Just Your Traditional Tanzanian Thanksgiving


It’s Thanksgiving time, which in my family means countless phone calls and e-mails about the menu. Should we stick with the standard stuffing or try one with cornbread this year? Will my father make cranberry sauce with or without walnuts? What will make the most succulent turkey? Basting? Brining? To stuff or not to stuff? Those are the questions. This year, however, the answer to my Thanksgiving menu question came to me from a most unlikely source − some village women in Tanzania.

Last June, I accompanied two film makers to Tanzania to document the work of Helen Keller International there.  The first stop on our two-week tour was in Mwanza, which lies on the southern shores of Lake Victoria and is the second largest city in Tanzania. Not surprisingly, the lake provides much of the income for the region. In recent years, however, overfishing and the introduction of non-native species, such as the Nile Perch, have begun to take a toll on both the income and diet of the local population.

Because many people in the region no longer have a diverse diet, many have become deficient in vitamin A, which is the number one cause of childhood blindness. Vitamin A deficiency also greatly compromises the immune system. To help correct these problems, Helen Keller International, along with our local partner, Tanzania Home Economics Association (TAHEA), is working to teach women to grow and prepare everyone’s Thanksgiving favorite − sweetpotatoes!

Women and OFSP

Women working together to peel their sweetpotato harvest

Orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes are rich in beta carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. A white-fleshed sweetpotato variety was already popular among women and children, so it was just a matter of convincing them to grow and eat the more nutritious orange variety, proving to them that these orange tubers were tasty, hearty, and that by growing them they could actually make some additional money by selling the surplus at market.

When we pulled into Irenza village, I found myself in what can only be called an orange-fleshed sweetpotato bonanza. Around 60 villagers had gathered − predominantly women, some men, and lots  and lots of children – to show us how they have learned to make orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes into everything imaginable: sweetpotato chips, sweetpotato chapatti, sweetpotato samosas, sweetpotato donuts, sweetpotato juice, boiled sweetpotato, sweetpotato cake, sweetpotato porridge, and last but not least, sweetpotato stew! I have never seen so many sweetpotatoes in my entire life!


Making orange-fleshed sweetpotato donuts

I can honestly say that everything I tried was delicious. My personal favorites were the sweetpotato samosas and the sweetpotato stew (which is mixed with either beans or lentils and seasoned with cardamom, cumin, and garlic). It was also extremely gratifying to know that this humble sweetpotato is improving the nutritional status and food security of so many, especially young children.

Kids eating OFSP

Children enjoying a vitamin-A rich OFSP meal

So, this year when my family begins our great Thanksgiving debate, I know exactly what I am going to contribute: an ode to Tanzania with this Lentil and Sweet-Potato stew! We will, as they say in Tanzania, be “Eating Orange!”

Here are two other sweetpotato recipes you can try this holiday season:

If you try one of these recipes, take a picture and let us know how it turned out! If you already have a favorite sweetpotato recipe, be sure to leave a comment below and tell us about!

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Categories: Africa, Preventing Blindness, Reducing Malnutrition


  1. bill pigott says...

    Happy Thanksgiving:

    A favourite orange sweet potao recipe of ours is sweet potato and red lentil soup, cooked with a couple of Kaffir lime leaves

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  3. Ellin Hlebik says...


  4. Maggie Jacoby says...

    @Ellin – did you try any of the tasty recipes we linked to in this post?

  5. Maggie Jacoby says...

    The NY Times just did a feature on sweetpotatoes. Check out this article for more tasty recipes: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/health/nutrition/24recipehealth.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=health

  6. Eva says...

    I love roasted sweet potatoes… a little bit burned makes them even more delicious!

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