One of the most delicious traditional meals that many Zambians eat is that of the nshima staple meal served with roasted or pan fried insects. The use of the English term “insects” is a misrepresentation as nearly all of the ten million traditional Zambians never characterize what they cherish eating as “insects” in the more than eighteen major African indigenous languages spoken in the Southern African country. The Chewa speaking people of eastern Zambia and Malawi, for example, call flying ants “inswa”. The Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia and Northern Malawi call the same flying ants “mphalata”. Caterpillars among the Bemba speaking people of Northern Zambia are called “finkubala” and among the people of Eastern Province they are called “matondo” or “matole”. Non edible insects on the other hand are called “vidoyo in Eastern Zambia. It is only English speaking Western people and other foreigners who call what most Zambians regard as delicacies as “insects” or the more pejorative “bugs”.
Types of Edible Insects
There are five major types of insects that are eaten in most parts of Zambia if not Southern Africa. Inswa (flying ants), mafulufute, shongonono (green grasshoppers), nyenje or chenje (cicadas), and finkubaba or matondo (caterpillars). All these edible insects are seasonal and therefore have enabled people to take advantage of what is provided in the natural environment. The edible insects are available either during the rainy season between November and April or during the dry season from May to October.
One of the most anticipated seasons of the year in rural Zambia is that of the rainy season. After six months of cold, dry, and then finally scorching dry October heat, the first torrential rains are welcome in November. By this time of the year, most rural Zambians will have depleted over half of the stocks of crops that had been harvested and stored away in a nkhokwe traditional storage structure six months earlier. The rains are always a relief from the heat and constitute a strong symbolic renewal of life as people plant their crops for the new growing season.
One of the most fascinating changes in the natural environment after the first rains is a sudden explosion of green vegetation and the emergence of myriad insects from their hibernation or seasonal synchronized hatching cycles. Among the thousands of insects that suddenly emerge after the first rains are several edible ones including the inswa (flying ants) and mafulufute. The inswa breed and establish large colonies in large anthills of the savannah that often dot the grasslands. The breeding cycle of the inswa is such that they come out of and fly in massive numbers during several nights after the first rains.
Inswa and Mafulufute Edible Insects
The average inswa or flying ant is about 3 mm long and weighs less than half an ounce, has a lot of fat, and is high in protein. People locate live anthills near the village. They check to see if there are any white ant workers and magenge (soldier) ants which prepare and guard the exit points of the inswa or flying ants. Men set traps around the anthills. They clear one side of the anthill and erect a short structure about one and a half feet high made out of thin sticks, covered with grass and leaves. The structure is open on one side where large five gallon bucket size containers of water are inserted. As night falls, the flying ants come out to fly away from the anthill. They fly right into the bucket of water where their wings become soaked. The inswa or flying ants are trapped and caught in this way. Any one very active anthill can yield up to three large 5 gallon buckets of inswa.
Many things can go wrong when catching inswa in the dark. Snakes that may be poisonous are known to eat inswa too. They may be near or at the anthill. Sometimes the inswa might not come out in spite of all the tell-tell signs that they are supposed to have done so. In this case the people might go home to bed and return the following evening. In limited desperate cases the men have been known to blow a few puffs of marijuana smoke through hollow reeds into the “ripe” anthill holes. This is believed to entice the inswa to come out. In cities and towns, the inswa congregate and fly around bright street lights and house porch lights. Township residents will gather at the bright street lights and catch the inswa.
After the night’s catch, the women process the inswa the following morning. The inswa are de-winged by spreading and drying them in the sun on large reed mats which may be nine feet by seven feet large. The women then roast the inswa on a plain hot pan and salted. The pan gets very greasy and the aroma spreads in the neighborhood. After this roasting, the inswa is dried in the sun again so that it will be suitable for long term storage in a dry container. The inswa are almost always served with the nshima Zambian staple meal. Sometimes the inswa may also be eaten as a snack the way one would eat roasted peanuts. People who live near large towns often catch surplus inswa and sell them in the city or town markets.
