Let Them Eat Kandolo – Michigan Quarterly Review

Let Them Eat Kandolo

Published in Issue 63.2: Spring 2024

Spring 2024 | Mwanabibi Sikamo Reads “Let Them Eat Kandolo: Amainsa 1992, Kabalenge, Zambia” MQR Sound

A note about the short story “Let Them Eat Kandolo: Amainsa 1992, Kabalenge, Zambia” from Mwanabibi Sikamo for the Michigan Quarterly Review's Spring 2024 issue “African Writing: A Partial Cartography of Provocations”: I love a good market. Not a pristine library of products boxed away from touch and smell, trolleys rolling over hospital-white floors market. Not even a friendly-farmers, loose and bottled vegetables piled onto bunting lined folding tables market. No, I like a full bodied, bursting at the seams, assault on all the senses, never know who or what you might encounter market. A cacophonous African market. In Lusaka my favorite hunting ground is City Market, which sprung out of necessity. One seller nails together wooden offcuts from her local carpenter. She piles her merchandise on the makeshift stand; a few tomatoes, maybe some greasy, freshly made fritters. The next day she is joined by someone selling roasted cassava and groundnuts, and so it goes until you have a government-sanctioned market. As I enter City Market my heart races. I must be on high alert to avoid bumping into other buyers or sellers. I do not want to get run over by the rushing wheelbarrow boys who hiss to warn me of their presence. I walk through the hall heaving with Salaula, breathe past the earthy dried fish and tobacco, and then I am among the sacks full of grains, roots, mushroom, and other things that were not on my list. It was on one of these jaunts, basking in the abundance that was reminiscent of childhood trips to the village that the seed for this food memoir sprouted. How could we have so much and yet still not have enough?

Amainsa 1992—Kabalenge, Zambia

Delighted Disgust

My grandmother grabs hold of a squirming itchy black worm. She pinches its bottom and its insides squeeze out. A satisfying trail of shimmering black slime dollops into the bowl at her crossed feet, just missing the swirling blue patterns on her chitenge wrapper. I fidget beside her on the ridged reed mat and squeal in delighted disgust.

Later, much later, after they have been lying lifeless on a reed mat raised off the ground with stilts as an offering to the sun, the worms will be tossed in a pan with crackling oil and caramelizing onions and tomatoes, lip-smacking salty crunchiness scooped up with nshima and paired with something green for siesta-inducing distended bellies.

But first, the greens must be sorted and separated from stalks, so my mother’s sister calls me over to sit with the other girls under the insaka. We empty sacks of weeds turned vegetables onto the smooth, cool-to-the-foot clay floor. And then, we are surrounded by a patchwork of fragrant, grass-fresh greenery. Sweet potato leaves, cassava leaves, bean leaves, cowpea leaves, and lenga lenga or bondwe, whose scientific name would probably render it inedible. We work quietly, snapping and sorting, peeling silver strings to soften brittle leaves and storing them in grass-brown pattern-filled ifipe. Basketsful of kalembula, katapa, chibwabwa, chimpapila, kachesha, and lenga lenga or bondwe line the waist-high gray wall of the insaka.

I stare longingly past the thatched roof at the group of women who pound cassava beside my grandparent’s house. The women take turns slamming the now-dry roots against a wooden mortar with their long pestles. Flinching with each thump, I wonder how their timing can be so precise; one pestle and then another, one pestle and then another, a steady baseline for their chorus of tunes, infinitely more exciting than the snapping and sorting.

Sitting in a bigger insaka not far from ours, my grandfather places an insupa against the speaker of his wireless radio. The dry, hollowed-out gourd drowns out the melody of pounding women. An eagle’s call fills the air, and it’s time for the main news. We fall into a reverential silence.

A man on the radio says that Zambia is dealing with unprecedented hunger due to the low yield of maize that year. He says that despite this, we will not starve because the kind people of the United States of America have sent us food aid. He warns us that we might find the aid a little unusual. The maize meal they have sent us is yellow, but we must not be alarmed by the change in color of the nshima we eat with almost every meal.

Over the coming months, the nation is abuzz with opinions—Does the maize have something else, something more sinister in it, is the maize meant for non-human animals, will we be altered by the maize, will it turn our insides yellow, seep through to our skin, jaundiced halos glowing in our wake? But today, there is no debate. My grandfather rolls the dial away from the news when the newscaster starts to repeat the headlines. The radio protests with a shower of static before settling on the excitable drone of a football commentator.

Grandad shifts to an almost lying down position in his creaking handmade folding chair and closes his eyes.

The pounding women are now sifting clouds of musty fine white powder into tall baskets. It coats their arms and faces, and only their hair is protected by silky soft scarves. The powder will be stirred into boiling water and thickened into a stretchy, tangy nshima to go with the worms and greens. Some might even call it umami.

We leave the village weighed down by supplies. My grandparents piling ever more innocuous parcels into the car: samp, cassava, sweet potato, pumpkin, jackfruit, mangoes, mushrooms, bananas, and even a goat. My father drives gingerly along muddy tracks masquerading as roads, threatening to suck us in.

Soon, germinating seeds will begin to peek through heavy sludge before soaking up the sunshine and becoming a harvest. We call this amainsa, the rainy season, when the air is heavy with the smell of wet earth and the expectation of abundance, and the ground is carpeted in dewy emerald and adorned with red, brown, and white mushrooms, some the width of a small child’s hands.

Creamy Bondwe with Dried Wild Mushroom

A chef friend told me that bondwe is sometimes substituted for spinach because of its taste and texture. So, I lug bulging plastics from the market; pinch and snap to separate the leaves; sauté tear-duct leaking red onions; reduce milky white sauce; toss in earthy, dried, wild mushrooms; and stir through sharp mustard. I pour the sauce over juicy crackling pork, pile it on fluffy buttery mash, and smash it on my fork for a satisfying mouthful.

To read the rest of this piece and much more, purchase our Spring 2024 issue (available in print and digital forms here.)

Mwanabibi Sikamo is a Zambian storyteller and filmmaker exploring the real and imagined lives of Africans past and present. She writes about the lived African experience and the confluence between culture, creativity, and indigenous spirituality. Her essays play with form and function, drawing on years as an immigrant, natural hair advocate, television host/producer, and feminist social commentator. In 2023, she was longlisted for the SEVHAGE Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction and is currently writing her first book.

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