Text and photos by Ron Swilling
Large, green and yellow caterpillars speckled orange, with black feet and heads and rigid spikes running along their backs, are a traditional delicacy in Namibia, as in many Southern African countries.
Driving through north-western Namibia after good summer rains, there is an abundance of mopane worms, so named for their preferred mopane-leaf diet. In a year of bounty, they hang big and fat on the end of the butterfly-shaped leaves, often leaving the trees bare after a few weeks of feasting. Before the ground hardens for winter, they burrow into the earth beneath the trees and pupate for six or seven months until the summer, when they emerge transformed into large emperor moths. Unlike the larvae that moult a few times before reaching maturity in an approximate six-week period, the brown moths with large eyespots are limited for time. They have only a few days to pick up the scent of their mates with their feathery antennae, laying their eggs once again on the mopane leaves.
The life-cycle of the emperor moth, Gonimbrasia or Imbrasia belina, plays an important part in the diet of Southern Africans. From northern South Africa through Namibia and across to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana, mopane worms are harvested as a food source. They are known by many names, from the Oshiwambo omagungu in Namibia to mashonja in Botswana. It is common for insects to form part of the diet in rural Africa, flying ants being another tasty dish collected en masse at certain times of the year.
Along the roads, people collect the nutritious mopane worms in bucketfuls, cleaning them by squeezing them to expel the contents of the gut and drying them in the sun for storage. The dried worms then make their way around the country where they are cooked with water and salt to rehydrate them. They are often fried with tomatoes and onions and eaten with a maize-meal or mahangu porridge, making a hearty, healthy meal. They are also sold as a snack in local markets. The taste has been described as ranging from tea leaves to chicken and dried fish.
Mopane trees are an important source of food not just for the caterpillars, but for many browsers of the animal world, domestic and wild, that feast on their nutritious leaves rich in protein and fat and having a high phosphorous content. The mopane trees also support populations of rodents, such as tree squirrels, reptiles and birds.
Besides providing an important food source for subsistence purposes, the mopane worm is one of Southern Africa’s most economically important insects, with hundreds of tons being exported per year. Care must, of course, be taken to avoid over-harvesting the worms in certain areas, so as not to compromise the next year’s population, thus keeping it a sustainably viable resource.
For a true African dish and a variation from Namibia’s high-quality game meat, join the local Southern African population and treat yourself to a nutritious mopane worm meal. Yumm…
Flamingo June 2008