Wednesday, February 7, 2018

nshima love (recipe included!)

There are three things towards which the Bemba people feel particular pride:

The Bemba language.

Chitenge material.

And Nshima.

Nshima is Zambia’s staple food – a maize-based product made with ground maize flour cooked in water until formed into a stiff, moldable porridge. Nshima is usually eaten with a side dish called a “relish.”

Whenever we meet a new friend here in Zambia, we are always asked, “do you eat nshima?” The question comes at us with same concern and seriousness as if they were really asking, “Are you a decent human being?” To refuse, reject or poo-poo nshima is a high insult which can only be remedied by the best of excuses (I just five seconds ago nshima).

Picky/finicky/snobby eaters are unwelcome here. If you accept and appreciate the nshima of this beautiful country, you will be welcomed with open arms and a hospitality second-to-none. However, if you disrespect the nshima, you’ll be hearing “Bye Felicia” faster than you can learn to say, “Hello Bwalya.” Though very different from the American home-cooking I grew up with, I’ve developed a love and admiration for nshima and even seek it out as my “comfort food” when I’m having a bad Zam-day.

Nshima love (in heart, soul mind and taste-buds) starts with an appreciation of how nshima is made and enjoyed communally. The preparation itself is masterful, and after eleven years, I still don’t do it 100% “right.” For this reason, I will never be a good Zambian wife. (Jeremy says he’ll live.)

But! I have a good handle on the steps, and I’ll share those with you here, hoping that you too can develop some nshima love.

It starts with the maize, better known to you as corn, but in Zambia, most all maize grown is WHITE. The majority of Zambian farmers are small-scale subsistence farmers, growing enough maize to eat and maybe a little more to sell. Fields are prepared and planted BY HAND, which is basically where I tap out of the ring. More than once I’ve trekked out into the field with my hoe, determined to show my *tough*, only to blister in about five seconds followed by some Ba Mayo ripping the hoe away from me with a laugh and an eye roll. Girl, your skin is basically made out of satin. Just stand there and entertain us so you don’t shred yourself.

Harvest is also done by hand, carrying bags of maize out of the field in sacks on heads.


The maize is then shelled either by beating it with sticks or shaving the kernels off with nimble hands.

To make the flour, the kernels are either taken to a hammer mill, or for those who don’t want to spend the money, it will be pounded and sifted by hand.

This ground maize flour is called mealie meal, or just mealie.

Most rural families (the nshima process is quite different in more privileged/urban areas) cook their nshima over an open fire in a small cooking structure called an insaka. The water is heated and mealie added, but when it comes time for the vigorous stirring part (see recipe below), most women remove the pot from the fire and grip it with their feet to hold it still while they stir.

Large pots of nshima require an extra large stirring spoon called an umwinko and often require two women to stir it in tandem to make it smooth and perfect.

The nshima is placed in a bowl and smoothed into a perfect mound and then served along side the relish which is often some kind of green (chard, cabbage, pumpkin leaves etc) and/or a protein (chicken, beans, fish – even catepillars!)

Some families serve nshima in lumps on individual plates, but most families in the village eat communally, grabbing handfuls of nshima and relish out of one set of bowls.

Its hard to convey the “vibe” when nshima is being consumed. The Insaka or home or wherever nshima is being eaten always feels content, even safe. There is a saying, “As long as we’re eating nshima, it will all be ok.” This sentiment is written on the faces of everyone dipping into the nshima pot. I might have 99 problems, but nshima ‘aint one, and that matters.

Supplying nshima is a labor of love, making love and nshima synonymous. The proverbial needle point above the hearth would read, “Home is where the Nshima is.” And what I find even more interesting is that MOM is whoever makes you nshima. Because of the centrality of nshima in a family’s life, a child quickly associates the provision of nshima with the provision of all basic needs. Mom, who makes the nshima, she’s the heroine, and the world spins around her. A Bemba proverb reads, Umawna ushenda atasha nyina ukunaya ubwali, explaining that a child (particularly one who hasn’t been anywhere else) really does think her mother is THE WORLD.

The pride, comfort and love wrapped up in nshima is something I want for all of my children, equally for the bush-baby transplants and for the one for whom nshima is his birthright. I still chuckle as I remember taking baby Bronwyn back to the states and watching friends take a few polite bites while Bronwyn devoured her whole bowl of nshima and little fish.

While you may never have the full experience of planting, harvesting and pounding your own maize, I can still share with you basic cooking instructions. This will produce roughly 4-5 medium nshima lumps, suitable for a meal for 2-4 people or maybe just as a sample for your next international dinner party.

