Rural Zimbabweans have always turned to an emergency larder of wild foods to see them through hard times, but in this year of shortages and dizzying prices for all basic foodstuffs, the fruits and roots foraged from the bush are keeping many alive.
In the southern province of Matabeleland North, villagers are relying on a variety of wild fruits, tubers and okra-like vegetables, which become more abundant as the rainy season progresses.
"Everyday we eat the wild fruit that are available in the bush, but the fruits are not good to eat every day. And school children are no longer going to school but spend the whole day looking for the wild fruits," Samuel Ndlovu, from Dakamela village, told IRIN.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said in a recent statement: "A large number of farmers harvested little – if anything – this year, and have now exhausted their meagre stocks. Many hungry families are reportedly living on one meal a day, exchanging precious livestock for buckets of maize or eating wild foods such as baobab and amarula." About 28 percent of children under five are already chronically malnourished.
Esnath Nyoni, in the Lupane area of Matabeleland North, said her family had last eaten a decent meal in the previous week. They are now surviving on a bland porridge made from ground roots of the cassava tree, into which she squeezes the sweet juice of the brown plumb-sized cork fruit for flavour.
Households that still have maize-meal can stretch it by mixing it with the ground cassava tree roots. "The porridge doesn't taste good, but it gives people energy throughout the day when there is no food available; and for families with livestock, they then mix the meal with sour or fresh milk," said Nyoni.
Dried bean leaves (umfushwa in the Ndebele language) were a useful emergency ration when boiled, Nyoni said. "The advantage with dried umfushwa is that you can keep it for a long time from the last harvest, and it will still be fine until the next harvest, and it has a high nutritional value compared to some of the foods that people eat during droughts."
An alternative cookbook
is now the time when the elderly, who have survived in previous
droughts, play a crucial role, as the young people have no idea which
trees have edible roots
The survivor's cookbook also includes, in the Shona language, the potato-like madhumbe and mufarinya, and several other edible and reputedly medicinal tubers, a range of berries, and wild vegetables such as derere - a type of okra - and nyeve, a bitter-tasting plant that can be boiled in a soup or eaten dried.
Care needs to be taken when foraging for wild foods: there have already been reported cases of accidental poisoning due to people picking the wrong plants, or preparing them incorrectly.
"This is now the time when the elderly, who have survived in previous droughts, play a crucial role, as the young people have no idea which trees have edible roots and which ones do not," said Themba Dlomo, another Lupane area villager.
A lack of inputs – seeds and fertiliser – drastically cut last season's harvest. The UN estimates that more than five million Zimbabweans - nearly half the population - will require emergency food assistance in the first quarter of 2009.
The hardship is exacerbated by an inflation rate of 231 million percent, which has pushed even price-controlled maize - in theory available from the state-run Grain Marketing Board (GMB) - way beyond the reach of rural Zimbabweans.
Villagers in Lupane alleged that maize delivered to the local GMB depot was finding its way onto the parallel market. "The maize arrives on a weekly basis but we do not get any, as it is transported to as far as Victoria Falls [on the border with Zambia], where it is sold in foreign currency, and we are left to scavenge for wild fruits with the wild animals," said Laiza Ncube.
For most Zimbabweans, eating wild plant foods is an indication of crisis, but since last year the University of Zimbabwe has tried to promote consumption as a sensible food security option.
"The nutritional properties and traditional knowledge of wild foods have been dismissed as 'old wives tales' or 'poor man's food'. Little is known about their health and nutritional benefits," Dr Maud Muchuweti of the Department of Biochemistry has maintained.
"We want to create more awareness of the value of indigenous wild plant foods and promote their effective utilisation."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions