Remembering traditional foods of our childhood

Dr Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
Over the past few years, we have been eating a lot of white sadza here in the village. Then my cousin Reuben came back from the Diaspora and declared that white sadza was not good for our health.

“You Africans are addicted to sadza. You must learn to eat other traditional foods with less fat and carbohydrates!” said Reuben. He talked as if he is not from here, like he is a tourist visiting us.

This attitude happens to some of us who have been away from this country for a long time. Reuben grew up in the village where he used to herd cattle down in the valley just like most of us.

When we were growing up in this village, we ate varieties of sadza. Not just white sadza, but many types and colours of sadza. My grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, cooked sadza from millet, sorghum, rice and other grains such as mapfunde. Our sadza was eaten with varieties of vegetables. Mbuya also spent a long time, preparing the red millet or rapoko sadza. Then she cooked a village road runner chicken to accompany the millet sadza, rezviyo. At times, we milked cows and made the village sour milk

Meat was in abundance from cattle, goats, sheep, ducks and chickens. Fishermen dodged crocodiles and hippos and caught big fish in the Save River. My grandfather, Sekuru Dickson used to take his gun and go hunting in the Mbire Mountains. He brought home big game meat. Sekuru did not kill Elands, because that is our totem.

In those days, we knew of no other foods or tastes other than the varieties we grew or gathered from the hills and forests. We did not go hungry. Our sadza was never just made from maize, but from sadza from sorghum, mhunga, zviyo, rapoko, millet and mapfunde.

We went to the anthills to catch the red ants, those red insects with horns, majuru. In the wild forest we gathered delicious worm-like delicacies, magandari, harati and masinini. The boys went hunting for rabbits and mice while older men climbed up the Hwedza Mountains with dogs hunting for big bucks and pheasants. Sometimes we spent the day in the valley competing on how many zvikundyu, magurwe and grasshoppers we could catch and bring home to Mbuya.

Most times, we ate vegetables. My mother and all the village women cooked various types of mushrooms (whose English names we did not know) from chihombiro, nhedzi, huvhe, tsvuke tsvuke, nzeve and matindindi. And there were varieties of vegetables too; mudyakari, mowa, derere remashizha or okra, munyemba, muboora or pumpkin leaves. When she was in the mood, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, my grandmother, woke up very early and spent all morning preparing rupiza, the roasted and ground split chick pea with peanut butter sauce. We hardly ate meat. Occasionally my grandmother, Mbuya ordered a beast to be slaughtered at her leisure, mombe yemadiro


Soon after the early seasonal rains, Mbuya said the wild mushrooms would come out. She knew when the mushrooms would come up and where to find them. She led the group of women to the hills and when the sun was right above our heads, they arrived back with baskets full of mushrooms. Mbuya carefully examined the mushrooms and threw away all the poisonous ones. My mother then boiled and salted the rest of the mushrooms and sun-dried them at the granite rocks. We learnt all the mushroom names and could tell the time huvhe, the big umbrella mushroom would grow. Only people with luck found those ones. It was all about knowing the right temperature, rain and soil for various types of mushrooms to grow. If we got the times wrong, which we often did, we would find the big mushrooms already rotten and eaten by centipedes, beetles and other insects. Mbuya scolded us. “Don’t you know the time to go and collect the mushrooms?”

When we went to St Columbus Primary School, we were taught about, introduced to English food even though it was not there. The food was described in the English books donated to us by the Anglican missionaries. Our teacher, Miss Rwodzi read the books to us. Among the books we loved most was Enid Blyton’s “The Famous Five”. The heroes in the book were a group of English children who went on many adventures and picnics in countryside England.

We sat there, on the dusty floor, listening and wondering what their food looked like. Our mouths salivated when Miss Rwodzi described a picnic basket full of ham and tomato sandwiches, tinned sardines, currant buns, biscuits, meat pies, boiled eggs, shortbread, radishes, Nestlé milk, ginger beer, tins of pineapple chunks and squares of chocolate. When they were not having a picnic, the English children sat on a big dining room table at home and ate whatever they wanted from a whole selection of food.

I imagined myself fully educated one day, ndafunda zvikuru, finding a job in the city, getting married and setting the table with forks and knives. At my family’s dining room table I was going to serve everything straight out of Enid Blyton’s books. There would be some ham, roast beef, fried eggs, sandwiches, cheese, bacon, carrots, cakes, buns, jelly, hamburgers, chips, salads, crusty bread with butter and jam. For drinks, there was going to be no water on that table, but copious quantities of lemonade and ginger beer, exactly what the English children and their parents in the book drank. At breakfast my children and some of the visiting relatives from the village would drink as much tea as they wanted with plenty of milk and many teaspoonfuls of sugar. On that table I might even allow the village fried buns, mafetikuku, that my mother made for us on special days. And maybe a big bottle of Fanta. Once my table was set, there would be no room for sadza or any of the village primitive dishes my grandmother Mbuya VaMandirowesa cooked.

I left the village and ate as much English food as I wanted. But, as I spend more and more time in the village, I have started growing the old traditional foods of my childhood.

This year we grew a lot of rapoko or red millet. We could not possibly cut our rapoko on our own without a nhimbe, the communal way of working together. Almost everyone from around the village near us will come along to the nhimbe with a knife, a basket or tswanda to carry the millet. Then we plan to eat more of the organic rapoko than white sadza. Hopefully, our taste buds will get used to eating less of the Western processed foods responsible for the increasing obesity in our society

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.

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