Instead of cooking over an open fire, this recipe assumes a gas or electric stove. I asked the fabulous Bana Chiti to be my model and what you can’t see in the pictures is her cackling through the whole thing as I took measurements of everything she did. Why Americans can’t eyeball it like she does is beyond her, but she gives you all a thumbs up for spreading the nshima love abroad.

(*** Disclaimer – there are more variations that are not shared here, specifically for different grit or fineness of the ground mealie, and also the different combinations including cassava flour. This recipe uses Mothers Pride Breakfast Meal. For all other variations, and for the finer details of how to roll nshima in your hands etc., I recommend an in-person tutorial from a Zambian with a PhD in Nshima.)

****How to make nshima for amateurs***

In a small to medium sauce pan, heat 4 cups of water till its warm – approaching hot - but not boiling.

Add to the water one cup of mealie, stiring with an umwinko or wooden spoon, working out any lumps until you have a smooth porridge.

Cook covered on low heat for roughly 10 minutes.

Uncover and add one cup of mealie and stir vigorously for 3-5 minutes or until you hear the hiss of the pan indicating all of the liquid has been absorbed and cooked off. Notice how Bana Chiti is holding the spoon? And how blurry her fast-moving hand is? This is key. Give that nshima and your arm a good workout. If there are un-integrated lumps of flour in your nshima you are fired. Stir it like you mean it! If you stir too little, your nshima will be lumpy and sticky. As long as you don’t smell burning, you can keep working the nshima around to make it smooth and consistent. 

Serve in one communal bowl, or scoop into lumps.

Wash your hands (the right hand in particular) as that’s all you should be using to eat it.

Salt may be added to the relish but NOT to the nshima. That is heresy.

Eat till you can eat no more.

Announce that you are satisfied.

Basque in the post-nshima glow.

Feel the love.

Friday, October 27, 2017

why you should think twice about giving “gifts” to the poor

A gift! How thoughtful! Thank you!

I remember back in the day, driving to spend Christmas with certain relatives, my mother would always prep us with, “now remember, no matter what, you need to say ‘thank you’ and be grateful, ok?” Now that I have kids, I’ve taught them a similar script – A gift! Thank you! – and I’ve communicated my expectation that they not embarrass me by being ungrateful brats.

I’ve thought about this lesson a lot lately – how saying thank you is an act of both gratitude and basic decency. Furthermore, I’ve thought about it outside the context of my childhood Christmases in America. I’ve thought about all the gifts that we personally are asked to hand out on behalf of donors and even more about the thousands of OCC gift boxes being packed NOW that will pass through our region next spring. OCC is by far the largest “gift-giving ministry” working world-wide and as such they provide the most obvious examples. Among the many negative articles circulating about OCC lately (like this, and this, and this, and this) one push-back comment I keep seeing is, “Remember, these are gifts.”

I’ve written about OCC myself – more than once, in fact – so I obviously have thoughts. But it wasn’t until recently that I honed in on that repeated phrase – remember, these are gifts. Every time my eyes read that line, I’d think, yeah, so? until Jeremy and I were talking about it and we remembered to pass the phrase through our magic ‘America filter’ and it donned on us – Mom’s telling us to be grateful, regardless.

The third world and missionaries like myself who are attempting to serve here, have spent a good amount of time and energy trying to communicate a specific message to the generous peoples of the first world: random stuff from America is not helpful. But then mom reminds her kids again to be grateful… and what’s left to be said?

WELL, how about this:

The following is why I believe “But it’s a gift!” is neither relevant nor appropriate, and why you should think twice about giving “gifts” to the poor.

Let’s say a friend of yours has been struggling financially. She finally comes to you and says, “hey, I need to fill this prescription for my kid, but it costs $50 and I just don’t have that,” and you respond, “Aw, girl, you know I love you! Here’s a gift basket of stuff from Toys R Us worth $50!” And she just stares at you and doesn’t immediately say thank you and you get all feely and annoyed by her ingratitude… Your actions would have been unreasonable, right? No one could be that insensitive or crass as to not meet their friend’s stated, pressing need… Right???

Meet the need first is fairly intuitive in this case. But the reason why most Americans don’t respond as instinctively when it comes to giving unnecessary gifts to the poor overseas is that they are too far removed from third-world poverty to get it.

