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The mysterious stink bug saving an African forest

August 15, 2022
tags:#conservation, #Africa, #Zimbabwe, #indigenous people
by:Cyril Zenda
In the middle of a vast desert in south-eastern Zimbabwe stands an imposing thick forest. It survives because the local community respects its bounteous annual stink bug harvests, which have been their source of livelihood for generations.

"We were raised from the sales of these insects and now I am raising my own family from the same source of income," Mazvita Machingura, a 34-year old mother of five, said of the stinkbugs, known in the local Karanga dialect of the mainstream Shona language as harurwa.

"We consider them a gift from the ancestors and we don’t know how we would survive without them," she added as she and dozens of others sold the insects at the Nyika rural business centre. 

This community believes that it has continued to receive this ‘gift’ from time immemorial because it kept the Norumedzo forest, which it says belongs to their ancestors, intact.

With the south-eastern part of Zimbabwe being an unforgivingly arid region and over-crowding having led to general desertification, the roughly 100 square kilometre forest now stands as an oasis, untouched, as successive generations of people like the Machingura have been ready to defend it - even with their own lives. 

Myth, tradition and rituals

These edible stinkbugs (Encosternum Delegorguei Spinola) have been widely consumed in the southeastern part of Zimbabwe since the 17th century. Local tradition traces their origin to a locally known and accepted myth about Nemeso, a putative four-eyed son of a local chief who was said to have been fed these insects by the gods when he lived in this forest after escaping death by his father who, according to local lore, wanted him killed because he was considered an abomination to society. 

Found nowhere else other than in the Norumedzo forest, where they suddenly appear overnight and disappear in the same manner, these stinkbugs are highly regarded as a food source by locals and considered to be an annual blessing from forefathers.

The annual emergence (from April to September) of these insects is glorified in beer festivals accompanied by plenty of song and dance as thanksgiving. 

Professor Munyaradzi Mawere from the Great Zimbabwe University confirmed the mysterious nature of the insects, which were the subject of his dissertation when he studied at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. 

"I lived in this community for 15 months doing my research and everything that is said about them is true," Professor Mawere told FairPlanet.

"They suddenly appear after the traditional rituals and at the end of the season you wake up one morning to find them gone," he said of the insects, which feed not on leaves and plants like other insect species but on dew and rainwater only.

The harvesting of the insects is not free for all. Chief Norumedzo and his four headmen are in charge of the forest, the home of these stinkbugs, and a special permission is required for someone to enter the forest. The chief and his subordinate traditional leaders lead their subjects in performing some traditional rituals at the start of the harurwa season and ensure that the harvesting is done in strict adherence to long-standing tradition.

Conservation benefits

Because the forest is regarded as an 'untouchable' resource due to the importance the people of Norumedzo ascribe to harurwa, it has been conserved through traditional restrictions, sacred controls and collective community participation. 

Norumedzo Forest is made up of a wide variety of indigenous trees and plants, most of which are used for fruits and medicines by locals. There are also wild animals in the forest, but they are considered to belong to the ancestors and therefore cannot be hunted.

The general area of this forest is largely mountainous and contains a few streams within it. 

A source of livelihood

The stink bugs, which are the main product of the forest, sustain livelihoods for numerous communities around Norumedzo. Due to the region's arid conditions, most families do not harvest any produce from their fields and rely solely on selling these stink bugs for income; they also exchange them for the staple maize (corn). 

The villagers also sell the stink bugs to travellers at bus termini and roadsides, where a small portion of them sells for between $0.50 and $1, depending on the stage of the harvesting season.

So popular are the stink bugs that people come from hundreds of kilometres away (like the capital Harare, which is 400 km away) to buy them. And due to the perceived medicinal properties in the insects, some buyers arrive from neighbouring countries such as Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia. 

"This makes the forest something of immense economic value to the local community,” Professor Mawere said.

"The villagers jealously guard the forest because they fear that if it is desecrated in any way and the ancestors are angry to the extent of withholding ‘their’ insects, even for one season, the effects could be disastrous for the community, which has no other source of livelihood."

Harurwa's health benefits

A research by the Chinhoyi University of Technology has revealed that the insect is packed with high levels of essential nutrients.

"The research showed that the bug is a rich source of fatty acids, including seven that are considered essential for human nutrition and health," the report highlights.

"The insects also contain some flavonoids, a nutrient group most famous for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits.

"Harurwa provides 12 amino acids, three of which are often lacking in the predominantly cereal-based diets consumed in many parts of Africa. Cure protein and fats are also in high quantities, and although it is not a great source of minerals, it contains phosphorus in relatively highly levels. This latter aspect provides additional hidden treasures to male consumers."

Template for management of rural 'commons'

Research has also shown that the reason Norumedzo Forest has been preserved is the locals' loyal guarding of it. These traditional beliefs continue to be understood as a result of the fear of losing the vital benefits that come from this forest.

This has been made easier by the fact that the community has been able to monetise on the main product of the forest (stink bugs); in other words - the forest pays for its own upkeep.

The research concluded that the Norumedzo community serves as a living example of how traditional leadership, as well as the norms and behaviour that they represent, can foster sustainable regimes for management of rural 'commons.'

Image by professor Munyaradzi Mawere. 

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
The Harurwa stink bug.
© Munyaradzi Mawere
The Harurwa stink bug.
Norumedzo Forest, home of the Harurwa.
© Munyaradzi Mawere
Norumedzo Forest, home of the Harurwa.
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