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French Fry Rebuff: Congolese Return To Traditional (And Healthier) Diet

Edged out for a time by greasy, imported food, traditional meals are staging a comeback in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Not long ago, the most popular meals were fries, sausages, steaks and other meats, but it’s different now.”
"Not long ago, the most popular meals were fries, sausages, steaks and other meats, but it’s different now.”
Kennedy Wema

BUTEMBO — It is Saturday, the traditional wedding day in this northeast city of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The guests are politely sitting in the "Maria Mama" hall as the pastor finishes the prayer that precedes the wedding feast.

Then, the master of ceremony announces that lunch is ready. "For those interested, the African cuisine is just in the corner," he says, identifying in particular ignames (yams), taros (a tropical plant with edible roots) and marrows (zucchini).

"Bon appétit!" No sooner do the words leave his mouth that people are lining up to feast on the vegetable-rich traditional buffet. The waiters are quickly overwhelmed as guests enthusiastically load up their plates.

Restaurants adapt

Scenes like this one in Butembo, in the North Kivu province are now common during more and more Congolese celebrations. But not just for parties and family gatherings: Restaurants are adapting their menus too.

“We don’t really understand this return to African dishes," says restaurant owner Kavira Marie Jeanne. "Until recently, the most popular meals were fries, sausages, steaks and other meats, but it’s different now.” Her clients are demanding a return to local foods rooted in tradition. Among the most popular requests are goat bouillon, finger millet or wheat paste, greens and other vegetables cooked without salt or oil.

"They are very demanding," says Mwenge Josée, another restaurant owner. "They insist on having vegetables."

There are several reasons for the trend. National museum director Mustari Vangisivavi says one reason is that Nigerian traditional healers are telling the local media that the Western meals will make people sick. "It turns out a lot of people believe this and therefore disregard those dishes.”

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Climbing beans growing in the province of North Kivu - Photo: Neil Palmer

And of course, locally grown vegetables and other food have better dietary value than fatty, greasy meals. "The wild mushrooms are, for instance, more nutritional than all these ingredients and spices the young ladies love to cover meat with," says the head of a support center for diabetic and obese people. "You need a balanced diet in order to prevent certain diseases."

Godsend for farmers and shop owners

Some people want to stay fit and eat less fat, which is why they are leaning more heavily on traditional food. In center town, it's common to see women going from one office to another with bowls of yams and taros on their heads to sell. “The problem is our wives may not know how to cook them," shop owner Kambale Musuku explains. "The purple yams in particular require a specific cooking skill, so we’d rather buy them pre-prepared."

These products are grown in the villages and sold in town. Many shop owners go directly to the farmers to buy their goods. "In our case, we go to Musienne, 17 kilometers away," says one. "But we make the trip because demand is high and our business is booming."

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Updated 11:45 p.m.

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