I was stumped. A thirteen-year-old girl was standing in front of me waiting for an answer to what to her was a very simple question. "What is your staple food?" she asked.
I was at Chinyunyu Basic School less than 100 kilometers east of the capital of Zambia. Forty girls milled about me and twenty other visitors, all there on behalf of Room to Read. These girls were recipients of scholarships and life skills training as part of Room to Read’s Girl’s Education Program, their families too poor to pay the small tuition needed to keep them in school were it not for the scholarship.
In hindsight the question was not so strange. We all eat food, no matter where we come from. When surrounded by a group of strangers with limited English in common, food would seem a good place to start to learn about each other.
What is my staple food? I eat oatmeal every morning when home in New York but I’d hardly consider oatmeal a staple food. Other than that no one food would stand out as an essential component of my everyday diet- sushi one day, ramen the next, salad with fish, green beans with chicken- I am a spoiled American who can and does eat anything I want pretty much whenever I want it.
Buying time, I threw the question back. What is your staple food? “Nshima!” Four girls shouted together.
Driving the dirt road to their school this answer was out every window of our bus. Nshima is a cornmeal-based porridge not unlike very bland polenta. It was mid July, harvest time in the region, the subsistence farmers who lived around the school were bringing in their corn supply and storing it in large reed silos next to their round huts made of packed earth and thatched roofs. With the harvest, corn was plentiful which meant nshima was on the table often and bellies were full.
Having had nshima a few times that week and not minding it at all, I still cringed to think this might be their only source of food- nshima by itself hardly made for a balanced diet. I was reassured by Room to Read’s country director that most families supplement nshima with chickens and goats raised on their plots as well as beans. Roadside stalls sold tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and hardy greens, all nutritious additions to the nshima diet.
“But what is your staple food?!” the girls demanded again. I guess pizza and pasta, I said. Americans eat a lot of pizza and pasta.
Blank, puzzled faces looked back at me. Then the girls looked at each other and burst out giggling. They had no idea what pizza or pasta is.
I asked them if they knew what pizza is. The spokesman for the group said no and shook her head. I tried to explain.
I told my young friend that pizza is like bread that is a big circle. Tomatoes are cooked into a sauce and spread over the round bread. Then cheese is cut and placed over the sauce. The whole thing goes on a very hot fire until the cheese melts and the round bread is cooked.
Nods of comprehension assured me that my description was not completely terrible. But the girls looked back at each other and raised their eyebrows, a fit of giggles started again, no doubt wondering why someone would eat round bread with smashed tomatoes and cheese as a staple food.