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The big, bad beans January 25th, 2015 by

In a village down a dirt road in Malawi, Ronald Kondwani Udedi and I meet a young man named Charles, who is copying videos for farmers.

Charles, a small boy, and the customers are sharing a bowl of “big beans,” a large, odd looking legume. In an utterly charming gesture, Charles gives us a spoon, passes us the plate, and tells us to have some beans.

The beans are bigger than limas, and are an uninviting grey color, about like cement when you shovel it out of the bag. I have a bite. The beans are almost tasteless, and chalky in texture. But I’m always glad to try something new. As Tyler Cowen says in his book An Economist Buys Lunch, the only way to experience different cuisines is by traveling.

We show Charles the rice transplanting video made by AfricaRice. Two friends also watch it, intently all the way to the end. Another guy comes over and looks through the window to watch it. They pass him the beans. So far, the beans have been making the rounds, but nobody eats very many of them. But this guy asks for salt and watches the rice transplanting video while he slowly finishes the plateful. Every dish has its connoisseurs.

A few days later, Ronald and I are outside of Blantyre, the biggest city of Malawi. The hill of Malavi rises steeply over the rolling plain.

During the tribal wars, the Ngoni people attacked a village of the Yao people near Blantyre. The villagers ran to the top of Malavi in terror. In the tradition of ancient warfare, the Ngoni warriors decided to eat the villager’s lunch before attacking them. There would be plenty of time for fighting, but to build up their strength, the Ngoni stopped in the village where big beans were boiling on the fire.

The Ngoni laughed at the thought of the Yao running away so fast they left the food cooking.

“But big beans are poisonous if you don’t cook them right,” Ronald explained.

“Extremely toxic,” added his friend Menard, who was driving the car.

“You have to cook them for like 9 hours or they can kill you.”

In this case, the beans had only been cooking for an hour. The Ngoni, who had never seen big beans, ate their fill of them and then trotted off to conquer the Yao on the hillside.

Just as the raiders reached the lower slopes of the hill, the big beans took effect. The Ngoni began to stagger and fall over. Seizing the opportunity, the Yao begin to push boulders over the side of the hill. The Malavi hill is so steep that once the stones start to roll, they are harder to stop than a cannonball.

Those few Ngoni who lived to tell the tale created the legend of the invincible Yao, with their magic beans. The village of Malavi lived in peace for a long time after that.

Ronald tells the story with equal affection for both parties. His grandfather was Ngoni, and his grandmother a Yao.

Local knowledge of agriculture is more than planting and harvesting. It goes all the way to cooking and eating.

The big bean is called kalongonda, in the Chichewa language, and is called velvet bean in some countries. Its scientific name is Mucuna pruriens. It contains high levels of L-DOPA, which acts upon the nervous system. Please don’t try to eat mucuna. I worked with this bean many years ago in Honduras, where people reported stomach aches and other health problems from eating mucuna.

However, mucuna is a useful cover crop, and can be grown to enrich the soil, as seen in one of our previous blog stories: The Big Mucuna. You can also watch or download our training video: Reviving soils with mucuna

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