February 23, 2019

The Resilience of Somali Bantu: Explained through the lens of food (in)security

Jareer Weyne or Somali Bantu, as they are neologized, is a distinct, ethnic minority group in Somalia who are believed to comprise of aboriginals of the horn of Africa and decedents of ex-slaves brought from Southeast Africa. They were treated as outcasts, facing constant discrimination, marginalization dating back through the centuries.

Geographically, they inhabit the most arable and fertile region of Somalia, that is in between the two longest rivers of the country, Jubba and Shabelle, along the banks of these rivers and valleys surrounding them. Towns under this region include Jilib, Jamame, Kamsuma and smaller villages surrounding them. They populate these areas due to the fact that the other Somali groups who are predominantly pastoralists found it inhabitable due to the infestion of disease-carrying bugs such as the tsetse fly that killed many of their livestock especially cattle, goats and sheep. The other reason is that Somali Bantu groups were cultivators and usually grew crops and the conditions in these areas were favourable for their occupations. They are therefore sometimes referred to us the ‘Reer Goleed’ which is roughly translated as the people of the bush.
Muufo - flatbread from fermented corn dough

They typically practice mixed farming and grow crops such as corn, several varieties of beans, sorghum, sesame, all at subsistence level. Some also farm vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, onions, pawpaw, mangoes, and banana.

The traditional dishes of this community contain more grains and vegetables, fresh fish from the rivers and less red meat since they barely rear livestock. One of the popular dishes is Cambulo – A mix of corn, or sorghum and beans, steamed together, drizzled with sugar and sesame oil.
Soor served with fish stew

Another popular dish is Soor (grits), a grounded cornmeal that is boiled in water and allowed to solidify, served with vegetable and/or fish stew. It is a variation of the Italian Polenta, and the Kenyan Ugali.  Muufo, another delicacy of the Somali-Bantus’, is a flatbread made of fermented corn flour dough, baked in a cylindrical-shaped charcoal oven, the Tinaar. The dough is usually stuck to the inside walls of the oven and allowed to bake for some minutes. It is also served with vegetable and/or fish stew.

Fish stew

Plantain is another household side dish among the Somali Bantus. Unlike, the other Somali groups who heavily consume bananas, this community grow and eat plantain prepared in different styles; some roast it, others fry it up and all serve it as a tangy side dish for their grits and cornbread.

While these dishes were traditionally unique for the Somali Bantus, the other Somali groups started appreciating them and, in these days, they are very common household items for all groups in Somalia.

When the civil war broke out in the early 1990s, the Somali Bantu like the other minority groups were especially vulnerable to attacks, lootings, and rapes as they were easily identifiable due to their distinct physical appearance and dialect. They were, therefore, more negatively affected than many others during the civil war.

As a consequence, many fled to neighbouring countries, especially Kenya, seeking asylum. Many of these settled in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, a complex that hosts the largest number of Somali refugees. Dadaab, unlike their previous vicinities, is semi-arid and dry, with inadequate rainfall, hence it is unfavourable for farming. Since there were no water bodies nearby, this also meant that there could be no fishing activities. Those conditions forced them to evolve their diet to whatever was available.

In the camp, apart from the food insecurity and diet challenges, the Somali Bantu group faced regular threats from bandits, as well as continued segregation and marginalization from their fellow Somali refugees. They were subjected to this robbery since they lacked sufficient protection that the other groups enjoyed.

After about a decade of these rampant challenges and persecution, many of them were eventually resettled in the United States. Today, members of this group many of whom reside in Lewiston, Maine, are attempting to revive their culture and traditional food by creating a farming and food truck co-operative, where they serve Somali Bantu dishes prepared from harvests picked from their farms.

Luqman Osman, URA, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph, Canada
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February 7, 2019

Nsenene, Uganda’s Healthy Delicacy

Have you ever tasted grasshoppers? What!  Grasshoppers! How can you eat insects? The spontaneous response and dramatic facial expression tell it all.  Disgust and queasiness!  I love asking this question, anticipating the usual natural response.  The innocent question that sets the stage for conflicting attitudes, exposing the beauty of cultural diversity.

Oh God, as the weather gets colder, I cuddle in my couch and the craving for those delicious, crunchy, crispy hoppers served with a warm cup of unadulterated warm milk is irresistible.  Nothing at that moment can substitute for my yearning for grasshoppers, not even a hot chocolate from Tim Horton.

