, from the feedback I have gotten from asking incessantly about this particular inflexibility of mine, I will likely be accepted as just being a strange azungu (white person) and my family will be glad to not have to expend valuable meat on me!

Incidentally, that day was the first day that the KONY 2012 youtube video/campaign went viral, so we had a good discussion about the motivations behind the campaign and the potential effects it may have. What are your thoughts about KONY 2012?

Erin (left) and Alanna (right) making nsima at Tamara's house as part of our in-Canada introduction to African culture

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