Often when one talks of a Ugandan insect snack, the mind will quickly switch to nsenene, those green or brown locust-like winged creatures for which the Baganda used to be despised but have presently become a universal delicacy. They have a status of being sold at supermarkets, grocery stores or local markets during the season.
The spite for them is no more. Even foreign visitors enjoy nsenene,now, to the extent that those who have already been here will always ask for them on return and those who have read about them, will ask for them on arrival.
But the Ugandan insect menu is wider than nsenene. Given the many ethnicities in Uganda, there are expectations of finding out more edible insects. Research by Sunday Monitor indicates many other ethnicities have their own insect delicacies, making the Ugandan insect menu bigger than usually appreciated.
Among the Alur, Lugbara, Madi, Kakwa and Anugu in West Nile, the Jopadhola and Acholi, white ants are a delicacy with various forms of preparation ranging from roasting to boiling, and pounding into paste that is mixed with groundnut or simsim paste. The preparation may also determine the duration for which the insects may be preserved especially for consumption outside the main season.
Central Uganda or Buganda known for nsenene (grasshoppers) also enjoys the white ants, enswa . One may say, the occurrence and popularity of this delicacy has over time been waning, owing to several factors.
The white ants mostly originate from anthills but owing to urbanisation, many of these habitats for the delicious insects have been destroyed, considered an environmental hazard because the anthills also contain destructive insects, the termites which eat trees, wooden houses and other wealth.
Owing to local scarcity, the white ants are imported into central region from West Nile and Acholi. Often they will be sighted on sale in both main and makeshift markets. When the insects existed without scarcity, trapping them was no big challenge during season.
The trapper would just be required to erect bendable sticks around the anthill, converging them at the top. In the evenings when termites have made openings on the anthill, the trapper would then cover the anthill hill with either sacks, tarpaulin or grass.
The ants flying out of the mound would then lose their way out and eventually slide into a hole where a container had been prepared to tap them.
Often other unauthorized partakers, including frogs, bats and birds would also lay siege around the anthill that children would make so much fun by either lying to a colleague of the presence of these invaders or failing to alert them as such invader jumped onto someone causing panic and fright. That was one type whose season usually followed rain or came slightly before a dry spell. The Baganda called these enswa ensejjere and these were a universal type.
But there existed another type, the mbobya which usually appeared either during or immediately after a rainstorm. The source or exact origin of these ones was usually hard to pinpoint as they just either floated on water or flew around any source of light.
A third type was the ennaka. These in Buganda used to be an occurrence in the areas of the original Luwero District or what was popularly known as Bulemeezi County. It was from this ennaka tradition that the rest of the Baganda named people from Bulemeezi Abalyannaka (people who eat ennaka).
By contrast, ennaka used to be small compared to other white ants. They used to be eaten raw whereas the other types could be prepared for a dish or snack.
Trapping ennaka only took one a wait for the afternoon sunshine. According to the legend my late paternal grandmother narrated to us, the trapper would simply pick a stick and start hitting the sunbathed ground with an accompanying song “pereketya, pereketya. Pereketya mpa ku nswa (loosely translated as ‘sunshine give me white ants’). The insects would then begin flying as the trapper picked one by one putting them directly into the mouth.
Nsejjere and mbobya took some elaborate process. If after trapping them they contained some other unwanted insects that had to be carefully picked out. The ants could then be washed before either being cooked or roasted.
To be roasted, little salted water would be added on medium heat as one stirs using a wooden ladle. By the end of the process, the insects lose their wings leaving one task of winnowing the wings. Then, they are ready to be served.
To be boiled, salty water is added before putting them on fire. After boiling, they are sundried. Then you remove the wings. Then they are ready for a snack.
But for a Muganda, enswa was more than a snack. The dried lot could be pounded into flour and prepared as luwombo. When ready, this dish is eaten with matooke, cassava or any high carbohydrate food. This is aromatic and tasty.
Essami (dragon flies)
On the island sub-region of Buvuma in central region, formerly part of Mukono District, are the edible mosquito-like flies, essami. These are a delicacy here but slowly fading out among the young generations.
“They are seasonal the same way you see enseneene,” Buvuma MP Robert Migadde Ndugwa narrated.
“They usually come in droves, following light. When they converge, they are then picked and wrapped in a banana leaf and warmed a bit alongside food being cooked. They are then set aside where they solidify on cooling. You partake by breaking a piece and eating it.”
Bee larvae or Gamanaani
Though the Bagisu in eastern Uganda are renowned for the Malewa (bamboo shoots) dishes, they too have insect delicacies on their menu.
According to John Musira, the information minister at Bamasaba Cultural Union, when the Bagisu moved away from Mt Elgon top, they found other delicacies in the lower dry areas during hot seasons.
He revealed that the Bagisu were traditionally hunters and honey gatherers who also ate Gamanaani, the larvae of bees especially after harvesting the honey.
“Gamanaani are white young bees, they are removed from the honeycomb, roasted and later sun-dried . This is usually mixed with groundnuts [Mulekula] or Simsim and then served with either Matooke or posho,” says Musira.
The Gamanaani- eating tradition is thought to date from the 16th and 17th centuries , the time when many Bagisu ancestors lived in the caves at the slopes of Mt Elgon.