“Nsenene”, as commonly referred to in the Ugandan dialects are the long-horned grasshoppers that exist in swarms in Uganda.  Nsenene usually come out at full moon with increased numbers after heavy rains. These grasshoppers therefore swarm in the rainy seasons of April to June with the peak season from November to December. My heightened cravings for these goodies come as no coincidence to the cold months of December.    

Crispy roasted grasshoppers. 

The grasshopper tradition in Uganda is older than Uganda.  To appreciate the tradition, the month of November known as “omwezi gwa Musenene, which means the month of grasshoppers, is a reflection of the intimate connection that exists between the people and their grasshoppers.”  A clan named after the grasshoppers, the nsenene clan, is a constant reminder of the importance placed in the grasshoppers.  Unfortunate for this clan, they cannot partake the goodies.

Ugandans consume nsenene as a snack with tea or local beef or as a protein at meals served with a carbohydrate.  The nsenene are cleaned before roasting, a process involving removal of wings and legs.   Once cleaned, the grasshoppers are then roasted with minimal addition of fat since these insects produce their own fat.  To add taste, little salt, onions and spices are added.  Nsenene are rich in protein, fat and fibre making them a cheap but healthy substitute for animal protein especially for the less privileged.

Traditionally, children and women collect nsenene in small numbers for subsistence use.  These grasshoppers are more active at night and are attracted to light making them more active around well-lit areas. The grasshoppers are very easy to collect by quickly grabbing them as they rest on vegetation or fly about.   Originally, families went out to hunt for nsenene at night with a source of light. The commonly used source of light was an improvised light made from elephant grass, “emuuli”. The elephant grass stems were bundled and lit.  These slowly burnt away giving off a bright flame, which attracted the grasshoppers while the smoke from the grass intoxicated the grasshoppers. Others used flashlights or lanterns as a source of light. Women and children collected the grasshoppers.

Whereas grasshopper hunting was an exciting venture for kids, as it enabled them to be out with the older ones at night, for the women it was an opportunity to show their diligence to their husbands.  Husbands expected their wives to collect grasshoppers and in return, the husbands bought their wives a Christmas gift, “gomesi”, a traditional attire worn by women, and Christmas wear for the children. Although the women worked hard to catch the grasshoppers, tradition did not allow women to eat the grasshoppers.  Like most delicious foods, men and boys only, ate grasshoppers. 

Today the grasshopper tradition has taken a completely new turn, with the collection transforming from subsistence to commercial, more men engaged in the business and women claiming their full share of the relishing taste of the grasshoppers. The improved method of grasshopper collection has attributed to this transformation.

Packaged roasted grasshoppers. 

Initially children and women ran after the grasshoppers grabbing them as they flew past. This allowed for only a few kilos of grasshoppers caught in a season.  The high demand for grasshoppers has seen an improvement in the methods used to catch the grasshoppers and a hike in the price.  A kilo of grasshoppers goes for about 40,000/= Ugandan shillings an equivalent of US$ 10.76.  Improved methods have seen a move from running after the grasshoppers with emuuli, flashlights and lanterns to use of electric light bulbs as traps. 

Large buckets with light bulbs placed above the buckets to attract the grasshoppers are used as traps for the grasshoppers.  Tapering slippery metal panels are connected to the buckets.  These metal panels allow easy entry of the grasshoppers.  The buckets make it impossible for the grasshoppers to crawl out of the buckets.  Once in the buckets the grasshoppers are unable to fly out due to the slippery nature of the panels. This method has resulted in large catches hence transforming the business from small catches for local markets to commercial grasshopper collection aimed for large markets in the city.   

The lucrative grasshopper business has enabled many families educate their children, build decent homes and buy cars. Grasshoppers have also moved from an evening snack with tea at home to a snack served in bars and eateries in the city. Preservation methods promote the constant supply of the delicacy all year round.  Unfortunately, because of the high prices, grasshopper consumption has moved to the financially privileged leaving the rural poor deprived of the cheap source of protein. Although the grasshopper business is lucrative in Uganda, the focus of this business has remained mainly on the Ugandan market.  Traders have made little effort to penetrate the international market leaving this wonderful snack forgotten on the shelves of the Ugandan market.  Improved processing and package may promote the consumption of the grasshopper on the international market including kosher consumers.       

Today as I sit in the cold of my living room, memories linger of the evening snack in Uganda.  Attempts to bring in some of this wonderful snack have proved fruitless at ports of entry.  I live for that time when the grasshopper packaging industry in Uganda will meet the international standards to enable the free movement of my grasshoppers to Canada.  Till then my question remains . . .
Yes, how many would love to taste these delicious hopping insects!  

Christine Kajumba, Guest Contributor, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph.

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