Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Tasting ancient Malawi’s sorghum grain and cassava (First published in Malawian Airlines Tiyende magazine)

Sorghum from https://theafricanpotnutrition.com/2014/02/04/sorghum-a-nutrition-packed-african-grain/grain/

Gone forever are the days of theka theka (half, half) sorghum and mapira flour offerings to Chauta, Namalenga, Mphambe at now extinct Malawi rain shrines.  But the grain seems to be making a comeback to complement maize during the constant droughts caused by the El Nino weather patterns.

Sorghum is a grain whose first recorded remains, dating back to 8000 BCE, were found in the Nabta Playa archaeological site in southern Egypt, writes Jane Summer in her article ‘Sorghum: The Must-have Gluten-free Ancient Grani.’

In Sudan, sorghum was also used as offerings at temples dedicated to Amun, a spiritual being they believed in.  The British Museum website reports that archaeo-botanical analyses of the mould shards excavated reveal that sorghum was the grain used to make offerings, not wheat and barley, as was used to make offering breads in Egypt.

However, pearl millet or black millet (machewere) was also used to make some local bread or cake for offerings in ancient Malawi.  Online records show the Sudanese farming it by 4000 BC before it spread to Egypt around 30000 BC and the rest of Africa. 

According to the only Sapitwa priestess in Malawi, Mayi Cecilia Jarden, sorghum (mapira) was also used in ufa (flour) offerings together with mawere (millet) while chikokeyani was the traditional beer put in mtsuko (clay pot) near a sacred tree, and thobwa the non-alcoholic drink one.

Both beer and the non-alcoholic drink were made using either millet or sorghum as well as for food offerings made during droughts.  She says when the Portuguese came between the 1500 and 1600s the maize they brought was also used as flour offerings, to cook nsima and for making some beer or liquor.

“Earlier ancestors didn’t know maize (corn) but makaka (dried cassava) and sorghum and millet, among other things when cooking nsima.  The youth of today don’t know these things and complain it sticks in the hand or is medicine, unlike in ancient times when children ate it like sweets.”

Ancestors knew nsima ya mtandaza from cassava and nsima ya mapira from sorghum which don’t need much water to grow and are healthy food products.

Raw Cassava

In Mulanje, southern Malawi, nandolo (pigeon peas) was prepared like porridge and a child would then drink water and feeling full, go to sleep.  Cassava as in mtandaza was sticky like glue (ulimbo) and was eaten with many things including bush ice locally known as mbewa, explains Mayi Jarden, adding that dried cassava was pounded as in kutibula or kusinja.

This issue was also raised by one of five journalists invited by the US Mission to the United Nations Agencies in Rome, Italy for meetings at UN agencies including WFP and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. 

In response to a question, Alexandre Meybeck, an FAO food and security change officer, explained how sorghum, compared with maize, is more drought resistant and has greater nutritional characteristics.  

However, he said the yield is lower so farmers produce less income from it so from a livelihood perspective there’s not much profit.

“Ideally on your farm you can have a combination of sorghum and maize for drought reasons.  There are farmers in areas of Malawi who have maize, cassava and sorghum.  

"This is precisely the trade-off between being more productive….you take modern varieties of maize and you put fertilizers, you have drought and you have nothing or being more resilient either as a farmer or country you have sorghum, all varieties of maize which don’t produce much and finally cassava” he said.

Research also shows that countries where cassava was consumed had less impact on their food insecurity because the prices of the cereals were linked to world markets.

Sorghum, the nutrition packed African grain, beyond porridge and chibuku, is also made like popcorn, boiled together with sugar beans (pinto beans) to make Nyekoe, a traditional dish from Lesotho and used in place of “teff” to make the traditional Ethiopian Inuera”, writes Cordialis Chipo, a registered dietician and founder of The African Pot Nutrition centre. 
Raw cassava : FAO


  1. Great blog about life and facts in Malawi! We are expats living there and enjoy the life here. Thanks Agnes!


Took this picture of children in Milange, Mozambique admiring visiting Malawian children

Tracing footsteps to lead me home

Greetings from the Warm Heart Africa, Malawi.

I'm a Malawian journalist who grew up in many countries including South Africa, Belgium, then West Germany, UK, Washington DC and New York in the US and I love New York.

Trying to come up with the production of my life and by compiling some of my 1000 poems into a book called ‘Tracing Footsteps’ to lead me Home with excellent photography.

I also plan to film award winning documentaries based on the history of this ancient land called Malawi and the mysteries of the Sirius star.

.....watch this space.