Writing half a century ago, Bodenheimer remarked that: 'Africa is perhaps today the continent where insects still play the most important role in the native diet' (1951: 22).
This is certainly true of Malawi, and, long before the emergence of cultural entomology, the pioneer ethnobiologist Jessie Williamson was writing graphically of the edible insects that were recorded during the Nyasaland Survey 1938-1940 (Williamson 1941, 1992). Williamson was quite a remarkable woman. Dr William Berry, who was a member of the survey team, described her as a 'small, slight, dark haired, very sunburnt woman in her early thirties' who was known as Jabe, and he writes warmly of her enthusiasm, energy, modesty, and compassion for local women (W. T. C. Berry 1984: 43). To local women however, Williamson was known as Mwadyachiani - 'What do you eat?' - for this was the question she invariably asked when in the villages conducting her food survey. Williamson recorded more than twenty species of insects commonly eaten as food in the Dowa and Nkhotakota districts, and offered notes on their methods of cooking, palatability and nutritional value. Such data were later incorporated into the various editions of the Malawi Cookbook, which always included a section on the common insects eaten - the 'traditional delicacies'. About a dozen species were described and illustrated, and notes were given on cooking procedures. What these books particularly emphasized was that insects had long been recognized as a valuable source of food in Malawi, and were a very good and cheap source of protein (Shaxson, Dixon and Walker 1974: 21-3; CCAM 1992: 139-43). It is surprising, then, that Chimwaza's thesis on food and nutrition in Malawi (1982) has scant discussion of insects, and makes no mention at all of Jessie Williamson's pioneering studies.
Leaving aside the importance of honey, edible insects in sub-Saharan Africa focus essentially around five orders or groups of insects - termites, grasshoppers/locusts/crickets, bugs, beetles and caterpillars. The total number of edible insects in Africa probably amounts to several hundred species - or even more; but the common species recorded in the literature number 113. These belong to the following families:
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