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Sweet potato memories: love 'em, rely on 'em ... hate 'em

Joy Ho/NPR

Editor's note: This story was originally published in November 2016 and has been updated.

The sweet potato evokes surprisingly strong feelings — and not just from the pro- and anti-marshmallow lobbies.

It is a staple of the African diet. And Africans feel passionately about it. It kindles warm memories. It's a neglected food that deserves a higher profile because of its nutritional value.

And yet some people can't stand it!

We're sharing the perspectives of three African sweet potato eaters.

'My sweet potato, please pass the sweet potatoes'

Growing up on a small farm in rural Zimbabwe, I liked to sing the song "Chimbambaira chiri mupoto. Ndodya nani?"

In Shona, my mother language, that means: "That sweet potato in the pot. Who should I eat it with?"

In the early 1990s, the song was popularized by the Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi. After I moved to the U.S., this number became my favorite Thanksgiving song as it celebrates both the amazing tuber and the joys of companionship.

In my village, sweet potatoes came in many colors, shapes and tastes. Everything from round to long and slender, white to deep purple skin, white to yellow flesh, supersweet to nutty flavor.

My mother loved the easy preparation (boil and serve), but we also ate them raw or roasted them on an open fire. There is simply no bad way to prepare sweet potatoes.

At some point sweet potatoes faded from our diets as more farmers started growing Irish potatoes. It's easy to understand why. They could grow more white potatoes than sweet potatoes in the same unit of land, and growing time was shorter.

But the white potato is no match for the sweet potato in nutritional value. Loaded with vitamins (A, C, B1, B2, B3 and B6) and minerals (copper, manganese, phosphorus and potassium), sweet potatoes rival any superfood at a fraction of the cost. White potatoes have fewer and lower levels of vitamins and minerals. Nonetheless, Irish potatoes became commonplace. In the 1990s and early 2000s, sweet potatoes were an "orphan crop," largely ignored by agricultural development organizations.

Thanks to efforts to breed and distribute improved varieties of sweet potatoes, they're making a comeback in many African countries. These varieties are rewarding for farmers — more harvest for the same amount of effort. They're sweeter to the taste. And they have higher levels of vitamin A than past generations of sweet potatoes.

The sweet potato is also a "climate smart" crop. It thrives in high atmospheric CO2 and is also resilient to drought, heat stress, and soil salinity, thereby offering smallholder farmers a practical climate change adaptation strategy.

Going beyond the world of food, "sweet potato" is also an endearing term used by many Zimbabweans. As teenage boys we composed love letters with lines like "You will forever be my sweet potato" or signed "Your sweet potato." Very few foods have made this magical leap into the world of romance. Yes, I admit to uttering the words, "My sweet potato, please pass the sweet potatoes."

Edward Mabaya is an agricultural economist with a passion for uplifting smallholder farmers in Africa. He is a 2016 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @edmabaya

Fuel for an 8-mile run to school

A boiled sweet potato and a glass of milk were my daily staple as a kid growing up in rural western Uganda. That was the morning meal that kept me going during my daily 8.8-mile run to school (and home again). There quite literally was no such thing as a school lunch (and unfortunately there still isn't in many of the public primary schools I've visited across the country).

Lack of food is a serious and ongoing problem.

Accordingto USAID, in Uganda "33 percent of children under age five are stunted (have low height-for-age), while 4 percent are acutely malnourished or wasted (have low weight-for-height)."

And some households may only have one meal a day.

I know firsthand how challenging it can be to learn on an empty stomach. Indeed, a lack of sufficient energy and nutrients has been linked to "poor mental development and school achievement as well as behavioral abnormalities," reports a study on "Long-Lasting Effects of Undernutrition."

Growing up, I sometimes wished for a more balanced breakfast and maybe a lunch. But looking back now, I'm grateful to my grandmother for the daily provision of a sweet potato and a glass of milk.

And looking ahead, I am worried about all the schoolchildren of Uganda. Schools have been closed for more than a year because of the pandemic. The president has promised they will reopen in January. Our local and national governments need to address food shortages in our communities, or millions will return to school eager to learn — but hungry.

James Kassaga Arinaitwe is the co-founder and CEO of Teach For Uganda. He's an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, a 2015 Global Fellow at Acumen and an alumnus of the Global Health Corps Fellowship. He tweets @Kassaga4UG.

My hate affair with sweet potatoes

Growing up in the 1980s and early '90s on the Kenyan Coast, I did not have the privilege to choose the foods I could eat. Rather, my parents would serve my siblings and me the food that was in season or that had survived the scorching sun, insect pests and plant diseases — harvested from their farm or purchased at the market.

Most of the time, these food crops included cassava, pumpkin, the "boko boko" banana — and sweet potatoes. Plenty of sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes as well as pumpkins and cassava were the go-to breakfast, lunch and dinner food. They were the everyday food whether we liked it or not. Of course, there was only one way they were cooked — and that was by boiling.

Day in and day out, we would consume these foods. Ultimately, it got to a point where we could not take sweet potatoes and cassava anymore. And yes, there were times we chose to go hungry rather than eat sweet potatoes. That's right: We children would rather skip lunch and dinner and go hungry than eat the same old sweet potatoes and cassava.

These experiences with sweet potatoes and cassava while growing up made me hate these foods as an adult. And I am not alone. Many of my family members, including my brother and three sisters, do not love sweet potatoes and cassava at all. As a matter of fact, after we grew up, our parents stopped growing them. No one — and I mean no one — had any more appetite for these root vegetables.

My hate for sweet potatoes is still active today. I know it is many people's favorite food, especially during Thanksgiving. I know sweet potatoes are a nutritional powerhouse.

I've also learned that my mom is in fact a big fan of sweet potatoes. She grew up eating them, she loves how they taste, and she loves the memories of eating them when she was a child and then when she was raising us children. She told me that she'd often accompany sweet potatoes with a tomato stew made from tangy wild-growing tomatoes. So she has delicious memories.

And I will confess that in a corner of my heart, I do appreciate the sweet potato. I'm grateful that my parents had these tubers to serve us.

But as to this day, I still say NO to sweet potatoes. They remind me of what it's like to grow up without a balanced diet, without being able to choose what kind of food you'd like to eat each day.

Maybe one day – say, in another 10 years or so — I'll overcome my negative feelings and see what it's like to eat a luxurious sweet potato side dish – perhaps topped with marshmallows!

But not this year. I went to lunch not too long ago with some friends. One of them ordered a sweet potato. And I thought: Heck, no!

Esther Ngumbi is a researcher at the University of Illinois and a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

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