Whereas Zimbabwe is a very classist country, when it comes to social norms, certain traditions and custom cut across class lines. One such custom is “mahwauro”, a practice of serving meals on fresh banana leaves.
This long tradition is one of the remaining reminders of the possibility of an equal society. Among the Ndau ethnic group, communal functions are often attended by large numbers of people. At these events, be it a wedding, funeral or any such big gathering, food is often served to attendees. The large numbers cannot be served on ceramic or plastic plates or in bowls, so, their beef tripe, soup, corn or vegetables are put on “mahwauro”, fresh banana leaves.
The Ndau people are found in Chimanimani, eastern Zimbabwe. They are united by a common tongue Shona. “Everyone eating meals on banana leaves – rich or poor – at a public occasion is our way of visualising a fair society,” says John Muchadziya, a prominent local chief in Rusitu village of eastern Zimbabwe. “It’s a tradition that I think is over 50 years old. Much of it has got to do with the fact that bananas and other fruits grow lavishly here in Chimanimani.”
Chimanimani, located along the border with Mozambique, receives some of the country’s highest rainfall, and its lush dark red soils are perfect for raising bananas, avocados, pineapples and other fruits. The use of fresh banana leaves is therefore tied to the availability of this natural substitute.
The Ndau people have grown to attribute this tradition to being a motif for equality in their society. As the gap between the rich and poor continually grows bigger, such rare occasions like eating together no matter if rich or poor represents something meaningful.
Jaibhesi Manhando, a local sociology teacher in Chimanimani, believes that the practice of eating meals on banana leaves is not just out of tradition. It is also a result of widespread poverty. For long, it was almost impossible for anyone holding a mass public event to have enough crockery to serve hundreds of people at funerals, weddings or family marriage ceremonies. Despite her beautiful weather and fertile soils suitable for agriculture, Chimanimani, remains one of Zimbabwe’s poorest districts.
For many Zimbabweans around the world, eating meals off mahwauro is melancholic. For Sibongile Ziyebangwa, a London based nurse who grew up in Chimanimani, it is immaterial what may have given birth to the tradition. She says: “Whatever it is – I enjoy dishing out my goat tripe and soup and yam pudding on green banana leaves. It has that organic mealtime feeling you won’t find anywhere in the world.” She adds: “I make sure once every year I fly back home to Zimbabwe to enjoy fabulous traditions like these and so many others – and of course the food!”