Most villages on the northern shoreline of Lake Malawi are home to sprawling cassava fields.
In Karonga South, Hara villager Ales Tchuwa finds the root crop tastier and more important than just a staple.
“It’s our way of life,” says Tchuwa, 55. “Cassava is our roots. We inherited it from our ancestors, but this generation is switching to maize.”
In her village, encounters with cassava are all over. The seemingly endless fields split by footpaths. The aroma of soaked tubers. The pounding sounds of households making flour.
The hint in the air usually emanates from giant clay pots where peeled tubers stay in water up to five days. Nearly every homestead has the pottery ware where cassava reportedly loses its toxic bitterness together with some nutrients.
Some of the widespread smell seeps from reed mats in the backyard where the tubers are left to dry once clashed into white grains.
But Tchuwa treasures the pots like no other.
“A family without a clay pot is almost dead. The clay vessel cannot be substituted with buckets from shops. It makes the flour tasty, with no rust.”
The only downside is that soaking waters down vital nutrients, she says.
She also gave a glimpse of the mats in the sun and vitembi, the thatched structures that safeguard the white harvest from rains.
There are two ways of drying cassava crush.
Some scatter gravel-sized kanyakaska all over the mat to dry fast. Others prefer kadonoska, dimpled fist-sized morsels that sit on the mat like mini-mountain ranges.
“Kanyakaska is handy when the food basket is dry or when the sun is erratic, but kadonoska dries slowly, tastes better and takes long in storage,” Tchuwa explained.
But there is more to cassava bites. The finest and meatiest tubers in the soaking vessel are put aside, summarily dried and roasted as chimbofwa.
The so-called vimbofwa are praised as yummy, a perfect breakfast and food for the road when served with groundnuts, both raw and roasted.
“Just one bite and your stomach calls for a cup of water,” Tchuwa waxes lyrical.
Six pots, partly buried in the earth to trap warmth and speed up the soaking, welcomes visitors to her hilltop household.
Throughout the village, evenings brings sounds of mortar and pestle as the villagers pound kadonoska and kanyakaska into flour for supper and subsequent meals.
The powdery stuff is cooked into kondowole, the nsima that first-timers often find sticky or too hard. Villagers say how it is cooked matters.
The pounding sessions, like the peeling, offer mothers an opportunity to interact with their children, deliver life-changing lessons and sing together.
Typically, male involvement in the tale of cassava ends at the beginning—shortly after making hip-high ridges.
The rest—from planting the cuttings to weeding, harvesting, peeling, soaking, drying, pounding and cooking—are roles for women and children.
When asked about the gender inequalities, Tchuwa said: “It’s just culture.”
Certainly, culture is not all about language, songs, dances and all that jazz, but the totality of how people live. Parity ought to be part of the fabric.
As rains become unpredictable, Tchuwa laments for the drought-resistant root crop gradually giving way to maize production. The cereal was almost non-existent in the shoreline locality during babyhood 55 years ago. Only three days ago did people start growing a few crops for boiling and roasting, she recalls.
The endangered popularity of cassava in times of climate change is a serious worry at a time government propagates the root crop as an adaptation to dry spells and disasters.
Having grown up eating cassava meals, Tchuwa rightly notes: “Our cultural identity is being eroded together with food security.”