America has a lavish gift-giving culture; we give presents for everything!  New Baby! House Warming! New Job! But despite this generous tradition, many, if not most, of the people we are giving these gifts to aren’t simultaneously looking for solutions to life-threatening situations. Most Americans have never been confronted with the either/or dilemma of “meet a desperate need” or “give a random gift instead.” The struggle is quite literally foreign to them.

The driving proviso behind, “But it’s a gift!” is that Americans (as a generic unit) can afford to spend money on unnecessary things all day, every day – and we assume others do to. BUT, the developing world does not function this way. Luxury is appreciated when it comes, to be sure – but by luxury, I’m not talking fancy jewelry and the latest iphone. Luxury in our village is water that has spent time in a fridge, a car ride (instead of a bike ride) to town, and getting to eat the gizzard of a chicken. So let me say this: it is ignorant and tacky to pretend that frivolous luxury is a reasonable replacement for basic human needs that are not being met.

You can give any single unnecessary item from Target to your best friend and rightly expect a thank you from her because she probably has a roof over her head tonight. You can give a bag of party favors to your neighbor kid and even tell the goober to say thank you to you because chances are good that kid is getting fed tonight. If your friend didn’t have a house and your neighbor didn’t have food and you knew that but decided to use your expendable cash to buy trinkets instead, the word ‘negligent’ would be appropriately applied.

In the place where we live, families routinely go hungry, don’t have shoes and can’t send their kids to school. Our neighbors sleep in crowded huts, wear the same clothes for a week and walk miles to see a nurse. And yet, with this scene as the backdrop, the same American Church that can manage to buy millions of dollars worth of “Just because we love you!” gifts refuses to use those same dollars to alleviate human suffering.

Americans have the luxury of having skewed priorities because, by and large, their needs are already met. What would truly change the American-gift-giver’s perspective is an exit from the first-world bubble and a true desire to know what the legitimate, third-world needs are. From much experience, I can say that, once on the field, it does not take long for American bauble to look alien and offensive when the intended recipient in front of you is either hungry, sick or afraid.

In case I sound like a gift-giving curmudgeon, let me free ya’ll up: Buy the candy and the bouncy balls and the glow in the dark toothbrushes. Yes. Go ahead and buy them. And send them! But here’s the caveat: Do that AFTER you’ve made sure that each and every recipient has a home and clothes and food and everything she needs.

You see, that same mama who taught me to be grateful at Christmas also taught me how to spoil the people I love. Here in the land of Where there is no Target, we have to wait for many of our American items to come across with visitors. Because space is limited and our list is usually pretty extensive, I have to do some negotiating with my mother to make sure that the innate Grandmother urge to spoil her grandkids doesn’t usurp actual necessities. Because I know she loves me, I’m free to say, “Grandma, the kids don’t need sugar. They need vitamins and socks and school supplies. Can we prioritize that instead?” And Grandma always says, sure! Because as much as she loves – and lives – to spoil those grandbabies, she cares about them enough to make sure their needs are met first.

So she sends vitamins and socks and school supplies… and all the s’mores ingredients that the left-over luggage space can handle. Despite my joking protest, the spoiling with sweets isn’t bad. We just need the other things as first priority. If I had told Grandma our needs and she had said, “I DON’T CARE. IT MAKES ME HAPPY SO I’M SENDING MARSHMELLOWS AND NOTHING ELSE…” Well shoot, Grandma. That wouldn’t be very loving, now would it?

If your gut reaction to negative press for OCC is, “they should be thankful,” you need to recognize that it is your purchasing power speaking – not compassion towards the poor. Because yes, all humans should be grateful for gifts, no matter what. But it is not ingratitude that leads those of us working amongst the poor to make the needs known. It is necessity. And urgency. And Stress. And if that does not call you to sympathy, you are in this for the wrong reasons. 

Giving gifts to the poor aught not be a consumer activity. But when first-world donors announce that they will only pay for that which makes them feel good, this “generosity” takes on a controlling element that needs to be exorcized. A true gift is one without stipulations, including your desire to “participate” or “teach your kids the true meaning of Christmas” or to foster some artificial “connection” to a small child far away.

Leveraging financial privilege in a way that self-gratifies and puts the rich-giver ahead of the poor is not Christ’s way.

Psalm 41:1 says it right:

Blessed is the one who considers the poor.

