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Since 1979 • April-May 2024 • Circulation 5000

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Food and Relationships in Zimbabwe

A family meal of samp (a dry corn dish), drumsticks, and fried kale. Viola Zimunya

An old Zimbabwean saying, roughly translated, goes: “Relationships are not quite complete without food.”

Food is often called “the unifier” of people of various backgrounds in Zimbabwe. It was unheard of for someone to ask for food and then be denied it. You cannot receive relatives and friends in your home (usually unannounced) and let them leave without offering them something to eat. Unless, of course, you were making a statement to make sure they never visit again. A visitor was always received with water to drink. After a while, depending on how far you have travelled, a meal would be prepared for you. Nowadays, tea or coffee has taken the place of a light beverage made from meal porridge and millet flour. You would get that to sustain you while the meal proper is cooking. If you are just visiting from the neighbourhood, tea would suffice.

If there is no ready relish, then depending on your status and level of welcome, the fowl run (domestic chicken house) would be one chicken short as it would make part of a sumptuous meal of sadza (thick corn meal porridge), vegetables (fresh from the garden or dried), and chicken stew. (Today’s dieticians would marvel at the “balance” of that diet.) Normally the host would not participate in the meal, except for a courtesy tasting to prove that the food is safe.

My uncle will never forget an incident that happened when he was a young boy living in the village with his mother (my grandmother) and two older brothers. He tells the story of a man he had never seen before, who arrived at the homestead looking very tired and hungry, as if he had been walking for days from some place very far away. He arrived and took a seat under a shady tree within the homestead, and my grandmother took one look at him and hurried to get him some water to drink, after which he asked if she had anything for him to eat as he was famished.

She, being the traditional woman she was, had nothing else apart from a piece of drying ox-liver that was hanging on a string in the kitchen. She took that down and cooked it for this stranger! My uncle remembers how much he and his brothers had been looking forward to this particular meal that they now had to watch go down the stranger’s throat! Each one of them took their time to understand the intricacies of culture. At that time for them, meat was not something that you just give to a stranger on his way!

Apart from making a welcome statement, food also plays a role at every occasion where people come together. The greater the amount of food at an event, the more successful it is viewed. Events like dinner and lunch are not events in themselves – they come with the celebration, whether it is a wedding, funeral, child christening, marriage ceremony, or other family gathering.

At all these events and at home, if guests finish all the food or are left licking their fingers, then definitely there has been a shortage. Wiping your plate clean is not so much a sign of good upbringing – it shows you have not had enough food!

Viola is a Zimbabwean writer/editor who has just immigrated to Canada from Namibia, in southern Africa, where she has been working for the past eight years.

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