The mafulufute are another edible insect that comes out after the first rains. They come out of the ground usually on a sunny day at bright noon. Young boys and girls will usually walk around with a container with a tight top. They will chase the mafulufute and catch them as they fly around. They will also wait by their hole and snatch them as they fly out. A mafulufute insect is three times the size of an inswa but has a large fatty abdomen. It almost looks like a wasp.
Children may spend an active afternoon and catch up to four cups of mafulufute for their family. The mafulufute are de-winged by hand, fried on medium heat on a plain hot pan until they are crunchy. They are then salted. They are served with the nshima Zambian staple meal. The mafulufute are never processed for long term storage as they are often caught only in small quantities.
The Shongonono Grasshoppers
The shongonono grasshoppers are caught between January and March during the rainy season. The shongonono grasshopper is green, one and a half cms. long and weighs about one gram. Adults and children wade through plush green vegetation of a garden or field where various crops including maize, beans, peanuts, and pumpkins are growing. As the shongonono hop about, they are caught and put in a container with a tight lid. In urban areas, large numbers of the green grasshoppers congregate and fly around any bright street lights at night. Residents catch them in large numbers.
The shongonono green grasshoppers are de-winged, fried on a hot pan until they are crunchy. They are then salted. The most striking aspect of frying the grasshoppers is that they have a distinct aroma of frying eggs. They are served with the nshima Zambian staple meal.
During the hot dry season, rural Zambians hunt using bows and arrows far away from the villages and known sources of water. The hunting party will sometimes come across a bee hive often in a hollow tree trunk. The hunters will collect the honey as well the white bee larvae which the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia calls masa. Some of the white larvae are eaten raw on the spot as they are believed to quench thirst if the hunters have been unable to locate drinking water. The rest of the bee larvae are taken home where they are cooked and served with the nshima staple meal. The bee larvae have a sweet taste to them.
Cicadas and Caterpillars
Cicadas are known as nyenje or chenje in the Eastern province of Zambia. They come out of the ground during the sizzling dry heat between August and October. During the day they sing really loud and fly from tree to tree. Young boys make ulimbo (very sticky substance) from seeds of a wild tree. They insert the ulimbo on a tip of ten foot long thin sticks. The boys walk in the bush listening for cicadas.
As soon as they locate one, they use the long stick to poke at the cicada. The cicada gets stuck to the ulimbo sticky substance and is unable to fly to escape. The cicada is then captured and stored in a container. Young boys will catch cicadas for most of the day and have enough for a meal. The cicadas are de-winged, fried on a hot pan until they are crunchy, and salted. They are served with the nshima staple meal.
In late October and early November of every year, caterpillars hatch in massive numbers in trees that have a tender fresh bloom of leaves during this period. There are up to five species or varieties of edible caterpillars. Although men, women, and children will walk through the bushes with gourds looking at trees in search of the caterpillars, this is found to be time consuming and very labor intensive. The more common practice is for the men with axes to accompany the women and children from the village in search of caterpillars. Once a huge tree with caterpillars is located, it is chopped down and the caterpillars are collected. This practice is somewhat discouraged by government as it is blamed for the threat of massive deforestation and worsening of soil erosion in rural Zambia.
Once the caterpillars are brought home, they are gutted, boiled very briefly, salted and spread to dry in the sun on large reed mats which may be up to ten feet long and eight feet wide. The caterpillars are dried for many days in the sun until they are bone dry. Once this is done, they are ready to be served with the nshima Zambian staple meal. Zambians who live near urban areas will often sell surplus caterpillars in the city markets at affordable prices particularly for the urban poor.
All the edible insects are prepared and served only in the ways described. The insects provide a very important source of food supplement especially for rural Zambians. The insects have been endorsed as a very important source of protein in the diet of Zambians.
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