Staple food or staple DANGER?
IT is the cornerstone of every Zimbabwean meal, the one constant that never seems to be missing from any plate.
It could be a feast in a remote part of Zimbabwe, or it could be a simply family meal in the heart of some of the country’s biggest and busiest cities.
It could be a meal that comes after a funeral, the meal that washes away the pallbearers’ sweat or soothes the hearts and dries the tears of grieving families.
One will still find it. One could be at a tshisa nyama, that one place where grilled meat is the highlight of every plate, yet it will still be there. Even in such a setting, as the smell of sizzling meat overwhelms every other aroma, isitshwala or sadza usually finds itself competing for prime real estate on plates alongside such savoured delicacies as pork, sausage and beef.
It is to Zimbabweans what pasta is to Italians or curry is to Indians. When they have crossed borders and flow overseas, when they are far from the dust of the motherland, a simple mound of isitshwala is what Zimbabweans miss the most.
However, in recent times, this humble staple has found itself under the crosshairs of most food and health enthusiasts. After all, recent research by the World Food Program (WFP) estimates that 89 percent of children in Zimbabwe are falling short of the minimum required diet. WFP also notes that dietary diversity is generally poor and consumption of protein is insufficient. Only 11 percent of Zimbabwean children aged six to 23 months old receive a minimum acceptable diet. One-third of Zimbabwe’s children are stunted or short for their age.
Data from the National Micronutrient Survey of 2012, showed that 19 percent of children between the critical ages of six and 59 months are vitamin A deficient, 72 percent are iron deficient and 31 percent are anaemic while 23,9 percent of women of child-bearing age (15-49) are Vitamin A deficient and 26 percent are anaemic.
Micronutrient malnutrition also referred to as ‘‘hidden hunger’’, as a consequence of these and other micronutrient deficiencies, has prevented more than five million Zimbabweans from realising their full potential as students, workers, parents and citizens.
With isitshwala, a firm favourite, consisting a large part of the diet consumed by Zimbabweans, some have questioned whether it has a had a hand in some of these glaring nutritional failures. If it does, just how did isitshwala, particularly the variety made from maize meal, manage to become a staple in the country?
Although it is now a nation’s obsession, the story of isitshwala does not begin in Zimbabwe. According to historian Pathisa Nyathi, the history of the nation’s staple can be traced back to the Nabta Playa, an archeologically rich site in Egypt. It is on this large, internally drained basin on the Nubian desert, approximately 800 kilometres south of Cairo, that the origins of the hardened porridge, which weaves like a thread through sub-Saharan Africa can be traced to.
“Certain species of grass and trees have certain places they’re associated with. Even within the context of Zimbabwe where you will get places where there is the mopani or baobab tree and other places where you don’t. So, more than 5000 years ago the one cereal which we knew to be indigenous to Africa, in other words, the cereals that could adapt to our soil and climate, were these small grains. It was sorghum, the finger millet and the pearl millet. Those three are indigenous to Africa.
“In the southern part of Egypt these grains were there. By that time, we were also still there. This is around the area of Nubia, Sudan. So, the groups that came to Southern Africa bring that knowledge. They brought it as their domesticated staples. All these grasses were naturally occurring then they were domesticated. Some people moved to the west, some to the south but all of those people brought those cereals. They brought knowledge of how to grow them, harvest them, process them and ultimately how they were to be prepared,” said Nyathi.
In his days as a young herd boy tending his father’s stock in the hilly, mountainous terrain of Matobo in the 1950s, Nyathi remembers how isitshwala was mostly derived from smaller grains. It was during this time that white maize meal was about to begin its blitzkrieg on plates across the country.
“Maize is indigenous to South America. Its adaptability was very important and it’s time of maturity is shorter. Maize was introduced by that Portuguese who had gone right around the globe. They brought it here and then it was preferred.
“When I was born, in our area there was no maize. We grew the other grains in our fields. Out of stupidity perhaps on our part, we were now envious of the homesteads that had white maize meal. The colour factor plays a part in all this. We thought it was a good thing. Generally, the African hates himself and the dark colour of those grains made them somewhat despised.
