Making Nsima in Salima

We arrived in Salima, Malawi, without knowing what to expect. Our friend Megan had advised us to bring a live chicken or perhaps a bag of corn meal as a gift for our hosts, but we chickened out (wah-wah) and bought some bowls at the Lilongwe market instead.

We were meeting Ellen, a friend of Megan’s from her time in the Peace Corps, who had generously invited us to stay with her and her family. This was one of the main reasons we had come to Malawi — while touring around and sighteeing in Ethiopia had been incredible, we were very excited about the opportunity to meet people and learn more about Africa outside the constraints of a tour.

Ellen gave us a warm welcome and immediately asked if we were hungry — she had killed a chicken earlier, as is apparently the custom when greeting new guests (we now felt bad about not following Megan’s recommendation). We also met Ellen’s sister Martha and her incredibly sweet 11-year-old daughter Beatrice. It’s hard to describe what a light Beatrice is. Always smiling, spilling over with an intense curiosity about the world, loves to sing and draw, super creative, always offering to help — we both agree she is one of the most charming people we’ve ever met.

As is the custom, Beatrice, the youngest in the family, brought a pitcher of water and basin and washed our hands before we ate. Then she dished out a relish called ndiwo (made with the chicken), greens, and large helpings of nsima, a sticky cornmeal concoction that makes up the bulk of most Malawians’ diet. (We didn’t get a picture of that meal, so just imagine a chicken leg in place of the fish.) Beatrice waits to eat until we finish, then washes our hands again, and then finally eats her own portion.

After our meal, we sat around the living room and had a fun time getting to know each other. The conversation was a mixture of introductions, lots of questions about our respective countries, and a primer on Chichewa, the most widely spoken language in Malawi.

Later that evening, Ellen’s husband Justice came home from his job at Escom, Malawi’s power company. (Their motto is ‘Towards power all day, every day.’) After introductions, Justice took Jason for a ride around town and shared his love of music (his tastes were eclectic, but his favorite was gospel) while Sarah got a cooking lesson from Ellen and Martha.

Making nsima is a labor-intensive process. First, the maize must be ground – some families do this with a giant mortar and pestle, but Ellen brings hers to a mill. Then they sift the corn meal at home. In Ellen’s kitchen, they had two twenty-five gallon drums of cornmeal – that’s a lot of sifting!

Next, you add some of the cornmeal into a pot of hot water and stir until it becomes a thick paste. (Starting the nsima-making with a thick paste apparently prevents it from becoming lumpy.) Then you stir more hot water into the paste and let it simmer for a while. Later you add the rest of the flour and stir vigorously and continuously until you feel like your arms will fall off (or until it becomes the perfect thick gooey consistency that is obvious to all Malawians but a mystery to us).

Sarah got tired after awhile, and Martha finished the stirring while Sarah moved on to the next task, plucking a pigeon.

That night, we settled into our bed after hunting down and killing all the mosquitos in the room. We were taking Malarone for malaria prevention, but the persistent little nzuzu (Chichewa for mosquito) were incredibly annoying!

With the lights out, we heard buzzing in our ears, and discovered that the hunt had been futile — there were no screens on the window. The rest of the night was a struggle between the extreme heat and humidity and the voracious appetite of the mosquitos. We finally ended up tucked completely under the sheet, head and all. When we did finally catch a short bit of sleep we woke up soaked in sweat, and covered in mosquito bites on the small patches of skin that had poked out from our mosquito fort. We should have heeded Ellen’s recommendation to use bug spray!

After breakfast the next day, Ellen hired us a fleet of local taxis (bicycles with small cushions over the rear wheel for passengers to sit on, at about 15 cents per ride), and we cruised down to the market in style. We passed by shops with names like ‘God is Great Tool Shop’ and ‘A Sharp Image is Everything Beauty Shop’. Even in the town, nearly all the available space in people’s yards was filled with healthy corn plants (which would later be ground to make flour for nsima).

