An Unsavory Lesson, a Sweet Success

Can't stand the stuff," I chuckled when my Brazilian friend asked if I would like some mingal. Si's offer awakened memories of the last time I drank this hot, cornmeal drink 30 years ago in a small town in northeastern Brazil.

Fresh out of college, I was a wide-eyed Peace Corps volunteer, assigned to Itiruu, an agricultural community of 3,000 people with no running water, no telephones, erratic electricity, and six televisions. It had a public elementary school and a private middle school.

As part of a Peace Corps community-development program, I was charged with identifying the town's true leaders and offering to assist with a key project. In Itiruu, the leader was Zal Sousa, the founder of the middle school. In exchange for my teaching English classes, he agreed to help me develop a community-wide educational program.

Little did I know the politically charged situation Zal had put himself in by opening his doors to me, an American. That was the late 1960s - the era of Brazil's iron-fisted military regime supported by the United States government, suppression of political rights, and student protest. Zal's friends and enemies alike questioned why a young, single American woman would choose to spend two years in their humble town. She had to be a spy. For six months, Zal protected me from the rumors. But when my Portuguese improved, I discovered how much he had risked his credibility.

Together, Zal and I planned an evening literacy program for adolescents who couldn't attend school because they worked to help put food on the family table. Together, we found funding and trained the teachers. And because there wasn't quite enough money, I also became an instructor.

The students and I learned together. While I taught them to read and write Portuguese based on my college training, they taught me how to speak their language. Hungry and fighting off exhaustion from working in the fields, they linked words into sentences and then paragraphs, their confidence and skill growing with each victory.

Soon we added tailoring, shoemaking, and other vocational-training classes one night a week. And Zal succeeded in getting regular Food for Peace donations. The local baker turned the flour into small loaves of bread. The staff turned the powdered milk, sugar, chocolate, and cornmeal into hot drinks.

After class, each student received a loaf of bread and either hot chocolate or mingal, a nourishing beverage made of cornmeal, milk, and sugar. I had tried the mingal once, and that was more than enough. Its grainy texture scraped my tongue, its sickening sweetness clotted my taste buds. Unlike chocolate, its cornmeal base didn't disguise the powdered milk's aftertaste.

Within months, the literacy program was the talk of the town, much to the dismay of the mayor and his cohorts. The people admired Zal, not them.

Soon, nasty rumors buzzed through the streets. "The food from the American's land is poisonous!" "It will stunt your growth!" "You'll get sick and die!"

The viciousness of those who invented the lies incensed me. For once, these youths could get an education. For once, they went to bed with food in their stomachs. Yet, riddled with political jealousy, these small-minded "leaders" wanted to snatch that away from them.

That evening I told my class in broken Portuguese, "Those silly rumors you've heard aren't true. Yes, that food comes from my land. It's the same kind of food I've eaten all my life. But, look at me - it's obvious that it hasn't hurt my health!"

Staring at my 5-foot, 10-inch stature, the students laughed heartily. But I could see the nagging doubt in their eyes.

"OK," I said. "To prove to you that this food is safe, I'll be the first one to drink tonight's beverage."

Their communal sigh of relief filled the room, prodding me to give the same pep talk to the other classes.

Please let it be hot chocolate tonight, I silently pleaded as I walked to the school kitchen. But when I peeked into the kettle, I groaned in dismay. Mingal! "How am I going to drink that stuff without gagging?" I asked Nina, the cook.

"Everyone else likes it, Nancy," she replied. "Just pretend it's chocolate."

Dozens of expectant students crammed the kitchen door and windows, eagerly awaiting my first swallow.

WHEN I grabbed a mingal, some of the sticky liquid spilled down the tumbler's sides, seizing my hand like flypaper, as if to make sure I'd follow through with my promise. The sweet aroma was overwhelming.

I mentally plugged my nose and envisioned chocolate. Holding my glass high, I exclaimed "To our health!" and gulped it down. Broad grins applauded my toast. Hands eagerly reached for cups.

The students and I had won. The literacy program continued without further incident. In two years, 120 young people learned to read, write, and do basic math. And today Itiruu has running water, hundreds of telephones and TVs, and several schools.

"But it's delicious," Si's comment jostled me out of my reverie. "Are you sure you don't want some?"

"Yes," I smiled, "I'm afraid I might learn to like it."

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