Locusts and grasshoppers have been eaten by humans since time immemorial, and they are one of the few insects clearly recognized as food in the Mosaic dietary rules. They are mentioned fifty-six times in the Bible, and appear in seventeen different books - which indicates their importance as food (or pest) in Biblical times. They appear more often than any other insect, and around nine different generic names are described in the scriptures (Cansdale 1970: 238-9). They are specifically distinguished from all 'winged creeping things' - which are deemed abominations - by the fact that they 'have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth' (Leviticus 11: 20-3). The generic names probably refer to various grasshoppers, locusts and crickets - all of which were considered edible.
Grasshoppers and locusts, however, were not only eaten by the ancient Hebrews but are a favoured food throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They are considered a great delicacy, and in the Islamic tradition they are lawful food - provided they are taken alive and ritually killed by Muslims - as the prophet himself used to eat them (Bodenheimer 1951: 43). Among Greek historians, such as Diodorus of Sicily (2nd century bc) we even find references to a people called Acridophagi - the locust-eaters (Gr Acris, grasshopper) (1951: 41).
Throughout Africa locusts and grasshoppers are a major source of food, and, in the past a swarm of locusts was often considered a mixed blessing, destructive of crops, but 'manna' for others. Bequaert records that in South Africa the Nganga (medicine man) often attempted in his ritual incantations to bring locusts, rather than rain (1921: 193). It has been suggested that governmental control of the migratory locust in Zimbabwe, although curbing serious locust outbreaks, has also deprived people of an important source of food (DeFoliart 1999: 31).
In Malawi, a distinction is made between the larger grasshoppers and locusts (chiwala/ dzombe) and the smaller, less conspicuous grasshoppers, which are described as chitete. Chiwala is never used as a general term for insects, as suggested by Sherry and Ridgeway (1984: 21), but is essentially applied to the large, winged, colourful grasshoppers. All the larger grasshoppers - the term locust is usually reserved for those species that have a swarming phase (Latin Locusta, grasshopper) - are considered edible in Malawi and eagerly sought. The term dzombe, and its correlates, includes the following nine species, all short-horned grasshoppers (family: Acrididae):
Although local people describe all the larger grasshoppers by the term dzombe, and see them as flying insects (kachirombo kamauluka), they do recognize that there are many different kinds, some with red (-fiira), others with yellow (-achikasu) wings.
The dzombe grasshoppers are collected in two ways. The first involves mainly women or young children going out very early in the morning, usually armed with a stick or branches, to beat down the grasshoppers in the gardens or grasslands. Anyone who has tried to capture the larger
Tree Locust Red Locust
Afroxyrrhepes procera Homoxyrrhepes punctipennis Cyrtacanthacris tatarica Cyrtacanthacris aeruginosa Ornithacris magnifica Ornithacris cyanea Acanthacris ruficornis Nomadacris septemfasciata grasshoppers around midday - many of them can fly twenty metres or more in a single flight - will realize why collecting is done around daybreak, when the grasshoppers are still numbed by the cold of the night. The second method of obtaining the larger grasshoppers is by hunting (ku-saka) with bow and arrow (nakasaka). This is usually undertaken by young men. The arrows consist of a long bango reed (to 1.5 m in length) armed with a three-pointed prong made from the spokes of a bicycle wheel. The youths approach the grasshoppers quite closely, and impale the insects to the ground with remarkable accuracy (see the photograph in my book The Power of Animals 1988: xii). The youths will often, when they have collected a sufficient amount, roast the grasshoppers over a fire themselves, and consume the insects as a snack.
The usual method of cooking is quite simple: the women take off (-sadzula) the wings and the lower part of the hind legs (the tibia is usually armed with sharp spines); they are then put in a cooking pot or frying pan (silepani) with salt and a little water, and heated over the fire until the water has evaporated. If available, women will often put in cooking oil to make the insects taste good (-koma). They can be eaten at this stage, either as a snack or a meal, or be cooked later with tomato, onions or groundnut flour (nsinjiro) as a relish dish (ndiwo). If the grasshoppers are in abundance, after cooking they may be spread on the rocks to dry (-yanika), and then sold in a local market. One Lomwe woman informed me that female grasshoppers containing eggs are particularly well-liked, and that, if kept dry and salted, the insects may be stored for more than a year, and a portion taken (-tapa) as and when needed. When cooked the dzombe grasshoppers tend to be a reddish colour and have a good taste. The grasshoppers tend not to be killed when captured, but have their legs and wings removed and are placed in the cooking pot while still alive. Although found throughout the year, the larger grasshoppers are particularly plentiful at the end of the rains, or in the early dry season (March-July). At Kapalasa farm the bush grasshopper Afroxyrrhepes acuticerus was particularly abundant in abandoned cultivations during May and June.
Locusts and grasshoppers are not only considered a tasty relish by local people - Hovington (1971: 99) considered the taste a 'little rancid' - but are extremely nourishing, with a high protein, fat and vitamin content. As dry matter the red locust (Nomadacris septemfasciata) has 63 per cent protein, and 14 per cent fat, as well as traces of essential minerals (Bodenheimer 1951: 32; DeFoliart 1975: 162). David Livingstone is said to have compared the taste of locusts to that of caviare (DeFoliart 1975: 164).
The large coffee locust Phymateus viridipes, which is allied to the elegant grasshopper (family Pyrogomorphidae) and common throughout
Malawi - especially in montane grassland, is not usually described as dzombe, nor is it considered edible. When provoked it exudes a poisonous frothy secretion.
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