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Medical Zambia

Shopping in Cropping*

Gotta Go Whole Heart is the slogan on the stallkeeper’s red singlet. Hmmm.

We’ve all been there. Gone out to buy one or two specific items and ended up purchasing stuff you didn’t need. Mission Creep. I was driving home from the clinic when I saw a flash of scarlet in the corner of my eye. I pulled over to examine the piles of tomatoes on sale. They looked superb, cleverly stacked in a pile of four (a triangle of three with a larger one on top) to make them seem a better bargain. The bruised or unripe bits had been cunningly concealed. Nevertheless, I had just run out of tomatoes and they taste much better than those on sale in UK supermarkets – covered in plastic, taste like plastic.

One pile of tomatoes, five kwacha. Is there a deal if I buy more than one pile? No, but I can pick the piles I want and if one tomato is soft or bruised, I am allowed to swap it for another. I pick three piles and decide to pay. Even the inflated muzungu price.

“What about these ground nuts?” said the traditionally-built stallkeeper.

“How much?”

“Two kwacha per tin,” she said, indicating a small measuring can, with groundnuts piled up into peaks.

Instead of being dried or shelled and roasted, these nuts had been boiled in their shells. I chose one, picked open the soft shell to reveal two white nuts, which were tasty. “I’ll have two tins, please.”

The stallkeeper made a grand show of piling as many groundnuts as she could into a tin and pouring them into a plastic bag. Then she conspicuously threw in another handful when she saw I was looking. Good for customer relations and not bad for 25 pence.

“What else you like?” she asked.

“That’s enough thanks,” I replied handing over a 50 kwacha note.

“No change,” she said. “How about some chips?”

I haven’t had chips for nearly two months, so I was tempted. She gestured towards a metal bench in which was set a deep dish, filled with bubbling oil and anaemic-looking chips (French-fried potatoes – for my American readers – is too generous a term). I said that I had to be going, I couldn’t wait for the chips to finish cooking.

Just like on the children’s TV show, Blue Peter, she showed me “some which she had made earlier” in an open plastic bucket.

Personally, I prefer triple cooked chips, crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. These looked like pale yellow slugs. But the lure of chips was too great. And they were only 30 pence for a portion.

“How much do you get in a portion?” I asked.

“Two handfuls,” she replied.

“Handfuls? Can’t you use an instrument, a slotted spoon or something?”

She tried, bless her heart, and the chips went everywhere but inside the plastic bag. She looked up at me, imploring me to change my mind. “Ok, just get them in,” I said.

This seemed to please her so much that she just filled up the plastic bag almost to the brim, packing them in with her greasy hands.

“You want salt?”

Before I could say, “Yes, just a pinch,” she dumped four fingertips and a thumb’s worth of salt into the bag. “It’s going to be thirsty work eating these chips,” I thought.

“You want sauce?”

My eyes lit up. Would it be brown HP or Heinz tomato ketchup? Neither. It was a two litre plastic bottle containing orange-pink fluorescent liquid called euphemistically “chilli sause” (sic).

No way was I going to let her add the sauce to my chips. I wanted to exert some control so I unscrewed the top, held onto the chip bag with one hand while I tipped in the big bottle of “sause” using the other hand. A large gobbet of thickened sauce had clotted in the neck of the bottle, so I gave it a slosh forward and behold – half my chips were slathered with gloop.

But buyer’s remorse had not yet set in.

I accepted my change, gave thanks and walked back to the car. I needed to tie the top of the plastic bag to stop the chips and slime from spilling out in the foot well. However, there was hardly any plastic above the chips to knot and my hands were so greasy that my fingers couldn’t get a grip. The chips were hot, too, making the task even more difficult.

I wedged them against the tomatoes and soggy groundnuts, hoping that I would be able to negotiate the potholes on the road home without needing to valet the car interior.

How does one eat an impulse buy of groundnuts and chips? Easy. I gave the groundnuts to my neighbour (as I am always eating her snacks when I go over to have a sundowner) and I piled the chips between two slices of Mother’s Pride. A huge chip butty, with a cup of tea to ease the salt-induced thirst. The sauce tasted of chemicals and chilli heat, mitigated by the spongy slices of bread. Wonderful.

That night, I had been in bed asleep for an hour or so when I was awakened by a telephone call, asking me to visit a patient. My stomach felt uncomfortably full and bloated. I had waves of colic and nausea. Within minutes I was on the toilet, purging from both ends. I literally didn’t know which way to turn to evacuate the contents of my intestines. I was sweating and felt faint. I diagnosed heat-stable staphylococcal enterotoxin food poisoning. In medical textbooks, the classic means of transmission is via a food-handler’s infected finger or whitlow. The chips? Surely the sauce would have neutralised the enterotoxin?

But the show must go on. When I was empty, I brushed my teeth, scrubbed my hands and within twenty minutes I was out of the house on a mission of mercy. En route I wondered who would turn out to be the most unwell, me or the patient?

*Cropping or Crapping?