KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — It’s a few minutes past 1 p.m., and people in Kisangani are heading for makeshift restaurants known as malewa to take the edge off their hunger.
Charles Mputu, an undergraduate student at the University of Kisangani, is a loyal malewa customer. He says he rushes to the malewa near the school at lunchtime to “feast on food.”
“I like dining at malewa, because it’s a place where everyone can get their food, regardless of social class,” he says. “My friends and I go there, eat together and split the bill. We’re served big portion sizes which help tide us over until our next meal later in the day.”
Since most malewa serve dishes made of inexpensive local ingredients like rice, cassava leaves and beans, customers can eat cheaply. Mputu says he can get a meal for as little as 500 Congolese francs (31 cents).
Malewa have become favorite dining spots for Congolese who are on a shoestring budget. But local experts say malewa fail to meet hygiene standards, and customers say they have fallen ill after eating the food. But despite the risk of sickness, people continue to eat at malewa, since they are often the best options for an affordable meal in Kisangani.
Malewa are small wooden or bamboo structures, with bench and table seating and straw or tarp roofs. The term “malewa” also refers to the food served in these restaurants. Malewa are present in every nook and cranny of Kisangani.
Most malewa proprietors are women. Some malewa have refrigeration, but many have limited materials. During a recent visit to a malewa establishment, a Global Press Journal reporter witnessed proprietors washing dishes in dirty water. They said they had no choice, because of lack of water access.
According to Aristote Bolamba Lituka, a health inspector with the Inspection Provinciale de la Santé, a provincial health authority, many malewa are run without registration or on a temporary basis, so there’s no telling exactly how many exist.
Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC
Lituka explains that no malewa establishment in Kisangani meets hygiene standards. He says as many as 15 customers may eat in a space designed to contain six, and people may share water glasses and a limited number of eating utensils.
“Malewa always fail to meet good standards of hygiene, because customers are crammed in like sardines, and overcrowding can lead to outbreaks of infectious diseases,” Lituka says.
While the health authority is supposed to inspect the malewa once a week, Lituka says, the department lacks the financial means to deploy enough inspectors into the field. Due to this shortage, and because many malewa operate under the radar, some of these restaurants are never inspected.
The authority warns malewa that do not comply with hygiene standards of imminent shutdown, Lituka says. An owner who shows that hygiene standards have improved can appeal to reopen.
However, some malewa owners say the way to stay open is to bribe inspection officers.
“As someone whose work is here in the office, I can’t confirm if our technicians who work on the field do accept bribes or not,” Lituka says. “However, it is something that I and the team will start to follow.”
Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC
Some malewa are trying to improve hygiene, Lituka says, but there is still a long way to go.
Lolo Ofoili, the head doctor of Makiso, a neighborhood of Kisangani, says that people have suffered from typhoid fever as a result of eating unhealthy food such as malewa. Typhoid is spread through contaminated food and water, or close contact with an infected person.
He added that malewa owners often place food waste and other trash near the establishments, attracting insects that spread diseases.
Chantal Somba, a student at the University of Kisangani, became ill after eating malewa.
“I was very much fond of malewa,” she says. “I couldn’t do without it. It was my favorite daily meal. Unfortunately, I turned my back on malewa one year ago, because I caught typhoid fever. A hospital doctor warned me against malewa.”
Somba says she knew of the risk of illness but had no other choice for her meals.
Proprietors and patrons alike look to malewa as a valuable resource, despite potential health risks.
Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC
Pauni Amisi is one of the women who sell malewa in Kisangani. She’s been in the restaurant business since 2008, and says she now makes between 15,000 and 20,000 francs ($9 and $12) a day.
“With malewa vending, I afford to pay school fees for and feed my eight kids,” Amisi says.
Ofoili says that closing malewa down will make life difficult for many people in Kisangani – owners and customers – who rely on the restaurants to survive.
André Alonga, a shoe seller at Kisangani’s central market, says he looks forward to his “delicious dish of malewa” at lunchtime each day.
“I used to go home for lunch, but later on I came to realize that I was wasting lots of money, since I had to spend 2,000 Congolese francs ($1.24) a day,” he says. “Today, with 500 Congolese francs (31 cents), I manage to keep hunger at bay.”
Because people are at risk of going hungry, Ofoili says, malewa is “not that bad.”
He urges those running malewa establishments to cook and serve food using clean equipment.
Mputu, the university student, says regular customers remain steadfast in their loyalty to malewa.
“Some people go as far as to call us ‘malewists’ and often tell us we’re served food that is unsafe to eat,” he says. “But this doesn’t stop me from eating at malewa, because they serve food that helps kill our hunger fast.”
Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the article from French.