“Initially, those that adopted white maize meal were the people in town. This was because they did not have fields to grow their food. Then this was followed by the poor families in the rural areas, those that did not do well in the fields.
Social pressure got the other families like ours to also adopt it as a staple. If you look at it, maize has an advantage because its processing is easier. Shelling is a much easier process to undertake,” Nyathi said.
Like many that were weaned off smaller grains in their younger age, Nyathi also says the health benefits of the staple white maize are questionable.
“The planting, the processing and everything is just less labour intensive. However, for health reasons, you will be told later in life that it is better that you revert to those small grains. But we were taken off those cereals when we were young in the first place. One of my grandchildren hates isitshwala because of the colour only. Just that dark colour is enough to turn them off,” he said.
Cordialis Msora-Kasago, a dietician and nutritionist, says the preferred staple of super refined white maize meal come with a lot of shortfalls that are a result of the process of refinement.
“Even though the government mandates some essential nutrients be added back to the refined maize meal, it still remains nutritionally inferior since fibre is still missing and not all the other nutrients are added back. Sadza, whether it is “super refined” white, “mugaiwa” grayish or “mhunga” (millet) brown, is healthy as it provides nutrition from the entire grain. However, the refined “white” sadza preferred by most is not the best choice because much of the nutrition has been stripped from it. To ensure maximum nutrition, choose the least refined grain available: the further away from white the grain is, the better the nutrition,” she said.
While some have alleged that isitshwala leads to a variety of lifestyle illnesses, chief amongst them diabetes and obesity, Msora-Kasago said it was all dependent on the quantities consumed.
“There is a fallacy that diabetics should not have any carbs because carbs increase blood sugars. One of the most effective methods for controlling blood sugars is to ensure the adherence to a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Carbohydrates are part of a healthy meal plan and the body’s preferred source of energy. It is okay for a diabetic to have sadza but what is important is the portion size, the type of maize meal used and meal balance,” she said.
Another dietician, Rumbidzai Manyange told Sunday Life that it was unrealistic to expect people to revert back to small grains, largely due to economic factors.
“Not one food source will provide one with all the nutrients required in one meal. So sadza works as part of a balanced diet. It should be consumed in the correct portions.
I think our messaging around this should reflect the applicability of our recommendations. If I say that people should start eating sorghum, how many people in Zimbabwe will have access to it? What message are we giving to people in the rural areas who only have access to white maize? We have also noticed that these small grains cost more so they hit the pockets of people harder.
People can barely afford their staple right now so how realistic is expecting them to fork out more for those small grains?” she said.
In 2015, the country launched the Zimbabwe National Food Fortification Strategy, a guide at both policy and implementation levels to prevent micronutrient deficiencies.
“There has been bad messaging surrounding food fortification because people now have the impression that because certain foods are fortified, then they aren’t healthy.
Sometimes our message gets diluted. People in Zimbabwe are already food insecure so you want to fortify those foods that are already easily accessible to them. In a typical household, you will find cooking oil, salt and sugar so that is what you want to target for fortification. I can say that sadza is healthy or not or it does not cause this illness or that one,” she said.
While she could not confirm or deny the health hazard caused by the consumption of isitshwala, Manyange said it all depended on an individual’s interaction with food.
“Nutrition education is not one size fits all. When we put out a message for the public we do so at a general level.
What works for you might not work for someone else. We can only decide what works for an individual when their needs are also addressed personally,” she said.
In other news,
Gokwe Boy (17) Steals Haulage Truck For A 100km ‘Joyride’
An unlicensed 17-year-old boy left the Victoria Falls community gobsmacked after reportedly breaking into a parked 22-tonne haulage truck during the night and drove away.
Petros Nyenyiwe, who is originally from Gokwe, stole the truck on Saturday night and drove it to Kazungula border, close to 100km away and was intercepted by police on his way back to Victoria Falls, leading to his arrest.
A motorist who was driving along the same road on Sunday informed the owner…Learn More