Zimbabwe’s sacred forests: Part Two


By Elliott Siamonga

IN our culture, some water bodies, mountains or forests are associated with ancestral spirits or wild animals like lions, crocodiles, snakes and mermaids, which help to keep the sites revered and pristine. Without such taboos, land-use practices that are unfriendly to sustainable environmental management would proliferate.
Nerumedzo Sacred Forest in Bikita in the Masvingo province will soon be declared a national heritage site.
The National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) says it is working on modalities to declare Nerumedzo forests a national heritage site.
‘Nerumedzo’ is the name of the chief who lives about 40 kilometres, south-west of Bikita growth point, the significance of the chief, the area and the people is that over the years, they successfully conserved this forest.
The forest is endowed with indigenous and exotic fruits and is home to an edible insect known as Harurwa which the locals harvest from mid March to August and sell.
The only archeological sites in this forest are rock art sites.
The area surrounding this forest has suffered from massive deforestation and soil erosion and the elders have attributed the survival of the forest to its sacredness and observance of traditional beliefs and practices which influence the way people relate with the forest.
The organisational structure for the management of the forest derives from a locally known and accepted myth that it is the home of the spirit of the four-eyed Nerumedzo ancestor who escaped death from his father.
Because he was born with four eyes, Nemeso, as he was popularly known, had to be killed because he was considered an abomination to society.
He fled with his mother, and only returned after several years.
It is believed that it was during this return that the stink bug was introduced along his route.
Many years later, Nemeso is alleged to have been murdered by his own people in the forest, an act that later turned out to be ‘sacrilegious’ because he had supernatural powers.
Until they brewed beer in order to expiate him, the society was plagued by a series of mishaps.
The spirit of the legendary Nemeso is believed to be in the forest and is responsible for the seasonal migration of the stink bug.
Harurwa remains one of the most unexpectedly sought after edible insects in Southern Africa.
It is consumed as a delicacy in south eastern Zimbabwe by the Karanga people as well as by two geographically separate ethnic groups in South Africa, the Vavhenda and the Mapulana.
Although insects, such as stinkbugs, are able to produce noxious defence chemicals to ward off predators, nevertheless, villagers in Bikita have recipes to render them delicious.
As insects are cold-blooded, the cooler temperatures between dusk and dawn immobilise the stinkbugs. When they are warmed by the sun, stinkbugs fly-away or drop to the ground and fake death or scurry beneath leaf-litter to escape harvesting.
Harvesters climb trees or use wooden crooks up to three-metres long to bend branches and access clumps of the stinkbug. Occasionally branches were sawn-off a practice now forbidden. The end of a branch is placed in a 25-litre bucket and stinkbugs are brushed-off with the free-hand.
When the bucket is about to fill the stinkbugs are transferred to a cord-tied bag.
The bag is shaken before opening so the stinkbugs are disorientated and cannot fly-away.
Shaking causes the stinkbugs to release their defence chemical and the energy involved in this process heats up the bag.
Villagers said there are two methods used to remove the defence chemical for increased palatability.
Stinkbugs have numerous medicinal uses, in particular as a hangover cure.
The NMMZ curators say awareness and optimal use of beneficial insects, such as stinkbugs, in rural areas could lead to a reconsideration of current environmental management strategies, where harvesters act as habitat stewards and clearing, grazing or burning indigenous vegetation is kept to a minimum.
Harvesters showed their hands where short-term exposure to the stinkbugs’ defence chemical stained the skin orange-brown and caused local swelling.
They claimed that long-term harvesting caused nails to lift off the nail bed and wart growth.
No protective eye-gear was worn, although harvesters said that a direct hit to the eyes burns and affects vision for three days.
To protect themselves from the stinkbugs, harvesters usually wore multiple layers of clothing with the neck and sleeves tightly closed.
Village elders mentioned a variety of traditional medicinal uses such as curing headaches and sore throats, controlling diabetes, treating arthritis or skin cancer.
Stinkbug harvesting has tended to be matriarchal with the majority in Bikita being women harvesters.
Post-harvest sorting of live from dead stinkbugs is done by female harvesters too.
The removal of the defence chemical is paramount to stinkbugs being a table delight, and two methods of preparation are commonly used.
The Vavhenda use the traditional time-consuming method of removing heads and stink glands and eating the stinkbugs on the day of preparation.
The modern water-method leaves the head intact and allows many stinkbugs to be processed at one time for maximum profit and extended shelf-life.
Women also cause live stinkbugs to release their defence chemical before dying by pouring hot water over them and stirring with a wooden stick.
The contaminated water drains out of the perforated bucket and the air is foul from the released chemical.
Waste from stinkbug preparation is currently thrown away in Zimbabwe, but in Malawi it was used as insectcide.
Another potential source of revenue could be unprocessed stinkbugs with defence chemicals intact.
Unprocessed stinkbugs were mostly thrown away, but harvesters said they were a hangover cure.
Similarly the Malawian stinkbug was used for hangovers.
“Kana une Harurwa kangamwa nyama!”
This startling statement by a Harurwa harvester demonstrates the significance of stinkbugs as a food, particularly a source of protein, and suggests that large-scale production as a mini-livestock has merit.
In contrast, people from other areas use derogatory names such as ‘Zvipembenene’.
The traditionally inspired management system by the Nerumedzo people is applicable in those areas where traditional beliefs and practices are still upheld, and there are many such places where spirit mediums command the respect of the people. In Zimbabwe, this is plausible option for the management of archeological sites.
When a community obtains economic or other benefits from an ecosystem it is likely to be protected from anthropogenic modification.
In the past, fear-based traditions sufficed for sustainable environmental management, but as communities develop, knowledge-based adaptive management where the benefits of biodiversity and ecosystems are acknowledged will be needed to prevent environmental degradation and ensure the survival of stinkbugs and associated indigenous plants and animals.


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