22 October 2013
Kayonga. Ifitobo. Utubambe. Cinamusanse. Mumpa. Cipumi. Finamuyungolo. Nalifipata.
The names spill out of Bwalya’s mouth as he ticks them off on his fingers, eyes rolled upward, trying to remember all of them and telling me, emphatically, which ones are the most delicious. He is practically drooling.
This was back in July, but now it is upon us: caterpillar season.
Not everywhere in Zambia. Mainly here in Northern Province. And especially in Mfuba. Why? Because we still have a lot of trees. For now.
For the moment, the caterpillars are everywhere. I squish them under my bike tires, though I try not to. I pluck them off the walls inside my house and toss them outside. I watch them devouring all the fresh, green leaves that have magically appeared in this hottest and driest of months.
I’ve proclaimed my yard an empanga akacingililwa (protected forest), declaring caterpillar harvest off-limits within my tiny domain. (I’ve also forbid the kids from killing the bright red birds that have nested in the dead tree here.)
It was a strange decision to make: I explain that I have nothing against eating animals or insects. But there are so many of us humans, and we are eating more and more. The caterpillars that finish out their lives in my yard will go on to make more NEW caterpillars elsewhere, I tell them. Not to mention that the badly twisted and bent over mutondo tree in my yard is the result of an over-zealous caterpillar seeker when the last volunteer was here.
This is the real problem: in the scramble for caterpillars that is just now beginning, people will chop down trees just to get at them. Many don’t seem to make the connection that if you chop down the tree species that these insects favor, they won’t come back next year.
Or maybe they do. This is why people spill into the Mfuba area from nearby villages this time of year, I’m told: because they’ve killed most of their caterpillar trees and now must move on. Caterpillars are actually big business, dried and sold throughout Zambia in areas where they are no longer found.
Of course, it’s always easier to blame people from outside.
There was a big meeting at Ba Bernardi’s today (he’s the headman, after all) to try to figure out how to stop people from harvesting destructively, or harvesting caterpillars that are too young and small. Both are illegal, but with zero forestry officers in the area, enforcement is a joke.
So Mfuba’s trying to take matters into its own hands, with the village committee fining people who harvest illegally. Bernardi and three of the other men have applied to be volunteer forest guards, something I’ve helped along from the time Bernardi told me about the program months ago and asked me to pick up applications in Kasama.
But the guys were late going into town to apply: they lacked money for transport since the government was late in paying them for their maize.
So here we are, still waiting on their badges.
All the politicking and debate matter little to most of Mfuba, though. Even as the meeting dragged on, someone brought in a big bucket of cipumi caterpillars. Fat, green, squirming masses of them.
“Baletina ifishimu.” Ba Dorothy told me, pointing. To my unpracticed ear, this sounded like “they are afraid of the caterpillars,” and I wondered who? The little kids?
No, no, no. Apparently there is a subtle difference in pronunciation between ukutina (to be afraid) and ukutiina (to clean caterpillars).
I find the similarity hilarious: “cleaning” caterpillars involves squezing one end ’til the guts pop out the other end. With some force, I might add. I myself was afraid some child would see the obvious opportunity to squirt green cipumi guts at a friend. Or a PCV.
Luckily, all the guts flew safely into a big, quivering, gelatinous mass on the ground.
We are safe for now.