Interviewing Nekias Mukwindidza

She talked about food and cooking in the pastwith nostalgia and a sparkle in her eyes.

“Those were the good old days,” said a beaming Gogo Phoebe Kwashata as she narrated how food was grown or sourced and cooked in her childhood.

Less cooking oil

“We did not use these oils as we are using today. Peanut butter was the best back then and it could be used to add taste to a variety of foods; dried meat (chimukuyu), pumpkin leaves (muboora), dried vegetables (mufushwa), even in rice (mupunga),” Gogo Kwashata said.

“And sometimes we  uses ground roasted pumpkin seeds to add flavor to our relish instead of peanut butter (dovi)…that  was delicious”.

Seventy-five-old Gogo Kwashata grew up in Dzobo , a small communal farming area south of the city of Mutare in Manicaland Province. She now lives in Mpudzi Resettlement Area, a few kilometres from her place of birth.

In the early 1950s, she said, Dzobo was known for growing some of the best groundnuts and small grains in province and a wide range of crops in wetlands (matoro).

Foods from wetlands

“There used to be a lot of wetlands where our mothers grew rice, taros (madhumbe) and a variety of vegetables like mustard greens (tsunga).  Taros were good for breakfast and could be cooked in many different ways and served with milk or even honey. Back then milk was still plenty as our parents kept a lot of cattle. We used to grow rice, not the white type you see in shops today but it was brownish in colour,” she said.

Gogo Phoebe Kwashata

Versatile cowpeas

But her favorite food, she said, was porridge made from roasted and grounded cowpeas (nyemba). The porridge is known in that part of the country as rupiza.

“Today rupiza is still revered as a sacred dish; you find it served these days during traditional ceremonies like rainmaking ceremonies. We still practice rain making ceremonies ahead of each rainy season,” she said.

But the variety of cowpeas used to be grown back then is different from the ones grown commercially today.

“We used to grow cowpea plants which were runners that spread on the ground. This variety is still around but not very common.  We would cook the green cowpeas in their pods and the cowpea leaves when dried (mufushwa), was good especially during the dry season. During the dry season, we would also cook maize mixed with either groundnuts or cowpeas or bambara nuts (nyimo) to make mutakura,” she said.

Less maize, less sugar, more milk

Besides all these other foods, the staple in this part of the country was sadza.  But back then the sadza was usually made using flour from finger millet (rukweza), pearl millet (mhunga) and to a lesser extent maize.

“Maize was not very common here. And we used to enjoy sadza made from millet flour. And this was good served with sour milk. Yes, it was hard preparing the millet flour as it required pounding it in a mortar but the food was healthy and good. Some of the diseases we face today are because of the unhealthy food we eat,” she said. “Even today I don’t like much oil in my food; it’s not healthy”.

Kwashata said the coming in of new crops had changed their diet.

“Even in some areas not suitable for maize, farmers are trying to grown maize but the results have been a disaster. We need to go back to our traditional crops,” she said. “I have to admit that our diet has changed.  Today people are eating meat which is practically uncooked.  I don’t think it’s healthy.  And we are now eating too much sugar”.

Gogo Esmah Chiziyano, a seventy-one-year-old from Village C in Zimunya, Mutare district said milk formed a bigger part of her childhood diet.

“Like many people back then, our father had many cattle and milk was in abundance. In the morning, we would have porridge made from millet flour with milk added to improve the taste. There was no sugar to sweeten the porridge back then,” Gogo Chiziyano said. “And we could add sour milk to sadza for lunch or supper”.

Amaranth grain bread

Gogo Chiziyano who grew up near Odzi River in Marange area, said her favorite food in her childhood was bread made of flour from grain amaranth (uninga).

“This bread tasted nice. How I miss that bread! Our parents used to grow this (grain amaranth) and it was very popular during that time. This crop (grain amaranth) simply disappeared in this area and I don’t even know why,” she said.

Meat on special occasions

Though her parents had a lot of livestock, including cattle, goats and chicken, she admitted that they rarely had meat.

“Chicken or goats were slaughtered when we had visitors and as for cattle, well, our parents could kill one during important traditional ceremonies,” she said.

“But today things have changed. Nowadays we can now have chicken anytime, though it’s mostly these tasteless broilers and the butcheries are now everywhere we can buy meat”.

Tasteless young generation

Another Zimunya village elder, Nekias Mkwindidza (85) said it was difficult for people to go back to the traditional foods as the young generation considers them tasteless.

“Many young people today don’t eat sadza made from millet flour or relish with peanut butter. They say it does not taste good. But when we were growing up that was the food we liked. Pumpkin leaves with peanut butter were so good and out mothers knew how to prepare it. Today many children don’t eat madhumbe but that’s the type of food we grew up eating,” Mkwindidza said.

Wild fruits

He said wild fruits were also an important part of their diet when they were growing up.

“As young boys, we would gather wild fruits especially when herding cattle. We took some of the fruits home to our parents and sisters. We had no time to go home for lunch while looking after cattle so during the day we would eat wild fruits like matohwe, mazhanje, nzviru, shuma and many other fruits depending on the season,” Mkwindidza said.

“Wild fruits were plenty when we were growing up but because of the perennial droughts and massive deforestation some of these fruits are no longer there,” he added.

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Andrew Mambondiyani
Andrew Mambondiyani is an award winning independent journalist based in Zimbabwe with more than 10 years journalism and media consultancy experience. Between 2010 and 2011 he served as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at Massachusetts institute of Technology (USA). In 2008 he served as a Middlebury Environment Journalism Fellow in USA. His journalism work has appeared in various local and international media organisations including Thomson Reuters Foundation (UK), BBC (UK), Yale E360 (USA), Think Africa Press (UK), SciDev.net (UK), Centrepoint Now (USA) and Opendemocracy.net (UK) among others. He has a special interest in climate change, agriculture, sustainable development and the environment in general.