Peace Corps Zambia: Cooking in the Village

I would normally list “cooking” as a hobby of mine, but during the first few weeks of community entry, it was a burden just to whip up some kind of nourishment. Initially, it took me up to two hours to get the brazier going plus another two hours to cook, eat, and clean. So, eating consumed at least four hours, leaving less time for more productive work. I was frazzled at first. How will I get anything done?
When our counterpart visited and saw my struggles, he easily got the charcoal lit with a single match, making me want to give up entirely. I doused the charcoal in methylated spirits, used piles of dried grass, burned the tons of paperwork we got from PST, yet the charcoal remained black and cold, like a sad Christmas story. With patience and guidance, however, I kept trying and now can get the fire going in a few minutes and yes, with a single match! The trick is stacking a mountain of dried grass, skillfully piling the charcoal underneath and some on top, and letting in lots of wind to transfer the heat. Once the grass burns out, I use a bucket lid or swing the brazier to spread the flame.

Swinging around the brazier

When I do light it, I cook several things (meal, boil water to store in thermos for morning coffee and oatmeal, popcorn for continual snacks, then let bread and sweet potatoes bake for an hour). Speaking of bread, I can also bake! I line the bottom of a large pot with dirt or use a tuna can and carefully place the bread pan inside. Seal the lid with rocks and hot coals and put to top of the brazier. So yes, ‘CAUSE Banana Bread exists here in Zambia. We baked a few loaves for some friends and they loved it. Some women also approached me to start a baking club so they could improve household nutrition, supplement their income, and do something with all of those rotting bananas!


A huge bag of charcoal costs K10-20, about $1-2 USD, and lasts over a month. I want to stray away from using charcoal because of its contribution to deforestation, but firewood isn’t exactly the most sustainable, either, and that produces an awful lot of irritating smoke. After using charcoal, I sprinkle water to put the flame out and reuse later. I save the ash to prepare amendments for when I double dig my garden beds.

Our counterpart helped us build a stove and oven combo so I can cook on top while it heats underneath. It bu require a lot of patience.

Some women start fires by burning plastic and bend down to cook with babies on their backs in an enclosed area. I don’t know how they deal with the fumes and I discourage this. It’s hard to get people to change habits and I feel intrusive to come in and tell people what they’ve been doing is harmful. But sometimes you just need that nudge or outside ideas.

Occasionally, I can’t be bothered to light the brazier, so I use a methylated spirit stove made from two soda cans. It works in a pinch to boil water for morning coffee!

Food Availability

We don’t know the patterns throughout the year, but food is relatively abundant in the village now. We just had to find farmers to buy directly from them. Now that the rains have stopped, people are busy harvesting and storing food to prepare for the next season. Unfortunately, there are a few months in the year known as hunger season when supplies dwindle and food is still growing. Food preservation and storage is crucial.

Friends, farmers, and generally kind members of the community have been gifting us so much food. Peanuts, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cassava, bananas, oranges, and cabbage. At the shops in the village, we can luckily buy eggs, flour, sugar, oil, lollipops, and who-know-how-old packaged cookies. We ride bikes 48km to town to stock up on anything else, but we must be mindful with how much we can carry on the uphill ride home. Getting food isn’t easy, but we’re lucky that we’ll never be hungry. And of course, we occasionally buy fish from farmers when we harvest! Our counterpart gave us corn mealie meal to make nshima, but I don’t ever cook it for Adam and I. I’ve only made it when Martin and his wife sort of made me do it. It’s hard work and scrubbing the pot after is even more cumbersome for a tasteless mash of carbohydrates. I mean, I love nshima, but not enough to cook it every day. I appreciate the bamaayos who whip up thick pots of it twice a day.

Ba Ferricks brought us to a mountain and dug out sweet potatoes for us


Buying our greens from a fish farmer we work with

Food Safety

Being in a new environment, it’s easy to get sick from exposure to different bacteria, especially with the water. Personally, I only use chlorinated filtered water from the borehole for whatever we consume, including washing produce and cooking rice. Yes, boiling water kills bacteria, but there are brown chunks in our borehole water that needs to be filtered. When we clean the ceramic filters after two weeks, they’re caked with sludge that could’ve gone into our bodies. We do use furrow water to wash dishes and that hasn’t been an issue. Every site is different; some sources are so contaminated they have to boil, filter, and chlorinate ALL the water they use. Others drink untreated water without issues. Just err on the side of caution and let your body get accustomed.

Things I Cooked

Nothing super fancy here, but I do put more effort into what we eat because I’m cooking for two. If it were just me, I’d probably subsist on oats and peanut butter.

Oatmeal with chia, flax, fruit, soy milk powder
Sweet potato pancakes
Home fries
“Fancy” ramen
Bean burgers
Lentil stew
Vegetarian chili
Grilled fish

Ravioli with homemade ricotta cheese

Stuffed cabbage
Fried rice
Salads with soy honey dressing
Banana bread
Basic baking powder bread
Yeast bread
Cinnamon raisin bread
Chocolate cake

I’m sure my cooking will change through the seasons. I do miss having quick access to cook things and appliances like a food processor, but I make do!

Read more posts about our Peace Corps service in Zambia

2 thoughts on “Peace Corps Zambia: Cooking in the Village

  1. sboedecker1024 says:

    That is an impressive list for the resources you have! I’d likely be in the oats and roasted sweet potato camp if I were there. Although the pride in the accomplishment of preparing more than that must feel good.

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