Updated: Feb 11
Two years ago, President Peter Mutharika was quoted daring all Malawians, in the face of a looming disastrous hunger, to turn to patching up their regular diet with insects. For a country struggling on an everyday basis, people considered it the President’s easy way out of his government’s many failures in steering the country to a more food and nutrition secure nation. Indeed, 2016 was a terrible year. The opportunities the rampant hunger brought – known to have affected about 6.5 million Malawians – were important enough they brought the eventual fall of George “Bulldozer” Chaponda. However, in spite of the potential of ngumbi and zitete in solving an acute problem, many took Mr. Mutharika’s rants as an offence. In this article, I will not be rating the president based on his abilities to provide food and nutrition security in Malawi, but I find his suggestion to answer to an important nutritional deficiency that has potential to provide us with persistent and affordable animal protein.
Before we can get all worked up by the president’s utterances, a justifiable thing to do, let’s try to take a closer look at some truth in Mr. Mutharika’s counsel. And for the sake of objectivity, I choose to stay blind to the suggestive insults as one may consider them. The inquisitive me has lately been toying with this idea of embracing insects as a vital protein in our diet.
For the Malawian population, where poverty is the biggest barrier to accessing meat and fish, alternative sources of protein are key. Where a community already enjoys an insect diet, which is a very good source of protein and micronutrients, it may perhaps inspire us to get smarter to beat the insects’ seasonal availability. Can we breed/domesticate them, like we do with fish and bees? Why should we wait for that once in a year time? We need to explore how we can have them in our backyards. Scientists have said insects like ngumbi can’t be bred, that it’s almost impossible to domesticate them. Well scientist, try harder. Beat these brainless insects and make it possible! And all those other insects that are enjoyed in different parts of Malawi, let’s bring them to the farm and enjoy them all year round.
Every Malawian deserves an adequate diet that will not only satisfy their hunger but will provide both macro and micronutrients vital for human health and survival. But as it is, few Malawians will continue to be able to meet their dietary needs. Accessing animal source food is an insurmountable challenge, particularly in rural areas. Now, insects like ngumbi and bwannoni, generously enjoyed by people in places where these insects emerge from the earth, could be an answer to an animal source food deficient diet.
I, for one, grew up wishing the delicacy appeared more frequently. Even once every month was going to be preferred, if it were possible. I enjoyed ngumbi very much and eagerly looked forward to the next season. During the ngumbi season, the evening air was usually heavy and damp as we laboriously inhaled the earthy wet aroma, walking in between the ridges in the cassava field, with our lamps in hand towards the anthill. It was no ordinary anthill. It was the anthill of goodness. Yes, nourishment. Every year at that time, mother nature smiled at us and opened its many mouths to grant us the delicacies from the anthill, the mbulika as we call them in my language. And ngumbi in Chichewa, and flying ants in the Queens language, although the Queen herself may not have partaken in the pleasure of enjoying any mbulika.
But during the ngumbi season, every human, young and old, came out of their huts as the flying delicacies emerged from their colonies, unknowing of the hungry human hand that awaited in the open world. The collection was a ritual, with basins of all colors, shapes, and sizes that contained a little water. A lamp at the center of every basin would illuminate the collection equipment and the bright light, a sure death trap to the ngumbi yet which offered something of strategic significance to the human. As we descended on the anthill, picking every insect flying out of the hundreds of its holes, our satisfaction written all over our faces, we treaded carefully on knowing the anthill was also home to soldier termites whose sharp claws would cut through our young tender fingers. Collecting termites was one of the most enjoyed events of the year. for the younger generation, catching mbulika was fun in its own right. For the older ones, I see in hindsight how the season was relief on the purse.
And there was always more to it. For starters, there was never adequate entertainment in my village. For the most part, we created entertainment ourselves and almost everyone was involved in some way. Some danced Malipenga. Women occasionally danced for the Ngwazi, while others beat the drum for the witch doctor where scores of others would be dancers at the witch doctor’s events, many who were considered possessed and could dance to the drum to rid of evil spirits. In the process, we were entertained and often times we sang the songs as the possessed danced away her demons. At different times of the year, something entertaining was going on, and catching ngumbi was certainly no different.
For the older boys and girls, the ngumbi night out meant a night to hang out with their boyfriends and girlfriends. Ngumbi night easily turned into a romantic evening. No candle lit dinners. No flowers or chocolates. No movies. But there was always a way to express deep-felt love, like the common exchange of underwear, petticoats or vests. In the village, possession of a piece of intimate attire was the Olympic gold medal of undying love worth showing off to friends. There was no need of questioning if sex had materialized as the attire spoke volumes.
Insects have recently become important as a good source of protein and other nutrients, important for human growth and development. Much advances are taking place in the West, where even more creative methods of uptake, like termite or cricket powder are packaged and sold for quite a fortune. It contrasts greatly with the vibe of our time, when our insect consumption was motivated more by palatability than nutrition. And years down the lane, all ngumbi I could get was from the market or when mama sends me to town where I lived, where the hype of catching ngumbi is almost non-existent.
I find the greatest shortfall of promoting insects in the diet is seasonality. The royal-like singular annual appearance of ngumbi troubles me. And indeed, true to their nature, ngumbi are royal insects with a King, Queen (most powerful of them all), laborers and the guards (soldiers) and colony members. Their relationship is intriguing. Their Queen has a lifespan of up to 25 years and is hardly among those who come out and get captured, who are on a journey to form a new colony. This is why scientists find it hard to breed them on a farm. It prevents the partial achievement of food and nutrition security, and beats any smarter ways of food production.
So, yes, the president sounded like he was mocking our already impoverished nation. But in a way he was suggesting that we diversify our plates and get away with our monotonous meal plate of mostly nsima and legumes or vegetables and embrace a diversified plate that builds on what has been part of our indigenous diets for generations. At the same time, the impacts of modernity and globalization on us has brought in a paradigm shift in our food systems and our food choices, which are influenced by many factors to the extent that our indigenous food systems are getting lost in the process, compromising the quality of the diets for many urban people.
Embracing indigenous diets in the food system is a key solution to challenges currently facing the diets of many Malawians. And for my village folk, the ritual of trapping and collecting ngumbi, among other insects, will greatly shift the new superficial norm and increase our access to this disappearing delicacy.