Mbeva: Remembering a lost culinary delight


I HAVE just finished reading prominent historian, Gerald Mazarire’s piece, The burrowed earth: rodents in Zimbabwe’s environmental history.
Whereas I have previously argued history matters, Mazarire and others have taken it further, arguing for history that matters.
What initially sounded mundane from the headline had by end of the read turned into a heavy historical and cultural discussion on science, disease and food security in the past century.
But I did recall, and locate in the discussion, my own interaction with rats and mice in the village.
Rodents, as in mice (mbeva), I fondly remember from my village upbringing.
They, together with rabbits and rock rabbits (tsuro or mbira) ,were hombarume, the great hunter’s common catch throughout the pre-war 1970s.
Other protein supplements included termites (ishwa, majuru), mopane/harati worms (madora/marava) and quail birds.
Mbeva was an undisputed delicacy, its nostalgic aroma overcomes me even as I write.
It was slow-grilled on the open fire all day and was a welcome break to the monotony of sadza and vegetables.
Chickens, goats and cattle were rarities, only slaughtered on special occasions.
Mbeva was what those good at trapping could afford without any protocols.
Sadly, mbeva has disappeared from the village menu, if my muzukuru Yona is a reliable barometer.
Yona loves his meat.
He does not eat vegetables, relying for relish on beans, kapenta, birds and the occasional cow slaughtered in the village.
Perhaps more; ever since we made him custodian of our village homestead, mortality rate for our chickens, goats and cattle has risen.
Yet I have not seen Yona roasting mbeva.
In fact, no one talks of kuteya mbeva anymore.
I have not seen him with mice-trapping implements.
Yet just over four decades ago, we would comb harvested fields in winter going into spring, laying mice traps along mainly contour ridges, makandiwa.
The trap would straddle mice paths, mwenza.
Every evening and morning, we went picking mice from the traps.
It was both sport and work.
The more daring dug up the mice or used a drowning trap of water in clay pots.
We toiled to provide a protein supplement to our village diet.
Back home, ambuya patiently waited for the catch which she would prepare into a meat delicacy.
I still remember nhuru with its stripes on the back.
Reputedly fast and difficult to catch, it was no match for our traps.
These were simple but effective traps that would have had Newton and Pythagoras green with envy.
The other was shana, a night rider whose frequent fall provided morning glory to the mice boys.
Wetlands were known for matapi, whose size I found intimidating and I tried to avoid.
I feel sorry for my offspring for missing out on the trapping fun as well as the culinary delights of then.
But with rats, it was a different story — total war.
We did not eat rats.
They operated within our private spaces; granaries, fowl runs, kitchens and bedrooms, feasting on our cereals, chicks, left-over food, clothes and even our dirty toes and fingers.
Our reaction to this menace was full fury.
In song we derided rats: “Handinyengwi naManuwero, anorara mukahozi, achikisana nemakonzo.”
My grandfather’s favourite swear phrase was ‘blati magundwane’, bloody rats.
You could see on occasion a whole family with all manner of weaponry trying to kill a cornered rat.
Special traps were commercially available or improvised, zvikirimbani. Others controlled the rat menace through cats, but there were always witchy stories about cats.
Today, rats remain a menace in the village.
Not even the use of new generation rat poisons has been able to stop the menace.
Rodents have drawn the attention of historians with regards their role in medicine.
The bubonic plague or Black Death that almost wiped out China and Europe was blamed on rats and poor sanitation.
25 million Europeans were killed within five years in the 1330s.
This was during our Great Zimbabwe’s heyday.
Ever since then, rats have terrified Europeans.
When Europeans arrived in this country, they could not hide their revulsion at Shona mice-eating habits in the environs of the Great Zimbabwe.
One observer noted: “The natives, however, are fond of them; they catch them and eat them.
It happens now and then that a kaffir would smilingly appear at a camp with a number of rats tied to a stick and offer them for sale; and he is greatly surprised at the taste and manners of the whiteman when the latter shudders at the sight and tells him immediately to be off with rats and all.”
Another European, member of the British South Africa Company (BSAC), also noted during white Pioneer Column advance in the Great Zimbabwe region towards the then Fort Victoria (Masvingo) in August 1890, that: “The maShonas have loathsome habits, such as the catching and eating of mice.
We trade with them quite amicably, but it tries one’s patience to have rats offered to you in barter.”
Aversion to the Shona delicacy of mice was not confined to Europeans alone.
My own grandfather despised eating of mice and swore against rodents. Blat magundwane!, he was fond of saying.
This aversion he had perhaps picked from his early years in Shurugwi. Historically, Shurugwi was within the precincts of the 19th Century Ndebele state.
The Ndebele despised eating of mice and did not distinguish them from rats.
Consequently, they referred to Karangaland (Mashonaland) as ‘Esigundwaneni’ or ‘the land of rats’.
Informed by this prejudice, the evolving scientific and ethnographic classification of rodents has blurred the distinction between rats and mice.
How local mammalogists and my Ndebele cousins cannot see the distinctions I could make in my childhood is a mystery.
I think this is one reason we have been calling for taxonomic studies informed by indigenous knowledge, local ethnography.
What we currently have are classifications informed by European ethnography.
The paper by Mazarire is therefore clearly a piece of history that matters.
We should revisit our mice diet.
Mice-trapping was an important aspect in bringing out the best in growing boys.
It was sport, fun and productive.
Having the mice delicacy on our tables also helps keep mice populations under check.
We must defend this delicacy in the same way we have defended madora/macimbi despite the ‘worm-eating’ revulsion expressed by others.


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