Sunday, December 4, 2016
THE FLYING TERMITE ‘INSWA’ SEASON IS ON : BIZZARE FOODS 2.0
By Namakando Nalikando-Sinyama From the outset, I may need to explicitly state that, in writing this piece, I am not in any way claiming to be an accomplished entomologist in Chidumayo proportions, not by a long shot, but simply being the Amateur Naturalist Extraordinaire that I have always been who merely had an overdose of those BBC Nature documentaries presented by Sir David Attenborough growing up. I thought this should be out of the way lest am cited for some misplaced scientific misdemeanor. I also do not intend to, unintentionally of course, disgust people’s gastronomic exploits but I thought casting a bit of light on one critter that has featured quite prominently on menus of many urban family dinner tables would be in order given the season we are in. This is the Larger Flying Termite with the scientific name Mastotermes darwiniensis spp. or as it is called in these parts, “ Inswa”. It should gladden your hearts therefore to know that your seasonal culinary adventures ought to still be safe after reading it. I here make a somewhat unsafe assumption that it is a well-known and generally accepted fact that ‘ Inswa’ actually descended from, believe it or not, Cockroaches! What with those shifty mandibles and striped abdomen and hard heads with those eerie looking beady black eyes. Come on now, no need to make faces, it should have been pretty obvious even to the casual observer that, when magnified ,they do actually look a lot like the spitting image of the Roach! I will spare the reader all the gory details of the morphological similarities or features of these not so distant species of insects that most definitely must have dispersed along the same Evolutionary Speciation line. To prove my point even further, it will perhaps interest you to learn that , The Chinese have long since noted this very similarity and have as a result exploited and taken it a step further by actually breeding Cockroaches on a commercial scale to be fried as Food. They have since been appreciated as an acceptable constituent of their regular cuisine in most of their eateries. There is actually a video on cockroach farming which can be found on youtube. It must be stated that, I have cited or isolated the above termite species for mere convenience of analysis since officially there over 3000 species of Termites that are classified. So there is really no telling which one folks in these parts enjoy eating. The focus of this piece is directed at the subterranean one which later momentarily break ground takes to the skies in flight. As a form seasonal alert we are now being told that now more than ever, is the time to arm yourself with detailed information on where the best security lights are located around your neighborhood and collect the phone numbers of Night watchmen who make quite a killing picking these same insects to sell to marketeers early in the morning. Truly, to everyone’s delight, Nature does have its bounties indeed! At the onset of the very first rains, the smaller flying Termites emerge from the many burrows and crevices deep in the earth first. These should be ignored as they only serve as an undesired nuisance but a welcome primer or precursor to the incoming near swam of pharaoic plague of Biblical scale.These are later followed by the larger edible ones seemingly following a strict order of emergence. This is supposedly the time when the soil becomes soft enough for them to manage digging their way out of the earth and fly away to distant places further from the common nesting place for the entire colony probably becomes too overcrowded consequently causing food supplies to dwindle. What baffles me though, this I strongly feel could be an interesting area of possible research, is that their emergence may actually have little to do with the ground becoming soft enough. It seems to me there is just some connection with the first rains or rain water in general which triggers them to come on out. This, I have hypothesized, is the same way that the grass almost becomes instantly lush green with the very first splash rains whereas this does not happen that quickly enough even with prolonged manual watering of the lawn using your regular piped water. It must have something to do with rain water being laden with nutrients through atmospheric Nitrification. These Termites have developed an Evolutionary feature or Adaptation of growing wings which are meant to serve another purpose of Genetic Dispersal via procreation. The moment they either get tired of flying or simply land on preferred places, they quickly shed off their wings and you always see them as consential partners in twos tagging on each other in tandem in search of any crevices or holes to hide in and start another colony. Of course, never like the Winas who could be seen on Lusaka Central Business District always moving side by side! Awwwww! They were indeed once the perfect example of an ideal couple. They were always together as husband and wife, may God rest Her Soul. At least there was something positive about them after all! Without having to go into specifics that is, which would be a subject for another day. These Termites have apparently been cited as a living example from the Animal Kingdom where Humans can pick up a lesson or two on Fidelity. The other animal where this lesson can also be learnt is the common dove or pigeon. Stories abound in African urban folklore where we hear many an insecure wives who have had to suffer the misfortune of landing on philanderous hubbies and have sought fetishes from those notorious Tents which moonlight as makeshift pharmacopoeia stocking all manner of medicinal paraphernalia that are dotted on street corners in Peri-urban areas. These things or portions we are subjected to are gotten to tame husbands as they use parts of some of these animals as ingredients to achieve this very purpose. This I have come to learn is actually meant to either sedate them(husbands) into induced docility or zombies or make them(Wives) always tag along where ever the husband goes so as to curtail their husband's suspected run away libido. I may not vouch for the efficacy of these concoctions though. But then, what type of existence would this be? Talk about desperate measures by Desperate House wives indeed! This constant struggle with spousal mistrust eventually does get overly expensive and cumbersome since, unbeknown to these poor women, they battle against a deeply engrained Evolutionary feature in the male species in the Animal Kingdom which for Millennia has ensured their very survival as a species.This is the Biological Law of Fecundity. As a form of Dominance Expression, Alpha Males of most animal species seem to have an almost instinctive and insatiable desire to spread their genes to the next generation through any willing female. ANY being the operative term! This has however been curtailed by Human sociological inhibitions attributed to morality, economic considerations and general health and safety reasons especially in the face of communicable diseases contracted through this medium of gene preservation. Many so-called civilized societies have augmented such virtues by espousing the sanctity of Human sexual desire and act by emphasizing the need and importance of monogamous unions and even enshrining this doctrine in