Magazine article The Spectator

Immoral Maize

Magazine article The Spectator

Immoral Maize

Article excerpt


UNLESS you're suffering a severe attack of compassion-fatigue, you'll know that famine is with us again, and this time it's happening right here on my doorstep, in southern Africa. Food stocks officially ran out in Zambia last Thursday, much to the admitted surprise of our vice-president, the Honourable Enoch Kavindele, who said rather plaintively that the government had thought the stocks would last a little longer, but they hadn't. Shame.

Help is at hand. The United States and Canada have offered Zambia several zillion tons of food for free. But wait just one cassava-picking minute - there's a snag. Yes, they're offering us maize. Yes, that's what we need. But ... it's genetically modified maize!

Ha! Oh no, you don't, Uncle Sammy! Some of our politicians are sharp enough to realise that GM food is, of course, part of a cunning neocolonialist plot to destabilise decent African countries by weakening our physical condition, robbing us of our manhood and making the potholes in the road even deeper and more numerous.

Our redoubtable President, Levy Mwanawasa, has refused to allow this maize to be distributed to the starving until he can be sure that it's safe. No doubt he's seen the video footage of protests against GM food in the UK. Two or three hundred muzungus in green anoraks trampling over fields in Norfolk can't be wrong, can they?

Instead he's called a conference to debate the issue. This conference is taking place as I write, in our splendid Mulungushi International Conference Centre, where delegates will undoubtedly be provided with mid-morning coffee and biccies, lunch, midafternoon tea and biccies, and din-dins.

While the conference confers, children in the drought-stricken villages of the worst-hit regions will sit down to meals of rats, roots and other rubbish, and shortly you can confidently expect to see television pictures of Zambian kiddies with those tell-tale swollen bellies.

The country needs maize, and it needs it badly. Without maize there can be no mealie meal, and without mealie meal there can be no 'nshima' - our national dish. Cue, once again, vice-president Enoch Kavindele.

I'm rather fond of Enoch. He cuts an endearing figure as he blunders around the Lusaka political arena, one step ahead of his harassed press officer, spraying misguided and ill-chosen remarks like an African John Prescott. This time he came up with a vintage Enochism. Zambians, he announced, should diversify their diet. They should eat potatoes or rice or pasta instead of nshima.

That might sound reasonable to European ears. To appreciate just how ludicrously unreal a suggestion it is, you need to understand the place of nshima in our society and culture. The truth is, if you sit a hungry Zambian down in front of smoked trout, steak au poivre, French fries, creme caramel and a decent Stilton, he may eat it. But afterwards he will look up and say, `Fine. Now, where's the nshima?'

To a Zambian, nshima means more than his daily bread, more even than the bread of heaven. It means more than a full rice bowl does to a Chinese peasant. It means more than a sack of spuds does to Paddy O'Gob from Ballykisselbow. Nshima to a Zambian means everything. It is food. It is medicine. It is comfort and security. It is a remedy for loneliness, it is a celebration of family life, it is a refuge in time of trouble, it is a hangover cure. It is literally the stuff of life. In Zambia we eat nshima for breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea, and as a midnight snack. …

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