We walked up and down the stalls piled high with fish, until Ellen found some to her liking, fish called “jambo.” We bought many of these small fish, since the plan was for us to try both of the local preparations, boiled and fried.

Martha headed home to start preparing the fish, and we moved on to find Sarah a chitenje — a colorful wrap that is the traditional dress of Malawian women — so she could stay cool in the humid weather. So many vibrant fabrics!

Here’s Sarah in her new chitenje, next to a termite mound.

With our shopping out of the way, we found a new set of bike taxis and headed further out of town to the hospital where Ellen works. She had graciously offered to show us around for the day. Halfway there, our bike taxis stopped unexpectedly at a pile of branches on the side of the road, and Ellen told us to get off and walk. Apparently, the branches signal that a funeral is going on nearby, and out of respect, cars slow down and people walk their bikes past the vigil. At the pile of branches on the far side, we hopped back on the bikes and proceeded to the hospital. Sadly, there are a lot of funerals in Malawi, because of the many AIDS-related deaths — so many that Malawi’s landscapes are being dramatically deforested in order to provide enough wood for all the coffins that are needed.

At the hospital, we visited various wards, and were somewhat taken aback by the low levels of sanitation, hand-written charts reporting high sepsis and neonatal mortality rates, and many improvised tools such as home-made wheelchairs, constructed from a plastic lawn chair and two bicycle wheels. We’d read about resource-limited hospitals like this one, but when you see them in person and see the impact they are having on people, it really hits home. In the children’s ward, we visited a department running a clinical trial of treatments for toddlers with both AIDS and pneumonia. It was devastating to meet the children struggling with both of these conditions – they were unable to muster the energy to smile and just stared with an empty look in their eyes. We hope that the research being done at the hospital can improve the chance of surviving these diseases.

Ellen also brought us to visit the “Kangaroo” ward for women with premature babies, who stay at the hospital for several weeks, keeping their babies warm by wrapping them close to their bodies. This very friendly (and exhausted) woman, Annie, had just had triplets!

Afterwards, we headed back to the house to eat jambo and chat, while Zambian soap operas ran in the background. We could do a whole post just on these soaps — every episode seemed to culminate in a 10-minute scene of the Christian heroes of the episode gyrating and shouting unintelligible prayers, after which God would strike dead the villain of the episode (typically the witchcraft-practicing mother-in-law).

We couldn’t find the soaps online, but this movie might give you an idea of the hilarity of the Zambian dramas we watched for hours.

At the same time, we were dodging Ellen’s questions about religion, deciding that politics and religion were subjects best avoided after she asked us “does Barack Obama worship satan?” (a view recently put forth by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, after Obama preached tolerance of homosexuality in Africa).

Later that night we had a blast celebrating Sarah’s sister Katie’s birthday from afar, with a crate of sodas (another local tradition).

And a nice neighbor even baked a cake!

After the party, we said our goodbyes with a long photoshoot (the girls loved the camera, and filled Sarah’s SD card with pictures).

With bugspray and a cool rain outside, we slept much better this night, and were up early the next morning to head to our next destination, Chembe – a small town on the south shore of Lake Malawi.

We left with immense gratitude for Ellen and Justice’s wonderful hospitality and a newfound appreciation of people’s generosity, especially given of the hardships faced by many Malawians with respect to general poverty, health, and education. In particular, we were discouraged to learn that secondary school is not free in Malawi, and it’s financially difficult even for relatively well-off families to send their children, one of the factors leading to a shockingly low 13% enrollment rate. (Only 3% of Malawians end up earning a secondary school degree.) During our visit, we came to realize that Ellen’s brilliant daughter Beatrice would likely not be able to attend secondary school. This is especially frustrating given the ingenuity and curiosity that so many Malawians possess. William Kamkwamba built a windmill to power his family’s home with random spare parts he found around town – imagine what Malawi’s youth could achieve with a decent education!

If you want to donate to a good cause, there are numerous charities that aim to help increase the quality of education in Malawi, as well as health care and HIV/AIDS prevention.

See you at the third largest lake in Africa!

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