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Sweet Potatoes, Four Ways: Essays From Africa

Joy Ho/NPR

The sweet potato has a secret identity.

It's not just the food upon which marshmallows are heaped and maple syrup is poured to celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.

It is also a staple of the African diet. And Africans who eat it feel passionately about it. For some, it kindles warm memories. For some, it's a neglected food that deserves a higher profile because of its nutritional value.


And some people can't stand it!

On the eve of Thanksgiving, we're stepping outside the U.S. sweet potato zone to see how the vegetable is regarded across the ocean. Our contributors are three African sweet potato eaters and one U.S. food scientist who's worked on sweet potato issues in Africa.

'That sweet potato in the pot. Who should I eat it with?'

Growing up on a small farm in rural Zimbabwe, I liked to sing the song "Chimbambaira chiri mupoto. Ndodya nani?"

In Shona, my mother language, that means: "That sweet potato in the pot. Who should I eat it with?"

In the song, the singer invites friends and family members to share this delicacy, while the audience responds with the chorus: "That sweet potato in the pot." In the early 1990s, the song was popularized by the Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi. After I moved to the U.S., this number became my favorite Thanksgiving song as it celebrates both the amazing tuber and the joys of companionship.


In my village, sweet potatoes came in many colors, shapes and tastes. Everything from round to long and slender, white to deep purple skin, white to yellow flesh, supersweet to nutty flavor.

My mother loved the easy preparation (boil and serve), but we also ate them raw or roasted them on an open fire. There is simply no bad way to prepare sweet potatoes.

At some point sweet potatoes faded from our diets as more farmers started growing Irish potatoes. It's easy to understand why. They could grow more white potatoes than sweet potatoes in the same unit of land, and growing time was shorter.

But the white potato is no match for the sweet potato in nutritional value. Loaded with vitamins (A, C, B1, B2, B3 and B6) and minerals (copper, manganese, phosphorus and potassium), sweet potatoes rival any superfood at a fraction of the cost. White potatoes have fewer and lower levels of vitamins and minerals. Nonetheless, Irish potatoes became commonplace. In the 1990s and early 2000s, sweet potatoes were an "orphan crop," largely ignored by agricultural development organizations.

Thanks to efforts to breed and distribute improved varieties of sweet potatoes, they're making a comeback in many African countries. These varieties are rewarding for farmers — more harvest for the same amount of effort. They're sweeter to the taste. And they have higher levels of vitamin A than past generations of sweet potatoes.

As a sweet potato lover, I hope sweet potatoes have a bright future worldwide, not just as a Thanksgiving treat but as a staple crop for millions in need of a more nutritious and diverse diet.

Going beyond the world of food, "sweet potato" is also an endearing term used by many Zimbabweans. As teenage boys we composed love letters with lines like "You will forever be my sweet potato" or signed "Your sweet potato." Very few foods have made this magical leap into the world of romance. Yes, I admit to uttering the words, "My sweet potato, please pass the sweet potatoes."

Edward Mabaya is an agricultural economist and associate director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture & Development. He is a 2016 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @edmabaya.

Switching From White To Orange

As a Coloradoan, I have fond memories of my grandmother's delicious sweet potato Thanksgiving dish: mashed, lots of brown sugar mixed in and melted marshmallows on top. I adored it.

But my strongest sweet potato memory is from 2003, when I was just starting to introduce orange-fleshed sweet potatoes into one of the poorest provinces in Central Mozambique. Zambèzia province had taken in more than a million people who were internally displaced during the country's 15-year civil war, and malnutrition was quite evident. Sixty-nine percent of young children were suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

In most of sub-Saharan Africa, people only knew of sweet potato varieties that were white inside — the types that came to Africa from South America in the 1600s. Unfortunately, white-fleshed varieties have no beta carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. One small orange-fleshed root meets the daily vitamin A needs of a young child.

So we'd go from village to village, invite leaders and women with young children to come to a cooking demonstration and offer a sample of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. The children were immediately attracted to the color of the boiled roots and dug in. I remember one young child, about 3 years old, who just kept eating: 1 potato, 2, then 3. He was so happy and so hungry.

