If I ever write a book about my time in the Peace Corps I might think to call it Living Among the Mangoes because that’s exactly what I did for my first two years in Zambia. My small hut was hidden away beneath three mango trees and my village as a whole was the same setting with mango trees looming over us everyday.
|My compound's three mango trees. I loved sitting beneath them where it was infinitely cooler than being in the sunshine.|
Mangifera indica. That’s the botanical name for the Indian Mango, the most commonly found mango tree in the world. Over 400 varieties of mangos exist in the world, but this one is the most commonly seen in Zambia.
Mango season is the time when the villagers around me were most likely to be without food (November until February) during a time called the "hunger season." The mango tree’s fruits help to alleviate the impact of hunger everyday, as well as providing a good source of Vitamins A and B - two essential nutrients that children in this area are greatly lacking during hunger season.
I have a theory that villagers hardly ever, I mean nearly never, cut down a tree that provides them with food - especially a tree in which they’ve invested the energy of planting and caring for. A prime example of this is when crossing the border into Malawi where an enormous population has led to huge amounts of deforestation, but guess which tree is always standing strong throughout the fields and villages – the mango.
|As soon as kids get out of school they head up into the trees to look for mangoes - a delicious, sweet after school snack.|
There are other fruit trees grown in Zambia like papaya, orange, lemon, guava, and every once in a while cashews and peaches can be found. But, mango is by far the most common. There are two kinds grown largely in Zambia: a small mango, about the size of a fist, and the big mango – two fists.
I had to make a deal with the kids in my village because being the little scavengers that they are they can go through an entire mango tree in two weeks (even the unripe mangoes they’ll destroy), so I told them they could have as much as they could gorge off of two of my mango trees, but I wanted them to leave half of the third one for me – the other half was communal.
|With their tiny faces poking out from time to time, I was always assured a few mangoes for myself once the kids went up into the trees. There they would climb, sing, pick mangoes, and shake the branches until they had more than they could carry.|
The mango tree is so great for food security because even in times of drought its deep roots can tap into ground water reservoirs far down into the Earth, and even when there isn’t water near the surface, the mango tree will keep churning out fruits. A typical tree takes about 7 years to mature and produce fruit, but will live in excess of 30 years, which is long enough for it to feed multiple generations.
|Carrying the day's bounty.|
There are special varieties of mangoes from Kenya and Tanzania that can be grafted onto local trees and produce all different kinds of mangoes: red, big, yellow, etc., but they’re less commonly found. Instead we see the previously mentioned Indian mango.
Locally, planting mango trees is tricky because without a strong fence goats will destroy the seedlings. However, the mango tree’s pits sprout all over the place, with little effort, ensuring that mango trees will continue to feed future generations.
|My half of the tree remained with mangoes for much longer than the communal half. Even green, unripe mangoes will be eaten by the kids.|
All of this has led me to my belief that the mango tree is the most important tree in a village, maybe in all of Zambia and the region.
|Eating mangoes during the rainy season will always remain as one of my favorite memories of the village.|
Fun fact: My personal record for mangos eaten in one day is twenty, and I think if I would’ve started earlier in the day I could’ve managed a good thirty.