Forget what you know about The Little Mermaid.
Zambia’s infamous mermaid, Chitapo, is no dewy-eyed, red-haired princess. To set eyes on this fierce water spirit, paddle along the Zambian/Congolese waterways – along Lake Namulolobwe, down Victoria Falls, into any number of smaller ponds. You might even find her cresting the salty Atlantic.
How will you know it’s her?
See that shadow caught up in a whirlwind? An elusive figure sunning on a rock, with the body of a woman and the tail of a fish or serpent?
Beware: Beautiful Chitapo is not content to observe humans from afar. Pay attention if things seem amiss in your village. Did a woven mat or a few beloved baskets vanish, then reappear a few days later? Is a neighbor’s missing collection of pots and pans now floating on the murky lake? Chitapo pushes this shiny bait in the shallows, luring unsuspecting victims to their untimely death.
Tempted to wade into the water to retrieve these prizes?
Think you can outwit, or out-muscle this water spirit?
Even those with unflinching biceps and steam-engine thighs are unable to resist Chitapo’s iron grip. Legend states she only has to snatch someone’s shadow to pull them in, rendering even the densest muscle as worthless as a bundle of kittens in a tuna factory.
Chitapo is particularly keen on capturing criminals – robbers, rapists and racketeers. Thanks to her quick judgement these rough types sink to new lows. Some become permanent inmates of Sandy Bottom Prison, no possibility for parole; others are fed to Muntu Mamba – a creature equal parts man and crocodile.
It would be easy to write off Chitapo as some cruel monster but – as with all good legends – this water creature redeems herself in surprising ways. That drowning child? She’ll save them. Women? Some believe they get a blank pass. Same for the loyal husband on his way home to his wife.
Come to think of it, I rather like this Chitapo creature.
Warding off Chitapo: keep your pots busy
The best way to keep Chitapo from stealing your pots and pans (or YOU!) is to put them to good use. Today we’re going to do this by – big surprise – cooking.
This doesn’t sound like a big deal, until you realize that Americans eat out an average of 4.5 times per week (Zagat). That means most nights your pots and pans are in reach of Chitapo.
I’m not gonna say you’re doomed to a watery grave unless you make this meal, but… I’m not going to say you’re not.
In praise of Zambian breakfast
As I researched a distinctive Zambian use for my pots and pans, I came across a recipe called Chipwatanga in the lovely Recipe book on Zambian Traditional Foods. This hot pumpkin porridge features ground peanuts and a touch of sugar, and is often served for breakfast. My desire to make the dish went from steady curiosity (I love pumpkin and peanuts, after all) to burning desire.
The turning point?
When I read about breakfast buffets in Zambia’s big city hotels adding a sweet scoop of chipwatanga to a piping hot bowl of oatmeal.
Sounded like the perfect treat for my daughter, who is now sporting her first pair of glasses and looking like 6 going on 16.
This Zambian Pumpkin n’ Peanut Oats is a mother’s (and a nutritionist’s) dream – high in beta carotene, protein, and fiber. A pillow of ever-so-slightly sweet pumpkin porridge punctuates a bed of steel cut oats with quiet force, each bite a fortifying indulgence. Using chunks of pumpkin gives texture (a great choice in autumn), while canned pumpkin lends each spoonful ethereal silkiness all year round. Unless you pulverize your peanuts to a fine powder (which you are more than welcome to do), the crunch of peanut morsels make eating this breakfast a little bit like an Easter egg hunt.
Just. Need. One. More. Peanut.
Good to the last morsel, so to speak.
While Ava was captivated by Chitapo’s story, I wasn’t sure what she would think of the crunchy bits. Turns out she loved them, adding even more peanuts, stirring her porridge vigorously and gobbling up an entire bowl.
From what we can tell, this Zambian breakfast succeeds mighty well at deterring Chitapo.
No pots missing from the pantry. Not yesterday. Not today.
So where’s your next meal taking you?
“Waterspirits and Mermaids: The Copperbelt Case” by Brian Siegel
“Sacred Waters” a book on African water creatures
Zambian Water Spirits
Books by Henry John Drewal
Mermaids around the world
Recipe book on Zambian Traditional Foods
Note: Chitapo (also Kitapo) is one of many local water spirits in Zambia and the Congo. Old stories about Chitapo are quite disturbing: parents delivered ill-omened babies to her (those children whose upper incisors broke through before the lowers). In the 20th century, Chitapo became more of a mermaid figure thanks to the widespread Mami Wata legends. These stories spread to central and southern Africa from west Africa. While the legends are distinct, Brian Siegel (see Further Reading) thinks this is where Chitapo got her mermaid features, including the fish or serpent tale and human upper body.