Fifty-two year-old Agnes Magaleta from Machemba area in Bvumbwe, Thyolo has been preserving seasonal vegetables for the past 40 years using a traditional method called chikwatu.
Originally, chikwatu is made of specific tree leaves or any other locally available resources provided they preserve vegetables for future use.
Chikwatu is commonly used in the Central Region and some parts of the country and it is used to store dried up seasonal vegetables. It has a long history of being used to store vegetables by villagers.
Nkhwani, thelele and khwanya are some of the seasonal vegetables that are kept in chikwatu.
However, Magaleta is quick to point out that chikwatu stores can preserve mushroom.
She explained that the seasonal foods are dried up first before being stocked up in chikwatu.
Said Magaleta: “We first boil and then dry the vegetables before storing them for future use. The dried vegetables mfutso.”
Chikwatu can store the dried vegetables up to a year.
However, chikwatu wears different names depending on places, tribes and languages. Again, due to the scarcity of natural materials, chikwatu today is made from different locally found resources such as bamboo, according to Magaleta.
She said: “Some are still using leaves in the village to create the chikwatu. But some people use bamboos, banana leaves or reeds. But originally it is called chikwatu.”
And chikwatu comes in different shapes such as rectangular and oval depending on the choice and creativity of the maker.
Magaleta said chikwatu was a substitute of the modern day refrigeration of fresh food.
“During our time chikwatu or clay pots such as mtsuko act as the modern day refrigerators that keep food. Old people were very resourceful when it came to storing food,” she said.
Although chikwatu remains the traditional name for the ancient food storage material, today people in the village use different materials to store their vegetables or food for future use. Some families simply keep food in other storage sources such as pots or granaries.
Today, even vendors are making such storage materials from other sources other than leaves.
Joseph Alufandika from Thyolo is one of the vendors that trade in traditional stuff at Limbe Flea market.
He corroborated Magaleta that chikwatu remains one of the ancient ways of storing seasonal vegetables especially in the village.
However, he said materials for making chikwatu have changed over time due to reasons ranging from scarcity of traditional resources.
He said: “Our forefathers knew the exact leaves of trees that were being used to make zikwatu because they were believed to have a certain impact on temperature. But today such trees are not in abundance due to human practices such as deforestation.”
However, as a promoter of culture, Alufandika said he is striving to maintain some of the materials that were and are being used by people in the village.
Alufandika said: “We all came from the village and the fact that we are now living comfortable lives in town should not make us forget what have made us to be today.
“We don’t necessarily need to replicate the life we were living in the village, but preserve some of the stuff for our children to appreciate our culture and history. We should at least have one or two traditional items in our houses for learning purposes.”
Aside zikwatu, Alufandika sells other traditional items such as pistils and motar, winnowers, table mats and baskets made from bamboos and other locally found resources.
Alufandika, however, bemoaned lack of documentation of traditional values and items as a major hindrance to the preservation of Malawi’s culture. n