On a recent trip to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia in southern Africa, I was munching through a plate of buttery rice and tilapia at a roadside motel.
It was midday. The oversized meal in front of me was generous enough to satisfy three diners, but I was alone. Zambia’s local culinary customs usually make for generous portions and fluffy jars of free sorghum drinks. A man in his twenties, wearing suede shoes, tumbled into a vacant sofa opposite my table. He seemed drained of energy and was hugging a pouch filled with drawing books and crayons tightly to his chest.
I assumed he was a fellow diner, maybe about to order a bowl of beans and chili soup, which is the favoured cuisine here in Lusaka. After a while, he nodded, exchanged greetings with me. Still, he didn’t order anything but instead watched at the declining volume of food on my plate until I stopped eating halfway, feeling full.
Then he finally whispered, ‘you won’t be upset if I finish your plate?’
I was glad that my meal wouldn’t be binned. ‘Sure, go ahead,’ I said. Sustainability charity HIVOS reports Zambia has an outsized food waste problem, compared to its sub-Saharan neighbours, despite half the country’s population being unable to access enough food to meet the minimum necessary calories per day. The HIVOS charity says Zambia´s food waste is one of Africa´s biggest. However, the World Food Programme, which in 2020 fed over 300,000, says the Covid-19 outbreak has caused urban hunger to accelerate.
My eating companion opened up to me as he ate, describing himself as a ‘meal-finisher’ as he cracked through my rice and washed it down with a quick gulp of cold water.
‘Meal-finishers’ is the colloquial term for groups of hungry, often jobless young men on Zambia streets who quietly turn up at the motel, hotel or roadside eateries and politely offer to take over meals that have been abandoned part way through – usually by tourists who are not used to Zambia-style oversize buffets.
As he picked apart the tilapia, he told me more. He had guessed from my Mountain Warehouse travel rucksack that I was from Zimbabwe; I didn’t look Zambian and clearly didn’t speak the local Nyanja language.
In a city without Uber or reliable Google Maps markings, ‘meal-finishers’ have become unofficial guides, giving out free directions to taxi spots, walking the visitor to public bus ranks, carrying their bags or protect women tourists from street muggers and rowdy ticket touts.
Over half of Zambia’s population of 17 million live below the poverty line. Unemployment among young people sits at around 20 per cent and it’s only young men who have to courage to ask for this food, which would otherwise go to waste.
Almost every restaurant I went to, I spotted them on benches or loitering around. Another young man chaperoned me as I bought a big size box of chips and chicken at Hungry Lion restaurant in Lusaka, a big food chain, and politely offered to carry my bags hoping I won´t finish my oversized meal, which I of course didn’t.
Audrey Simango is a Zimbabwe freelance journalist and trainee food scientist.
This article is part of the Food Justice files series. It was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the European Development Journalism Grants programme, a fund supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.