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A-maizing Deception

One Grain, One Dangerous Deception A-maizing Deception

Last summer, when Professor Andrea Nord settled into a five-month stay in Malawi with her family of four, little did she know that the traditional cornmeal dish they periodically ate played a key role in the malnutrition and even deaths of Malawians. Most Malawians didn’t know it, nor do they know it now, even as they faithfully tend their maize fields and grind maize into flour.Before and After

In Malawi, many people consider a meal incomplete unless it includes nsima (pronounced n-see-ma), a cooked grits-like cereal that can be made from various flours including millet and sorghum. “But, it is only since the 1950s and 1960s that Malawians have preferred nsima made with maize flour,” explained Andrea.

Newly installed at Greenville College this semester, Andrea shares a teaching position with her husband, Eric. His Fulbright studies took the Nords and their two children to Malawi last August where they ate nsima and observed its central place in Malawian culture.

While millet, sorghum, yams and even green bananas comprised earlier versions of nsima, modern tastes favor a variety made exclusively from white cornmeal with the bran milled off to achieve a pure white porridge. The processing removes valuable proteins and nutrients, but the flavor and texture are appealing. An overwhelming preference for maize nsima has pushed other grains out of the picture. “Now, only maize will do,” said Andrea.

And “only maize” poses a problem for the small, land-locked country where four in five persons rely on farming for income, and attractive government subsidies encourage maize production. Most growers no longer harvest a variety of grains throughout Malawi’s generous 12-month growing season. Instead, they practice Western-style cultivation better suited for short seasons.

Supplied with vouchers for fertilizer and improved seed varieties, they plant maize in January and harvest in April. Their fields remain empty the rest of the year.

Soon after the vouchers began in 2004, Malawi realized surpluses and exported maize to Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Food experts hailed its success. More recently, however, erratic rains have brought shortages.

Malawi’s sole focus on maize has created a dangerous dependency. A dry spell during the maize pollination period can destroy the nation’s entire harvest. This happened in 2002, contributing to a famine that the BBC described as Malawi’s “worst ever.” Tragically, stories emerged of deaths due, not to a lack of food, but to fixation on maize as the sole solution.Compost Bin

Last fall, the Nords toured a thriving permaculture farm near Lilongwe, run by Americans Kristof and Stacia Nordin. Against the lush green backdrop of the Nordins’ abundant legumes, fruits and vegetables, Andrea listened to Kristof recall the crisis.

“He was shocked to see people in the market selling vegetables of every description, all begging him, ‘Buy from me, so I will have money to buy food,’” recounted Andrea. By “food,” they meant maize flour. “He saw people selling goats to afford a few plates of nsima. An emaciated woman came to his door one day pleading for food. Kristof tried to give this starving woman a bag of passionfruits, and she refused them. She only wanted maize flour. A woman had fallen dead beside the road; everyone said it was starvation, but she had died in a patch of edible plants.”

In the Nordins’ three acres, Andrea saw the daily goodness that can unfold once the “maize-and-maize-only” blinders are removed. They grow 200 different foods and pick produce every day from beds layered with root crops, ground crops, small trees, taller trees and climbing vines.

The diversity of plantings allows year-round harvests: maize in April; millets and sorghums in May and June; sweet potatoes in July and August; and air potatoes, cassava, yams and taro from September through November. They harvest even during Malawi’s “hungry season” – the months when the previous year’s maize reserves have run out, and people wait for the new crop to mature.

Many Malawians are reluctant to follow suit, however. Their dependence on maize runs deeper than mere taste. “Maize will yield more pounds of grain per acre than any other crop,” Andrea acknowledges, “if conditions are favorable and the plants aren’t stressed.” It requires a great deal of water, however, and rains have become increasingly unpredictable. Meanwhile, Malawi dedicates a large portion of its national budget (19% in 2011- 12) to agriculture, mostly to support the subsidies. “Maize is a political crop that has essentially enslaved Malawi as a nation,” observed one program officer from Christian Aid Malawi. Stacia Nordin is more blunt: “The maize trance is killing Malawi.”

Cultural addictions are complex. Andrea puzzles over the influences that drove Malawians to devalue their traditional foods in the first place. They now associate millet and sorghum with shame and call them “poverty” foods. She wonders if the reasons behind those stigmas are the same reasons that blond, blue-eyed dolls fill store shelves in Lilongwe at Christmas time, and black dolls are hard to find.Tomato Tree

“We have been thinking about this idea of cultural addictions,” she adds, calling to mind the prevalence of chemically dependent lawns in the U.S. and the common disposal of edible dandelions. Graver yet, she points to our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels, its love affair with sugar and the practice of unhealthy lifestyles. Like so much of her Malawi experience, the ideas present food for serious thought.

This story was published on April 14, 2014

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