Childhood City Adventures: M’bulitso (grain popping)

The series on childhood adventures continues.Something inside each one of us wants to do more than merely just existing. This is best illustrated when we are young. And this could be because at that age there are no constraints yet on one’s thinking. Reality has not turned into an inhibitor, which is commonly the case when we grow up.

As parents were busy buying what they assumed to be quality food to keep us at bay, and jerseys for cold evenings after the maize harvest, our minds were drawn to something else. This was the season of open bon fires made from piling up dried maize stalks, twigs and dried grass.

Sometimes we could make the fire at the Luphales, where Chifundo and Henry lived, or across the street at the Mkorongos where Gloria, late Joseph, Nebiot and Yotam domiciled. But the “baddest” ones were built at my next door neighbours. The Lisimbas had natural leaders in Chikondi, Fred and Kondwani.

One day we made one big fire whose flames overtook the power lines. When someone suggested that this could cause a huge electric fire, we all took off to our houses leaving Kondwani and Fred to sort out the mess. Fortunately nothing happened and one by one, soot covered faces reappeared to continue with the pleasures of the evening.

Amidst the dying embers, with wild stories making rounds, the highlight of the evening unfolded. The Lisimbas threw maize grains on the ashes and eager faces gazed intently on the fire. As soon as a popping sound was heard, someone would pounce on the pop, rake it off the fire, pick it up quickly, blow off the ash and toss into his/her mouth.

Since it was still hot, the pop would be chewed with the mouth open, pumping the cheeks at the same time to fan cool air into the mouth’s chamber. All this would be done in a fraction of a second, too fast for any outsider to comprehend the sophistication involved in eating local popcorn.

Put this on endless repeat. For whatever reasons the reflex of the big boys was as fast as lightening. After a few futile attempts, as the faces of the younger ones showed despair mercy would come with a pop extended to you on dancing palms. Holding it still would burn the hand of the benefactor. As soon as the transfer was made, the dancing of palms would switch to you before popping the food gem into one’s grateful mouth. Fanning the pop while smiling at the same time cemented the deal.

One pop at a time, with story after story while warming ourselves on the open fire, soot all over our faces, we passed many a pleasant evening. We used to call the pops, and the popping process, m’bulitso in the vernacular. A transliteration would be popping. No amount of modern popcorn purchased from the grocery could replace this fun.

Oh by the way, to the m’bulitso connoisseurs, they always knew the maize grain was about to pop when it would start hissing then whistle. Seconds later, there would be the familiar popping sound not unlike the sound of the opening of a champagne bottle. And within that second, the pop would be in the mouth. Any delay in retrieving the pop from the fire would burn it, sucking up its succulence.

Now, I look back at the bon fire on many nights, having forgotten all the stories that were shared. However, I can still see the reflection of the dying embers in the eyes of my friends, and watch in my mind once again the joys of m’bulitso.

Go ahead. Try it around a campfire with family and friends. It may offer a native alternative to roasting marshmallows.

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