A Zambian diet and mounds of mangoes

By Jordan Blekking
April 14, 2014

While eating locally grown food in the United States is a trendy idea, it's strict necessity in most rural communities in Zambia. Typically, there are no grocery stores with aisles of food. Instead, people eat what they grow themselves or what they buy or barter from neighbors.

I took it upon myself to go on a strictly village diet for the month of November. I decided I would only eat foods found in the local community – no pricey cookies and treats that the local shops sometimes carry. The diet also excluded food bought in one of the provincial capital’s markets and certainly any food — mainly candy — sent to me from friends and family in the U.S. I’d spend the month eating exactly as the people in my community did, and longingly staring at the popcorn on my counter every single night.

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 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. When a community’s food supplies are pressed, droughts, poor management, or bad luck can cause widespread food shortages in Africa. During the hunger season, people's gardens are just finishing up and their field crops have not grown enough to harvest, so many rely on dwindling family food reserves.

As such, my experiment wasn’t without its limitations.

During my diet, 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 tired of it.

Midway through the challenge, I started skipping meals because I didn’t feel like eating. I’ve always been a person who loves food, but repeatedly eating the same thing didn’t keep me interested.

All the people 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. She may rely on her garden and field to produce, and if it doesn’t, 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. They bridge the gap between meals. Kids come home from school and immediately climb into the trees to fetch mangoes.

After some time, the children climb 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. I wouldn’t have recognized this as clearly if I hadn't tried this experiment.

In the end, like many aspects of my Peace Corps service, I never fully experienced hunger season and all that this time of year brings. There were only a few times when I was 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 ever-reliable mango trees).

I experienced the lack of dietary options that many face, but how can I really say that counts for anything like true hunger? I can’t.

It was a good experience for testing my ability to say no to eating that popcorn, but also for walking a mile in the locals’ shoes — even if only for a month.

Jordan Blekking