We compared the NaOH-N-acetyl cysteine (NaOH-NALC) and the sulfuric acid decontamination procedure in the detection of mycobacteria using the Mycobacteria Growth Indicator Tube (MGIT). In total 219 sputum specimens were collected from 142 Zambian patients and subjected to mycobacterial culture. One half of the specimen was decontaminated with NaOH-NALC and the other half was decontaminated with sulfuric acid. From the 438 samples a total of 261 (60%) cultures yielded growth of mycobacteria, consisting of 22 different species. The sulfuric acid method was more successful than the NaOH-NALC method in recovering mycobacteria in MGITs (146 versus 115 respectively, p = 0.001). Of the 146 positive mycobacterial cultures recovered after sulfuric acid decontamination 28 were Mycobacterium tuberculosis, 84 nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) and 34 acid fast bacterial isolates which could not be identified to the species level. The 115 mycobacteria recovered by the NaOH-NALC method consisted of 34 M. tuberculosis strains, 55 NTM and 26 acid fast bacteria that could not be identified. The most frequently isolated NTM were Mycobacterium lentiflavum and Mycobacterium intracellulare. Comparing the two decontamination methods the recovery of NTM in the sulfuric acid group was significant higher than in the NaOH-NALC group (p = 0.001). In contrast, no significant difference was found for the recovery of M. tuberculosis. These results show that the decontamination method used affects the recovery of nontuberculous mycobacteria in particular.