Are you considering?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

my "hard" life in Africa

Social media has been a total game-changer for those of us abroad. Facebook, instagram and the like provide the perfect platform to share life across the distance. Birthdays, anniversaries, a beautiful garden or craft project… With a click of a button our joy goes out to the world and we receive the gift of being known. But it’s not only the good we share. We let loose on the hard too. Social media has made it easy for us to be vulnerable. The brevity of status updates means I don’t have to look you in the eye or answer any questions or let you actually see my tear streaks to let you all know that I’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

Expats are particularly adept at online communication since for most of us, this is THE WAY many of us communicate with our friends and family back home. We use it to supply information, but also to solicit responses. It’s a powerful tool, this sound-bite communication stuff, and truth be told, most missionaries are masterful at milking their daily drama for all its worth.

“I have a cold. In Africa. Colds in Africa are so much worse than the colds in America. I don’t have a neti pot. I will likely suffer for three days and not be able to save anyone’s life during this trying time. In Africa. Life is so hard.”

“My kids are on their last box of imported Cheerios and re-enforcements are not coming for another eight days. The sixteen other kinds of circular cereal in this country obviously weren’t blessed by angels and my fragile, third-culture kids have been asked to sacrifice so much. This is clearly a scheme of the devil. Please pray for us.”

It’s possible I’m exaggerating a bit, but really now – I do run in these circles and I see this blubbery, yet persuasive mess every day. Sometimes I even author it myself! While many of the struggles shared are legit and painful in any context, some of these “terrible” situations are just so run-of-the-mill-part-of-life, that, upon reading, I fully expect to reach the comments and find a steady stream of “suck it up buttercup”… But you know what? Time after time, the comments section EATS IT UP. All the single tear drop emojies. Pity heaped upon pity. Donations to fund the neti pot. People who haven’t prayed in a month are all of a sudden hands to the heavens casting out the demon of deprivation and praying for provision of Cheerios. I have no idea why some budding psychologist hasn’t made a winning PhD thesis out of this crazy. 

It would almost seem as if the folks back home have actually bought into the myth that E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. in in the third world is harder. It’s our own fault, really. When missionaries talk about their life in “the bush” or “the jungle” or on “the islands” without clarifying that that is a geographic marker and not a classification of hardship, we create a suggestive void to be filled by nothing but imagination and worst-case scenarios.

Honestly, misperceptions flow our of our thumbs so easily. When our Provincial grocery store burnt down I’m pretty sure I made it sound like we would all starve to death. I appreciated the solace, at the time. Cheeeeeeese! How will I live without it! But I never did tell you that a few weeks later they opened up a little outlet and lo and behold, we haven’t wasted away. They are even stocking cheese. It’s a selective game, and whether we mean to or not, we all play it.

Admittedly, for those of us overseas, our sharing is often curated to achieve a certain response. This is something I’ve wrestled with a lot. When I read or write posts about the traffic or the tropical diseases or the long waits for absolutely everything, and people react with some variation of “wow you’re amazing and I could never…” the conscientious objector perched on my shoulder whispers, Is our life really harder than theirs?

I’ve been sitting on this question, rolling it around in my head… When I share (whine) about my Zambian problems, am I really any different than my children who are honestly convinced that getting their hair washed is some form of torture? Am I showing my immaturity by failing to balance my problems against those facing truly dark situations?  

To my dear friends in America, let me say this: my life is not harder than yours. How dare I complain about the fact that my children have giardia when I have friends in the states whose children are undergoing heart surgery. How dare I complain about goats eating my begonias when I have friends who have to get in the car and drive to find green space.  How dare I complain that there is no decent ice cream when I have an unlimited supply of avocados for 30 cents a piece. Just. Shut. Up.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down all attitudinal with my journal and instructed myself – COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS. YOU HAVE NO REASON TO COMPLAIN.

I have the best life ever, actually.

The Zambian bush is the best place ever to raise children. My kids get approximately 6 hours of outdoor nature play every day, all year round. Eat your heart out, Charlotte Mason.

My work allows me to be creative, inspired, sacrificial, inventive, risky and loving which is a character bundle that describes not a single for-profit, 9-5, cubical ever. I am spoiled beyond reason.

I have zero debt and live in a house that is paid for and drive cars that are paid for because home and auto loans aren’t a thing here anyway. This is ridiculous luxury.

We can go on a legitimate African safari for the same price our friends pay for a day at the zoo. We can travel to and hang out at one of the seven wonders of the natural world for the same price our friends pay for a day at the water park.

We can country-hop the way our American friends state-hop. You zip down to Florida, we zip down to South Africa. Such is the nature of regional transportation for us.

I have not seen snow or been cold for over 700 days and counting. (And don’t tell me that some people like being cold. No one likes being cold. People like getting warm after being cold, but that is not the same thing.)

