The mealie-meal maze
Published On February 14, 2023 » 1345 Views» By Times Reporter » Features
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Remember the “Back to the Land” campaign that founding President Dr. Kenneth Kaunda (MHSRIP) so passionately professed in the 70s and early 80s? The Rural Reconstruction Centers (RRC)? The compulsory Zambia National Service (ZNS) training camps for food production and military training for school leavers?
Only if the subsequent governments that came along had continued with that dream, and even just half the population had heeded his call, this country would have been better off in food security than it finds itself today.
Those were good policies which required just a firmer nudge on the citizens, and today, we would not be globetrotting with begging bowls.
Admittedly, the strategy was not without challenges of its own, but I can only imagine that today, every family would have had a ‘Lima’ on which to grow enough maize for subsistence use, and perhaps, a small portable hand held maize grinder in which to mill their maize for home consumption.
And maybe, all this politicising of the matter, and the over-pricing of maize and mealie-meal would not be on our hands today. We are instead fighting wars of words with dinosaurs of leaders attempting to revive their political fortunes over a perceived ‘crisis’, unscrupulous price sharks and briefcase businessmen who are distorting the real price of maize meal, would not have half the chance to profiteer because maize would be in abundance like any other back-yard crop.
So, how did we get here?

I am no expert in nutritional matters, nor have I ever been a connoisseur for matters relating to addiction or cravings of certain substances we consume on a daily basis.
However, one thing that I can state with utmost certainty and conviction is that there is only one food that can beat any other powerful addiction or human need ever known to humankind – Nshima!
In other words, from a nutritional point of view, carbohydrates or starch, nshima to be precise, is indeed one such food that the body cannot go without for any long periods of time before the shakes begin. Once you are hooked, you are hooked for life.
I have known foreigners from around the globe who have visited Zambia, and once they have tasted nshima, they never get over it and have gone to the extreme of importing from Zambia to wherever they are on earth.
In longer periods of absence, and by that, I mean in just a few hours, or a day or two after abstaining from consuming nshima, by design or otherwise, you begin to shrivel, literally, your body begins to feel strange, as you go through the motions.
You feel fuzzy, your head is spinning, You can’t think straight, you are temperamental and you are easily agitated, and before you even realise it, the overpowering effect, the involuntary spasms, those cravings, the withdrawal symptoms kick in.
The waves are so ferocious that, in just a matter of time, your whole system begins to shut down. You need a doctor.
Now, this effect is not as pronounced with other carbs such as rice, pasta, or any other, as it were if you are hooked on nshima.
The nshima experience is just out of this universe.
And if any of you could in their wildest imagination think that maize, the stuff that mealie-meal is ground, is not even indigenous to this part of the world or Zambia in particular, makes the whole fuss incredulously funny.
According to scientific history, most agree that maize originated in Central Mexico 7,000 to 9,000 years ago from a wild grass called Teosinte.
Maize first arrived on the African coast during the 17th century. It was introduced by the Portuguese or Spanish? But, was quickly adopted by early African farmers due to it’s high energy yields, low labour requirements and short growing time.
Some scholars suggest the voyages of Christopher Columbus in the “New World” in 1492 triggered an unprecedented movement of people and crops across the Atlantic Ocean.
Maize in particular, compared to other crops, is roundly believed to have increased population density and slave trade exports in pre-colonial Africa. There was also a wide belief that there was little or no evidence to show that maize increased economic growth or reduced conflict.
The introduction of maize in Africa simply increased the supply of slaves during the slave trade.
Maize was probably introduced to tropical Africa at more than one point and at different times. It was widely grown along the coast of Africa from the River Gambia to Sao’ Tome’, around the mouth of the River Congo, and Ethiopia.
There is also reference to it in such places as Zanzibar and around the mouth of the River Ruvuma.
According to his book, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, Alfred Crosby argues that the introduction of new crops from the Americas created an agricultural productivity shock that changed both the populations and slavery in Africa.
Crosby discusses the potential effects on such crops as maize writing that: “We might hypothesise that the increased food production enabled the slave trade to go on as long as it did.
“The Atlantic Slave traders drew many, perhaps most, of their cargoes from the rain forest areas, precisely those areas where American crops enabled heavier settlement than ever before.” (Crosby. 1972)
There is no clear history about when maize was officially introduced in Zambia. Perhaps by the movements of tribes due to the great upheaval of the Kola region of the Congo, or through the marauding Arab traders who traversed the African hinterland for Ivory and slaves. We may never really know.
However, the first step in the development of a maize seed industry in Zambia was in 1913 by the then Department of Agriculture of Experimental Gardens at Chilanga and Mazabuka to introduce new maize varieties from South Africa
The earliest native settlers in Zambia consumed more of millet and sorghum which they pounded to form a powder which they cooked into the thick porridge we now call nshima.
As earlier alluded to, the slave trade and it’s attendant trade exchanges in other goods popularised maize due to its high carbohydrate content causing populations to gather and live around coastal areas where the crop was grown. Hence from, started the politics of maize and the rest is history.
Today, centuries after the maize crop made its initial voyage from South America to the shores of Africa, we still feel the social- political impact of what once was the slave trade.
In its wake, a food security impact that has seen some governments collapse or toppled.
As alien as the origins of maize could be, here at home in Zambia, over 70 per cent of the population call it their staple food. Any marked difference in it’s farming, production and pricing has heightened sensitivity. The Government knows too well to tread cautiously in its management.
It is for this very reason that some opposition leaders have made it a campaign strategy call to put the government on the defensive when there is a semblance of a break in the production chain of maize without any due consideration to other dynamics along the way.
Luckily, there is reportedly enough maize to go around until the next season, except for the price sharks always lurking in the fringes to jump at the next opportunity to make a killing in pricing, to trigger social upheaval and in turn, cause government unnecessary embarrassment.
But why the insistence on maize and not rice or millet or cassava or sorghum to give us the kick, the high we get from nshima?
The answer lies in the rain forests of Mexico or South America of old, or how else do you explain the addiction to maize, mealie-meal and nshima?
Those great leaders that have gone before us must have understood better than we will ever do.
As for Dr Kaunda and his ‘Go Back to The Land Campaign,,, we can still salvage something out of his forward, futuristic thinking for self-sufficiency in maize production.
I applaud government effort in planning for a more sustained maize production strategy and affordable mealie-mealie pricing mechanism at large scale i.e ZNS maize mills; But I still feel that, the real future for a true reduction of prices is through investment of subsistence maize-meal flour plants at household level.
More like, the pestle and mortar, but in a more mechanised version which would require very little effort. Straight from the maize barn to the grinder. For comments, write to

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