Petronilla Nambozo from Bugibugi in Sironko, says that when they first settled in Bugibugi, they never thought about eating anything outside traditional sources and foods until famine hit them in 1919 at the end of the First World War.
“There was severe famine then, then there was a long dry spell before we saw Zisige (locusts) coming to feed on banana leaves and when we tried to get them off, one person roasted them and found them tasty. Henceforth, the tradition took root,” says Nambozo.
“It is especially good sauce if mixed with Zikhanu, Sim Sim or mulekula, groundnut paste,” adds Nambozo.
The Gamanaani, Zesige and Ziswa became popular and integrated in the entire Bugisu sub-region after the Bagisu started growing ground nuts as a crop, making Gamanaani/Zisige and ground nuts part of the people’s culture.
If Gamanaani are picked up from the beehives, dried up and cooked in ground nut sauce and served with Matooke, one is bound to fall in love with it given the smoky aroma from roasting.
Though it is a delicacy to many Bagisu and can be served with Matooke, cassava, yams, sweet potatoes, posho and Irish potatoes, there are also many who still revile them as insects unworthy eating.
Agata Namutosi, 67, a retired teacher from Bukigai in Bududa says that although Zisige, Ziswa and Gamanaani is eaten in some parts of Bugisu sub-region especially rural areas, they have not found their way into the restaurants/hotels because they are only a delicacy to a few rural folk.
But talking about locusts, they are not limited to the Bagisu alone. In Maracha in West Nile, Constantine Embatia, an elder relates that their consumption started in the 1920s during World War I and has since then remained a delicacy that is reserved for an important guest.
“It has remained a delicacy though environmental changes have made them scarce. People have to look for them and at least in functions like weddings, traditional festivals, a portion must be there for guests to eat,” he said adding that Adatamu, the first chief resolved that the insect (Kulu ) be honoured.
Since then, Maracha became the land of Kulu.
Another insect delicacy is, the esiinya (edible beetles). The caterpillar-like wood peckers are such a delicacy that a Musese (person from Sese Islands) has no better way of showing happiness to a friend than give him or her these.
“They are fried the same way like grasshoppers but these are very fatty and oily.
The aroma and cream that they create when fried is appetising that you will have no better snack to give to a beloved one than this.
“The only problem is that mainlanders tend to revile them,” said former Kyamuswa MP Moses Kabuusu.
The edible beetles are extracted from rotting palm-like woods in which the adult insects lay their eggs which become ready for harvesting at the larvae stage.
“One can collect as many as to fill a five-litre water can from one palm tree…. It (esiinya) has a reddish head and a black tail-end which is removed during preparation,” Kabuusu explained.
“Of course,it is very tasty after preparing properly,” he concluded.
Endowed with a variety of foods; plants, birds and animals, Uganda is a land where its people find some type and nature of food, a delicacy they cannot help tasting anytime while others find it inconceivable to eat. Apart from insects that some people have regarded as creepy and can never have the thought of munching away on them, there are other delicacies, you could not have heard of before.
In West Nile, among the Alur and Lugbara, a husband will be happy if a weaver bird or dove was served for lunch.
While eating weaver birds and doves might be dismissed by Baganda as “eating small birds” and therefore ‘unacceptable’, an Acholi might also wonder if there is any justification for Baganda to eat “big rats”.
In Buganda, edible rats, locally known as Omusu are acceptable as food.
Edible rats known as omusu in Buganda are also major delicacy. Hospitality to a guest could be exhibited by an adhoc hunt for which the kill would be artfully smoked into an appetizing dish that left the partaker asking for more.
The same used to be a delicacy in Buganda but the animal has increasingly become a rarity owing to the continuous destruction of the forest habitat.
The Itesot of Tororo also eat them. Gerald Omaset, the former LC3 chairperson of Osukuru sub-county might have surprised many a Ugandan in 2005 but not the Itesot of Tororo when, in demand of two separate districts of Mukujju and Kisoko ate a live rat before president Museveni.
Many communities in Eastern Uganda like the Itesot and Japadhola unlike many of their counterparts in central or western Uganda, find chicken
legs and heads a delicacy.
It’s also among the Bagisu particularly the northern parts of Bugisu that bats are eaten. They eat forest bats locally known as Mawugutu.
But the Bagisu today deny ever having had bats as part of their delicacies.
“I also hear some people around Nabumali used to eat them but this was not ordinary.
I hear around the same place there also used to be cannibals. You cannot hear of a Mugisu eating bats today, even people from Nabumali today deny eating bats,” one Mugisu, a journalist emphasised.
Now whether it is forest bats or house bats, a Mutooro may not stop wondering what is there to eat in a bat!
Some communities in West Nile because of their proximity to the DR Congo where monkeys are a delicacy and therefore a somewhat shared culture eat those forest mammals.
One, Frederic Isomela from Kisangani, says, they skin a monkey and ensure it is well-roasted before serving it hot to the guest at their house.
That may be queer to a people like the Basoga, Bafumbira, Itesot, among others.
Indeed one man’s meat is another’s poison!
This is probably not all that there is.
Next time, before you cynically talk about that dead caterpillar, think twice. You might be rubbishing someone else’s mouth watering delicacy!