I have zero commute. I have survived the traffic in NY, LA and DC and NO THANK YOU. I am blessed and highly favored that I walk a dirt path to all my jobs and pass zero cars on the way.

I shave my legs approximately 3 times a year and strap on a bra approximately never because Zambain women are not oppressed in these Western ways and thank heavens Jeremy is basically Zambian and just lets me live.

Mango season is a thing here and there are so many mangos that they are rotting on the ground before they can all be eaten. Never will we pay 2 for $5 at an American Safeway. That is heresy.

But here’s the thing: I still struggle. A lot. I’ve spent a really long time trying to process how, with full awareness of all this awesomeness (and so much more), how I can still find life here to be hard more often than not.

What in the blazes is wrong with me? It’s like I have a gratitude processing disorder or something.

I was actually starting to be really hard on my self until I finally went on a mental health hunt to figure out why the impressive list of good was not compensating for the modest list of bad.

And finally, it took having someone with special letters after her name to explain it to me to stop feeling guilty about feeling the way that I do.

When you move overseas, you take your First World expectations with you. Slowly those expectations do melt away, but the memories and habit of comparing and contrasting, do not. While I no longer **expect** the clinic to have the medicine for my children on hand, the automatic recall of, “but in the States, they would” can often introduce a surprising angst over what feels like unnecessary pain.

The First World butting up against the Third creates dozens of little moments each day in which we are keenly aware that it doesn’t have to be this way… and all the mangos and warmth and creative inspiration of the village doesn’t blot out these thoughts.

Two of our neighbor babies are in the hospital, slowly dying under a heat lamp because the hospital does not do alternative feeding. (But if we were in America…)

We’re being hounded by the ZRA, RTSA, the ABCDEFG, choose an acronym it doesn’t matter, we’re being hounded because we are white and these offices want money. (But if we were in America…)

My husband lost half a finger because the closest surgeon to reattach it was 12 ours away and we were told it wasn’t worth it. (But if we were in America…)

My third born child sat in an institution for 400 days for no other reason than because a few people were too busy to sign a paper. (But if we were in America…)

We have forfeited a bazillion kwacha (hyperbole) to every shop in town because no one ever has change and pleasing the customer is not a thing. (But if we were in America…)

It took a month to figure out that our kids had giardia because the hospital held onto lab results only to report back to us that they didn’t have the reagent. (But if we were in America…)

And its not that these things are hard-er than any of the trials that our friends in the US are facing. As much as I sometimes want it, I don’t deserve that pity party. However, to be fair to my own emotions, I have to admit that most of these things are hard-different – a byproduct of life as a foreigner and the admission that, if we were in America, these things would likely play out differently.   

I’m willing to stick around a few more decades to find out for sure, but I have a suspicion that no amount of integration or cultural acquisition lets you turn off pre-recorded message in your brain that says, “This dysfunction and/or different value system is causing unnecessary trauma…” And having to process that recoding, day after day, makes the hard-different a unique kind of burden. 

I’m bothered by things that my neighbors don’t think twice about because I have had a different set of experiences. Everything from how families operate to customer service to health care has been colored from my earliest upbringing. And realistically, most people around me carry on just fine because they’ve never encountered a different reality.

It absolutely blows my mind that my daughter’s best friends go to bed hungry two or three nights a week because their parents just didn’t collect food for them. (But that’s the way things are…)

It drives me bonkers that I have to debate with the post-master to give me my mail just because it is addressed to Bethany and Jeremy Colvin. (But that’s the way things are…)

I have to take actual deep breaths when life-saving drugs are only provided on certain days and on certain times. (But that’s the way things are…)

My face gets hot when my paperwork is delayed because they think I’ve falsified my age. “You can’t be that old, you don’t have enough kids.” (But that’s the way things are…)

It kind of makes me want to quit every committee I’m on when rules are made but never enforced and development shoots itself in the foot over and over again… (But that’s the way things are…)

And the balance must exist – to not whine and carry on about it like a five year old, but to create space in my own head to recognize why it all takes a few extra seconds to process and put all the junk away.

And sometimes, in those crucial few seconds, I grab my phone and Mark Zuckerberg does his magic and brings you into my brain-space and it comes out in the form of my life is harder than yours… and for that, I am so sorry. I will continue to count my blessings, as we all should. I SHALL REMEMBER THE MANGOS, FRIENDS. But the next time I post a picture of a snake in my house – please know that I’m not suggesting that the snake is hard-er than your frozen pipes or the flu or cracked iphone screen. It’s just hard-different – for whatever that’s worth.