After thirteen months of living in Malawi, Canadians that I did not know saw me at the beach and told one of my friends that I looked ‘anorexic.’ I had lost twenty pounds, from 160 to 138. This was a problem.
Peace Corps volunteers often don’t eat as well as the people that they live amongst. The ingredients are different, the cooking methods are different, and the level of personal responsibility is different than it was in the U.S. At the time of my weight nadir, I was trying to cook only once a day. I would come home from school at three o’clock, eat a mango or a pb&j or (a real treat) an avacado with some cayenne pepper sprinkled on top, get the rice and beans going, and finally eat at five or six. I would eat semi-continuously until I fell asleep and leave the leftovers for a six a.m. breakfast. In case you are looking for a killer new year’s diet, this might work for you (make sure to walk five miles a day).
My neighbors, lovely people that they were, felt bad for me and would occasionally invite me over for meals or bring me some tobwa (unfermented millet drink that could serve as a meal), but I was pretty adamant about taking care of myself. This self-reliance had uneven results.
The primary food stuff of Malawi is Nsima. Under different names, nsima is popular across sub-saharan Africa. Nsima consists of corn flour cooked with water until it reaches a pasty consistency, like very thick but very smooth mashed potatoes. Patties are then formed by scooping into the mash with a smooth bowl and vary in size.
Nsima is used as an all purpose starch. You pull wads off of the patty and then use them to hold together whatever other food you are eating. When you first break open the patty, it is incredibly hot on the inside and will stick to your skin since it is semi-gelatinous. If you do this multiple times a day, as many Malawian do, then you build up calluses, but I never approached that level of comfort and so winced throughout the early parts of each meal.
The amayi, or woman of the house, cooks for most meals. Cooking nsima for a large group of people requires that you stir a great big wooden spoon through perhaps five gallons of this stuff at quick speeds, and if you could manage this stirring and the picking up of the hot pots you could be said to have Amayi Hands.
Local proverb has it that if you haven’t eaten nsima you haven’t eaten all day; the stuff is extremely filling and ubiquitous at Malawian tables. Most of the time it is served with greens of some sort, often pumpkin leaves or the leaves of the rape plant. These greens are cooked with oil and maybe onions or tomatoes. In addition to those two staples, beans or tiny dried fish or meat is served in a gravy. These three foods make up almost every Malawian meal, with potatoes or rice sometimes substituting for nsima.
Malawi was a British colony, so it might not be surprising that they are enthusiastic about the drinking of tea. What was surprising to me, however, is that Malawian ‘tea’ mainly consists of hot water, sugar, and powdered milk, with little regard given to the dried plant that gives the drink its name. In the school where I worked, I would load my cup up with tea and ignore the accessories while my coworkers would do the opposite. My emphasis was on caffeine, theirs on calories. If people have the time and resources, they have tea daily, often complemented by a dry corn bread, called African Cake.
Nsima with fixins is the staple of Malawian food, but other dishes are available. Since Malawi has a sizable population from the Indian sub-continent, curry, samosas, and other influences are around, despite the fact that Malawian food tends towards the bland.
Many Malawians and volunteers get the most out of seasonal fruits and vegetables. It is not unheard of for a volunteer to eat ten mangoes, though that can result in an allergic reaction to mangoes, especially on the skin around the mouth. Avacadoes, too, form the foundation of many people’s meals for a couple months a year. Citrus, eggplant, potatoes, garlic, and peppers are also available, but where you live mostly determines what is available.