“We are eating mangoes now. The picture I have sent is one of our own trees outside our house.“
I wake to messages like this often. They arrive on my phone all the way from Malawi in the middle of the night, at the latest by 5 o’clock, when most Malawians have been up and about for a while.
They act as a sweet prelude before the realities of my own morning take shape in the beckoning light, and I am required to hunt for a jumper that, allegedly, I’ve lost in the wash.
Not that all of the messages bring buoyant news.
“I am sick with Malaria since Wednesday. I went to the district hospital but no medicine just pain killers.“
At which I feel helpless, and can only respond with good wishes for a speedy recovery.
Lately, conversations have centred around food. I am attempting to write a short piece of (maybe fiction) set “somewhere in rural Africa”, and in the course of my research I am trying to get to the bottom of beans (pardon the pun).
Pulses are plentiful in Malawi and its people know how to plant and harvest and prepare them for consumption, always saving some to start the cycle again. When meat is scarce (which is frequent) they are relied upon as tiny powerhouses of goodness; hence the desire to be creative with cooking.
“You can eat them with rice, nsima (the staple, maize porridge), or spread on bread and mix with pasta. Also serve with vegetables or salads. But in villages due to lack of resources we just boil them until they are very soft then we add salt and they are ready to eat.“
I am also advised that cooking beans with garlic will aid digestion and “add flavour, prevent and treat stomach ulcers and prevent constipation.”
The variety of beans available in Malawi is bewildering when it comes to the nomenclature, especially given that Malawians generally speak at least two languages. I send a photo of the pulses I proudly display in my kitchen to a friend, so that he can tell me their names.
“Nyanyati and kamubinkhile.”
“So they are not called Nzama and the other Jandalala, as another friend has affirmed?”
“No, the first names I gave you are in Chitumbuka.” he explains.
“But Nyanyati is the same as the Bambara groundnut, isn’t it?” I ask.
“Nyanyati is nyanyati whether in Chichewa or Chitumbuka and kamubinkhile is the name for Bambara in Chitumbuka.”
I’m lost. Particularly when another friend messages to say she is growing Kayera beans which are also Bambara groundnuts (in which language I have no clue).
No matter. I’ll set aside my confusion to crack on with my cooking. Time to cease treating the beauties in my kitchen like jewels, waxing lyrical every time I look at them, then resorting to my quick can of chickpeas with the excuse that life is too short.
For my friend, Bettie, who gave me her way of cooking Nyanyati or Nzama or Bambara, or whatever, has promised me she will check up on my progress.
“I will come and join you eating the beans.“
I think she’s serious. Or she’d like to be, at any rate.
While my friends in the Kasungu district of Malawi have been fearful of floods during the current rainy season, their crops have survived, and they have been able to sow seeds. Other areas of the country have not fared so well. In neighbouring Zambia, people have been suffering a different extreme, with droughts causing widespread hunger. And today there is news from East Africa of locusts invading the land. Food security is never a given.