Nshima and Ndiwo
Zambian Staple Food
For 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.
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
Eastern Zambia and Malawi call it sima
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
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
During 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.