religious manuscripts. The total or partial suppression of The Sexual desire has certain Negative psychological effects which manifest themselves as different levels of psychosis and heightened levels of anti-social behavioral patterns. For a detailed appreciation of this subject, I strongly recommend the Book, 'The Function of The Orgasm by Herr Wilhelm Reich. The reason Infidelity persists and which most times eventually ,sadly leads to a total breakdown of the institution of marriage is that these concepts stand in direct contrast with the dictates of Natural Sexual urges. The counter argument to this type of reasoning is that we as Humans are believed, I have my doubts though, to be the most superior form of life and as such we are expected to control our sexual urges and not succumb every time we have them like lower animals do. These Termites are usually caught at night from places where there is a strong enough light source. Although, they have also been known to be found coming out of elaborate labyrinth or mazes inside built up termite mounds or just from simple holes in the ground even during the daytime. Humans quickly find that they are not alone in eating them but come in direct competition with other animals that feed on them too. We do see how even birds that are not nocturnal braving the night to partake of this feast. The traditional top feeders of flying termites are Lizards like geckoes that can be seen perched on walls with the help of those highly adapted sticky digital extremities near these light sources as they eat away. These larger Termites should however be differentiated from the smaller version of flying termite which to the best of my knowledge are not edible. There are tales where as children we were told if you ate the small ones you would lose your auditory faculties by going deaf upon ingestion almost instantaneously. This was all we needed to scare us off and stay well clear of them. This year's seasonal frenzy may however be like no other. The joys and projected cash windfall which people are expecting or used to make from this entomological bounty might elude the masses this time around if the power utility company has its way. The sometimes scheduled or abrupt sessions of pitch thick blackness that has become such a usual or common feature of suburbia will certainly have an impact on the quantities of these insects that will be harvested. The effect that this will have is make it scarce thus causing the resultant effect of rising the Price since their Demand for them still remains High but Supply will be definitely be short. Like the trawler Boat vessels on Water bodies that depend of light to catch sardines, the presence of prolonged periods of artificial illumination will be critical to attracting and catching them. The annoying Loadshedding will reduce the yearly catches am afraid. The other bit I find interesting is how these women who sell Termites price their catch since there is little or nothing that is incurred as a direct cost when picking them from street lights. It is the same argument I have had with the mushroom pricing regime. Although, the mushroom pickers justify their sometimes exorbitant prices due to the dangers they face in the thick forests. Look, they probably even pick these Termites from a neighbour’s security light or just from a street light at night so what do they factor in to come up with a price for these insects? The only danger one can speak off is that of being run over by some deranged intoxicated motorist coming from some overnight binge. We have also heard of guards who become so distracted with picking these insects that some notorious thieves have taken advantage and robbed them clean. These wretched insects are quite an enjoyable snack actually especially with a chilled brownie on the side! I once thought I could get adventurous and stealthily snuck out a pot from home and fried a handful of them which I brought home so that I could have a taste. Being Barotses plagued with all manner of dietary fussiness, our Culinary or gastronomic preferences are somewhat picky, except for the famed arboreal or aquatic reptilian slithery fellow that we are known to cherish on whose bone you must never bite, we try as much as possible to stick to what seemed as conventional foods. When I was unfortunately found out, the pot was thrown away and I was almost ostracized for attempting to eat these Insects and fill up the house with acrid fumes! This is why; it is more out of sheer, albeit well founded, Barotse Cultural and not so much Economic pride that only very few Barotses would openly admit to ever having eaten any suspicious looking critters for fear of being looked down upon by their kin or even worse still ,having your real ethnic identity or credentials as a Mulozi doubted for not being of Pure stock or a thorough breed. Apparently, to many of us, this is by far the worst form of punishment that can ever be imposed on a Mulozi. The eating of what we call ,’Bi Kokwani’ or creatures is thus a near taboo which is deemed to be a sign of being of a lower Caste or being of humble means or poverty stricken. If a Mulozi wants to eat anything meaty as a source of protein that is why we have cattle as Barotses it is reasoned. However, the truth on the ground is such that, not every Mulozi can boast of owning even a single herd of cattle. If however, for some strange reason, only known to one, a Mulozi turned to eating crawly or flying insects, they would rather keep it completely hush hush! I thought other languages have made an attempt at differentiating these insects. But maybe Butwa is specifically the unwinged Destructive Termites that eats away at wooden structures that are not protected with Anti-Termite chemicals.On the other hand, the winged bigger and juicy looking fattier ones with a big abdomen should be what they call 'Inswa' whereas the destructive non flying ones which were once rather erroneously called White Ants is distinctively refered to as 'Ubu Benshi' in Si Bemba. We may however seek some further clarifications from the Native speakers of Si Bemba. Malozi on their part may really not have bothered much to find specific names for these things. This is why, when it comes to Humans turning to any form of Insect as a food source, Ma Malozi would rather generically refer to everything as ' Bi Kokwani' and have little or nothing to do with them.It is for this very reason also that to the best of my knowledge we do not even have a name for these insects in SiLozi. I beg to be enlightened by anyone that knows it. On a more positive note, It must be acknowledged that even when these Insects may be deemed as bizarre foods by some, there are cultures that eat them and this should be respected. We have seen them being eaten as a preferred snack at outdoor drinking places and some women have sought to cash in on this by availing it to the patrons. They therefore do have an economic value since people pick enough to eat, it supplements their protein source in the absence of more traditional but now unaffordable protein sources such as meat and fish. The excess catch is taken to market for sale. It is an undeniable fact that we are living in beleaguered times so this level of resourcefulness by the citizenry is welcome. The proceeds from these sales end up sorting out a myriad of many a family’s financial needs courtesy of Mother Nature.