Could Quinoa Save Malawi?

Moses Kawawa has eaten nsima for as long as he can remember. His mother, grandmother and generations before her have done the same because “nsima makes you strong’’. When I spoke to Moses, he was on his way home from selling phone cards in the village where we both live, Nkhudzi. His walk had worked up his appetite for dinner consisting of ncheni, a local fish usually fried whole, typically taken with nsima. Growing up, it was hard not to notice that nearly all the indigenous Malawians around me consumed nsima with every meal. This almost excess consumption raises the obvious question: is nsima nutritious enough?

The women of Nkhudzi simmer their nsima in a similar way to that of a New York yoga mum simmering her quinoa, that is, on low heat. Cooking is intrinsically embedded within every culture- the staple grain or starch consumed by each culture has meaning behind it. Whereas consuming high carbohydrate foods is viewed as an unfavourable by the weight conscious of the first world, the exact opposite applies to those of Nkhudzi bay where the number one priority for food choice is that it ‘fills us up’. The women of Nkhudzi come together and celebrate their tradition as their children play football and plait each others hair waiting for the all too familiar call from their mothers that ‘nsima is ready’.

The two cooking cultures may actually overlap in the near future, as thirteen different varieties of the quinoa were planted in Malawi in 2012 in a research project conducted by Washington State University and local non-governmental organisations. The United Nations declared 2013 the international ‘year of quinoa’ because of the supposed life changing health benefits the grain can have. For instance, as opposed to maize, the grain contains all nine essential amino acids. It also contains Vitamin A, which is essential in the maintaining a strong immunity. Consumption of enough quinoa could combat both protein and vitamin A deficiency in Malawians. The project wanted to test whether the grain could flourish in Malawi’s climate and soil condition. Malawi’s Daily Times’ reported that the initial results were successful due to the grain’s natural disease and pest resistance and that '[d]uring the 2014/2015 season, one village produced more than 1000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of quinoa grain under irrigation which was quite an impressive achievement. (Malawi Daily Times)

So, should Malawians adopt quinoa into their diet? If only it were really this simple. The hard part is not being able to farm the quinoa, but being able to make Malawians understand why they should consume it as a staple. This needs to be handled with sensitivity. It may seem ridiculous to your average New Yorker that a hungry Malawian would be hesitant to consume the super grain despite its abundance, but what we need to remember is that Malawian culture is such that its people take immense pride in cooking and eating their traditional dish. Convincing a Malawian to completely substitute quinoa for maize is unlikely, but perhaps it could be gradually integrated into their diets. Any consumption of quinoa in place of maize is better than where we currently stand, so why not start there? The adoption of quinoa would cushion the severity of future droughts and perhaps even save lives.

I say this because Moses opened up to me about his four-year-old Chimwemewe. Chimwemewe had taken ill at the time. Chimwemewe is malnourished and falls ill almost every month. This shouldn’t surprise anyone- 60% of Malawian children under five suffer from malnutrition. Nsima contains far less Vitamin A than quinoa, which is essential in building an immunity, perhaps Chim wouldn’t suffer so often if he replaced maize flour with quinoa in his nsima

We really need to consider the protein content of quinoa per serving, if we are to take the acclaim it has received in recent years seriously. It turns out that the protein content in quinoa is marginally higher than the content found in a single boiled egg. How much quinoa would Chimwemwe really need to eat to feel its benefits? I assume far more than one would expect. Life without nsima would feel ‘strange’ for the people of Malawi. Is it really worth encouraging the people of Malawi to make this cultural change if the benefits are not actually that great? The people of Malawi should be informed of quinoa’s benefits and it should be introduced as an alternative to maize, but the true benefits of quinoa do not seem significant enough for us to encourage complete reformation of the current, culturally significant staple. 

Photo: www.un.org

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