Do the Mamba

Malawi update – February 19, 2011

The drive to my work site in Dwangwa was 3 hours north from Lilongwe through some of the most verdant countryside I have ever seen. Even the Irish would have OD-ed on the multiple shades of green.

I am staying at the Kasasa Club. This is a country club of sorts, serving the surrounding South African-owned sugar plantation. Besides lodging, the club offers golf, tennis, squash, and a swimming pool. This is not actually as glamorous as it sounds, but it is certainly better than I expected in a poor African country. The rooms are well worn, but spacious…and due to mosquitoes, well screened to include a bed net. But the net at the tennis court is shredded beyond use and the surface is unplayable crumbling concrete. The swimming pool’s smooth milky surface is broken by floating leaves and floating bugs and also bugs that look like leaves. But all in all, it is in the upper echelon of places I have stayed in the rural 3rd world. The golf course is functional, so too bad I only play golf once a decade. I don’t consider golf a full fledged sport. What sort of sport is it where you can’t dive for the ball?

The staple food in Malawi is “nsima,” eaten at lunch and again at dinner, virtually 365 days a year. Nsima is congealed cornmeal porridge made by slowly adding corn flour, bit by bit, to boiling water. Nsima is done when the consistency is similar to that of partially congealed oat meal left unfinished in the bottom of your breakfast bowl.

Once it has reached this firmness, nsima is served, still piping hot, on a plate along with a protein dish. The proper way to eat it is with the right hand: break off a small portion, roll it into a ball, then using the natural stickiness of the of the corn porridge, pick up a bit of the side dish. My client runs a grinding mill and consequently he can always scrounge up a pot full of cornmeal to make nsima. He has taken to serving me a daily lunch of this staple dish along with chicken or freshwater fish as the accompaniment. The relative blandness of the unspiced, coagulated corn porridge goes well with a bit of poultry or fish in sauce.

But on Thursday I hit the jackpot: the combination plate. And I am not talking about the chicken/fish combo plate. Instead, he served me toasted flying ants and termites. Now, I know what you are thinking, “Sounds good except for the flying ant wings.” Well, the good news is that the wings get singed away during cooking (in a hot skillet over a charcoal fire.) Consequently, one gets a nice crunchy taste with a hint of natural saltiness. You may think I am just saying this, but the flying ant/termite dish was really good. Please email me back if you want to be invited to my next dinner party. Or not.

Back at the Kasasa Club after work that day, I skipped golf (as I have done every day for the past 10 years) and went for a long walk along the country roads. I saw my first black mamba. This is Africa’s longest – – and the world’s fastest – – venomous snake. It can move at a max speed of 12.5 mph. Had I known this beforehand I would not have been so cavalier to walk within 6 feet of it. I only learned this fact after visiting at the end of my walk. The website reports, “…without antivenin, a bite from this fearsome serpent is usually 100 percent fatal within 20 minutes.” But, this black mamba didn’t mess with me. After all, I eat flying ants.

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