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Resisting the allure of exotic foods

THERE was a time when people took pride in growing and eating foods like cassava, plantains, yams, millet, sorghum and other traditional foods. PICTURE: BIOINNOVATE AFRICA

DANIEL SIKAZWE, Lusaka
IN TWO worlds separated by the Great East Road in Lusaka, the past and the present went on a head-on collision over the right to determine the future of food. That was at the end of October in Lusaka.
The southern side of the Great East Road was bidding its welcome to the weekend with savoury offers of the most delicious exotic foods. That was at the flashy shopping malls of Arcades and East Park. On the northern side, a rather somber, reflective atmosphere was telling a story of abandonment.
The narrative of abandonment comprised a chorus for a return to the long lost and forgotten past-that time when people took pride in growing and eating foods like cassava, plantains, yams, millet, sorghum and other traditional foods.
These foods have been valuable in the lean times of the year between September and February when hunger rates range between 40 percent and 48 percent. But they do not receive the attention they deserve because despite their importance to food security, they are of little importance to multinational food producers.
The value and existence of these traditional foods have been downgraded for many decades through many factors among them the ignorance of explorers and colonisers who considered indigenous foods inferior to those of their homelands.
The northern side of the Great East Road was in silent protest against the allure of exotic foods. The ‘resistance’ was publicly displayed during a Seed and Food Fair exhibition at Global Platform, a small conference centre that is separated from the University of Zambia Great East Road campus by the Great East Road. It was a creative effort to break down the historical and current imperialistic attacks on indigenous foods and seeds. The attack started centuries ago.
In the centuries of world explorations, some western explorers equated the consumption of local foods to savagery and labelled those who gathered local foods as ‘denizens of the wilderness’ with nothing better to think about. Unfortunately, to this date, there are many people who perpetuate this view.
‘‘We have a misconception that fast foods and highly processed foods are for the educated. The more we continue to encourage this unfortunate myth, the more we lose our knowledge and skills to exist as sovereign people with a cultural heritage that is capable of raising generations of healthy and productive citizens,’’ remarked Gertrude Shankanga, an organic food farmer.
Losing local foods is losing a whole range of valuable knowledge and skills. The knowledge and skills lost have to do with coping with life in an indigenous ecosystem. Local people lose the values and virtues acquired from food procurement techniques that used foraging, hunting, fishing, and gathering skills.
The eating habits of the people on the southern side of the Great East Road were glamorous but lacking in nutrition value. They were characterised by a deficiency in micronutrients like iron, vitamin A and zinc which manifests in anemia, night blindness and zinc deficiency. Inadequate intakes of several micronutrients in Zambia are widespread because staple diets are predominantly maize-based, and intakes of plant based and animal products are low.
Shankanga made it clear she had chosen to be on the northern part of the Great East Road on that Friday for the health of her people and to stop the future from losing its heart and soul to commercial agricultural interests.
“We must grow what belongs here. It’s time Africans realised we are destroying our people when we encourage them to eat exotic and highly processed foods,’’ Shankanga added.
The respect given to exotic foods by people on the southern side of the Great East Road was reminiscent of the narratives by explorers like Thomas Cook, Banks, and others, who preached in their travel narratives about the superiority of imported exotic foods supplied from western countries like Britain to parts of the world like Australia. This has led to people depending on one or two meals every day.
Historically, a typical indigenous meal has comprised a variety of vegetables, roots, nuts, seeds, fruits and sugars. Growing and eating indigenous foods challenges those who prepare meals to use different methods of food preparation and a common thread still ties the present to the past. Commonly, singeing, roasting, or baking are ways of preparing various indigenous foods. Things are different now.
“There is lack of knowledge about what foods are nutritious. Many people think that eating meaty foods is the best way to keep healthy. And there are many people in our country today who are too busy to find time to prepare a variety of foods,’’ stated Nancy Chella, Principal food utilisation and nutrition officer in the Ministry of Agriculture.
Consequently, many people in Zambia today suffer from effects of inadequate intakes of several micronutrients because staple diets are predominantly maize-based, and intakes of plant based and animal products are low.
According to Jonathan Lifasi, the coordinator of a permaculture project in Monze, by looking into the history of indigenous foods, young people will discover their cultural connection in which populations were generally healthy.
“We’re what we eat. We’re a people with a healthy culture. We know where we are coming from and where we are going,” he said. “There was no malnutrition when our forefathers used to eat these foods,” Lifasi said as he looked at a display of groundnuts, sorghum,, pearl millet, sunheap flack, green grain, cowpeas and Bambara nuts displayed by Chamba Haciwa, a small scale farmer of Chongwe.
For generations in Zambia like in many other parts of the continent, seeds, plants and animal or insect species that exist are products of selective management by inhabitants. They comprise food staples that indigenous people had managed for their nutrition and health benefits.
Eugene Kabalika, the executive director of Caritas Zambia, a faith-based non-governmental organisation, did not mince his words in calling on the scores of young people on the southern side of the Great East Road to dig into their rich past.
“These young people should take interest in learning about what their ancestors ate. This will draw the young people closer. They will discover that there has never been a problem of obesity with indigenous foods,” Kabalika said.
“We’re in this environment for a purpose,” Shankanga said as she walked around stalls of various traditional foods and seeds displayed by small-scale farmers at Global Platform, a conference centre dwarfed by the magnificence and magnitude of East Park Shopping Mall and the University of Zambia across the Great East Road.
“We must grow what belongs here. It’s time Africans realised we are destroying our people when we encourage them to eat exotic and highly processed foods,” Shankanga added.
She asserts that losing indigenous seeds is more than losing food with both medicinal and nutrition value. It is losing a people’s sovereignty.
Kabalika observed that in the foods and seeds displayed at the Indigenous Foods and Seeds Fair lay the fabric of the knowledge that the ancients used to unite the different clans and tribes of what is now Zambia.
“Indigenous foods and seeds like you can see in this exposition bring people of different cultural backgrounds to form and consolidate the one Zambian culture whose strength lies in its diversity,’’ he said.
Sharing seeds is a cultural and spiritual tradition on the cusp of extinction even though it has been the nucleus of community survival, revival, regeneration and community building since humans emerged
For Zambia to improve food security and reduce hunger, it is important to give due attention and prominence to indigenous foods and seeds.

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