When he reached for a fourth sweet potato, I told his mother this was just too much all at once, he would make himself sick. I went home knowing that children would happily eat orange sweet potatoes. And having tasted the roots, the mothers readily accepted the planting material of the sweet potato to grow for the next season.

Today, a quarter of the 1.5 million tons of sweet potatoes grown in Africa are orange-fleshed. They make a difference for children with vitamin A deficiency and also provide a climate-resilient source of calories, even without the brown sugar. In Africa, we call it the sweet that gives health.

Jan Low is principal scientist at the International Potato Center, and one of four 2016 World Food Prize laureates for her "efforts in breeding and disseminating the orange-fleshed sweet potato."

Running On Sweet Potatoes

Last week, I had an excellent lunch with plenty of sweet potatoes front and center in the dish. I had been talking to students and staff at Kyambogo University about Teach For Uganda, an organization I co-founded to bring quality education to the youth of my country. I felt like I had walked 10 miles in the morning, crisscrossing the campus.

By the middle of the day, I was ready for a good, heavy meal. At an outdoor café not far from the school, I ordered sweet potato and peanut stew mixed with collard greens.

The taste of that sweet potato brought back great childhood memories — and some current-day worries.

A boiled sweet potato and a glass of milk were my daily staple as a kid growing up in rural western Uganda. That was the morning meal that kept me going during my daily 8.8 mile run to school (and home again). There quite literally was no such thing as a school lunch (and unfortunately there still isn't in many of the public primary schools I've visited across the country).

Today in Uganda, an ongoing drought has drastically cut the amount of food farmers harvest and driven up food prices. According to the Uganda State Minister for Agriculture, over 1.3 million people face a severe shortage of food and "a few parts of the country are in [an] emergency phase of food insecurity." Such households may only have one meal a day.

This worries me deeply because I know firsthand how challenging it can be to learn on an empty stomach. And the impact of malnutrition is long-term as well as short-term. USAID has reported that "chronic undernutrition in children [in Uganda is] a critical issue. One-third of children under five years old are stunted" — their growth hampered by insufficient nutrition.

Growing up, I sometimes wished for a more balanced breakfast and maybe a lunch. But looking back now, I'm grateful to my grandmother for the daily provision of a sweet potato and a glass of milk. And I wish each of our nation's children would have an opportunity to share in the same.

James Kassaga Arinaitwe is the co-founder and CEO of Teach For Uganda. He's an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, a 2015 Global Fellow at Acumen and an alumnus of the Global Health Corps Fellowship. He tweets @Kassaga4UG.

My Hate Affair With Sweet Potatoes

Growing up in the 1980s and early '90s on the Kenyan Coast, I did not have the privilege to choose the foods I could eat. Rather, my parents would serve my siblings and me the food that was in season or that had survived the scorching sun, insect pests and plant diseases — harvested from their farm or purchased at the market.

Most of the time, these food crops included cassava, pumpkin, the "boko boko" banana — and sweet potatoes. Plenty of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes as well as pumpkins and cassava were the go-to breakfast, lunch and dinner food. They were the everyday food whether we liked it or not. Of course, there was only one way they were cooked — and that was by boiling. Day in day out, we would consume these foods. Ultimately, it got to a point where we could not take sweet potatoes and cassava anymore. And yes, there were times we chose to go hungry rather than eat sweet potatoes. That's right: We children would rather skip lunch and dinner and go hungry than eat the same old sweet potatoes and cassava.

These experiences with sweet potatoes and cassava while growing up made me hate these foods as an adult. And I am not alone. Many of my family members, including my brother and three sisters, do not love sweet potatoes and cassava at all. As a matter of fact, after we grew up, our parents stopped growing them. No one and I mean no one — had any more appetite for these root vegetables.

My hate for sweet potatoes is still active today. I know it is many people's favorite food, especially during Thanksgiving, but as for me, I still say NO to sweet potatoes. They remind me of what it's like to grow up without a balanced diet, without being able to choose what kind of food you'd like to eat each day.

But in a corner of my heart, I do appreciate the sweet potato. I'm grateful that my parents had sweet potatoes to serve us. And maybe one day – say in another ten years or so — I'll overcome my negative feelings and see what it's like to eat a luxurious sweet potato side dish – perhaps topped with marshmallows!

Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama and a New Voices Fellows at the Aspen Institute.

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