While eating locally grown food in the United States is a trendy idea, it’s strictly of necessity in Zambia.
Typically, there are no grocery stores with aisles of food. Instead people eat what they grow themselves or what can be bought or bartered for from neighbors.
As part of a personal challenge I took it upon myself to go on a strictly village diet for the month of November. I decided that I would only eat foods found in the local community and only foods that a local would have access to. That means no cookies and treats that the local shops sometimes carry — due to the price.
Also, no food bought in one of the provincial capital’s markets and, certainly, no food — mainly candy — that had been sent to me from friends and family in the U.S. I’d spend the month eating as they do and staring every single night at the popcorn on my counter.
Unfortunately, I didn’t consider what the month of November is like.
Not only is it incredibly hot (it’s the end of the hottest, driest time of the year and just before the seasonal rains), but November is also at the heart of “the hunger season,” which will last until February. This is the time when a community’s preparedness to fight hunger is put to the test.
Having enough food to meet a person’s dietary needs is called food security. And when a community’s food supplies are pressed it can be problematic because droughts, poor management, and even worse luck can cause widespread food shortages in Africa.
While in the hunger season people’s gardens are just finishing up and their field crops have not grown enough to harvest, so they rely on dwindling family food reserves. These sometimes run out and when that happens there are few options remaining.
During my experiment, my main sources of food consisted of beans, rice, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, some greens, peanuts, mangoes and the occasional bites of fish or chicken.
It didn’t seem too bad for the first few days, but after eating rice and beans for five straight days, I started to get a little wary of it.
Midway through the challenge I started to simply skip meals because I didn’t feel like eating. I’ve always been a person who loves eating, but eating the same thing didn’t keep me interested.
My experiment wasn’t without its limitations.
All the people that live in my village make their living from growing field crops and tending gardens. I don’t do either. I had to buy all my food and for me it wasn’t a problem to spend a dollar on five onions and another on tomatoes.
But a local mother may not be able to afford nearly an entire day’s earning on a few onions, let alone tomatoes. So she relies on her garden and field to produce. If it doesn’t, then the family goes hungry.
One thing I discovered during my month-long trial was that the mango tree plays a vital role in my community’s food security. With home food reserves failing, mangoes are a main source of food and nutrition in bridging the gap between meals. Kids come home from school and immediately climb into the trees to fetch mangoes.
After some time they come down, collect the mangoes they’ve dropped, and set out to eat them. Without the mango tree and its fruit, hunger season would be infinitely more difficult and I wouldn’t have recognized this as clearly if I wasn’t trying this experiment.
In then end, like many aspects of my Peace Corps service, I never fully experienced hunger season and all that this time of year brings.
Only a few times was I really hungry and I only ran out of food completely in the last week, when locally available foods became scarce (then I went to the mango trees).
I experienced the lack of dietary options that many go through, but how can I really say that counts for anything like true hunger? I can’t.
It was a good experience not only in that I tested my ability to say no to eating that popcorn, but also that I tried to walk a mile in the locals’ shoes — even if only for a month.
Jordan Blekking of Pennfield is in Zambia as a member of the Peace Corps. His dispatches are reviewed by the Peace Corps before they’re sent. Reach him at jblekking @gmail.com or visit his blog, jordan blekking.blogspot.com