The religion of nsima

Relatives from the village visit a brother or sister in town. The town dweller has ‘strange’ eating habits. Tiyi n’buredi for breakfast; rice and beef stew for lunch; and chicken salad for supper. The menu goes on like this until the relatives from the village say their farewells and are soon back at base. The curious ones ask how the folks’ stay in town was. Well the folks who had gone kutawuni complain that they were not being given food during their stay. There is mixed reactions all around. And you are probably wondering how the relatives from the village could say that when there was tea and bread; rice and beef stew; and chicken salad to boot. Well, there was no nsima.

Nsima in its two versions—one a grounded, white maize flour and the other a coarse, grounded, brown maize flour—is food in the banal Malawi gourmet narrative. Nsima made from white maize flour is in fact less nutritious than the one made from brown flour (locally called ‘mgaiwa’). And yet in this narrative, nsima made from white flour is for an elite—a pseudo–bourgeoisie—who ooze enlightenment and sophistication. Mgaiwa is for the less dapper; it is for the povo. The thing with nsima though is that it silently and more steadily persuades you into a slumber. I would not call the ‘state of mind’ a siesta. A siesta is more voluntary. The nsima—induced slumber is lethal in the sense that ‘things’ can happen in public which you wish happened in private. Examples of such ‘things’ abound.

The acculturation of nsima as food even influences national policy. It will not matter that there is bumper yield of rice, cassava, kachewere or mbatata; a significant drop in maize yield is equal to famine. It is that simple. It is so one—dimensional. The State will not encourage a diversified diet for the people. No. It will set in motion a disaster relief apparatus that sources maize from elsewhere in order to give people free maize so that they may have nsima. Such is the obsession with nsima that in the face of several scathing critiques of the sustainability of programmes such as the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), the State merely tweaks this and that and life goes on.

So; it has been that for 53 years and counting—and in a nsima—induced slumber—government loans have been hijacked as personal pet projects. The podium–politician announces, “Ndikumangirani msewu apa.” And once the road is finished, the citizens fall over each other with verses of praise. An infrastructure development project loan—they are rarely grants—inviting showers of blessings.

The National Water Policy in Malawi is 12 years old and yet, in 2017, an MP rises in the National Assembly to request—not even demand—a borehole for his constituency. This is hyper—tragedy. Should we not be talking of water supply systems for a town, city or district? Indeed, in the same vein of water and sanitation, we have folks vigorously dancing at a ‘handover ceremony’ that they have stopped using the village thicket as their ‘toilet’. All this in 2017.

The energy crisis—nay the electricity power supply crisis—has been soundly vilified.  The State is failing to supply magetsi to eight percent of its population. This is near-doomsday. Meanwhile, the same State has failed to absorb almost 70 percent of ‘other—people’s money’ to reinvigorate the same electricity power sector. There are more than tell—tale signs of corruption that have had a strangle–hold on the main players in the sector. The foot dragging by those who must rein in errant types only points to old boys’ club mentality.

Our internal debt is some stratospheric billions of kwacha. No one has convincingly explained to the citizens how we got to where we are in the first place. Should we hold anybody—a public officer for example— accountable for taking us down the abyss as a country? In any event, the public officer is protected by an immunity provision in the law that precisely grants him immunity for action— even in cases of blatant neglect of duty—during the course of his duty. We have—very, very rarely— prosecuted a public officer for neglect of duty. So; we burn a grown man for the petty theft of a mobile phone handset. And we then hire an army of ‘prominent’ lawyers to defend the pot–bellied dude accused of stealing government dosh. And non–lawyers stand aside in awe of the ‘wealth’ of this pot–bellied fool.

There are calls—lately—for a citizen–driven accountability and transparency structure in the State system. I have written before about active citizenship under this column. What I did not say last time is that the State ‘expects’ each citizen as an individual to be responsible. Similarly, the exercise of the legal and political authority must be done responsibly. The ‘exerciser’ is to be responsible to the citizen as an individual and as a collective. The challenge— as I see it— has been that the strategy of holding the ‘exerciser’ of State authority to account happens at the collective and not the individual level of citizenship.

Nsima–yi tikanachepetsa. It has led to a nation–wide self–hypnosis that has not been very helpful at all. In 2018, let us get back to work. And work harder.

* Chikosa Silungwe is a lawyer and consultant at The Mizumali Foundation. He holds a PhD in Law from The University of Warwick in Coventry, England.


Share This Post