Uganda: Grasshopper Mania in Uganda

By Fredrick Mugira – You wake up a few minutes passed midnight because three green insects disabled in one way or the other are walking on the floor. Because they are fluttering around in the living room. They probably passed through a ventilator.  And you hear a swam of similar insects fluttering on the corrugated metal sheets of your roof. And you wonder what is happening.

So you switch on the lights. Open the window a little bit to see what is happening outside. Only to attract four more similar insects inside attracted by the lights.

And you discover they are Nsenene. Pronounced with a stress on the first ‘e’. Yes, it is true. This is November, when Nsenene show up in Uganda. The height of Nsenene season, a month several Bantu tributes in Uganda call Musenene which comes from Nsenene.

Traditionally in rural Uganda during this month, optimistic beings, all ages and sexes keep their ears fully alert to sense an alarm one glorious morning when the first sight of grasshoppers will appear. Eventually comes the alarm that leaves only the unable people inside houses. “Uru-ru-ru –Ala-ra-ra-ra Nsenene, Nsenene,” sound the first persons to spot Nsenene in bushes.  Traditionally, Nsenene are collected by women and children. On small hills, some women carrying their toddling children on their backs, together with their children kneel on the ground amidst the morning dew and mist as they comb bushes in search of Nsenene. An experience which no child ever forgets!

Nsenene catchers in urban centres have improvised a method of catching them in big numbers. They do not search for Nsenene in grasses. Instead Nsenene search for them.  They use new iron sheets- the kind used for roofing. The lower end of the sheets rest in large barrels while the upper part leans against wooden frames. On top of the wooden flame hang light bulbs that give very bright lights.  The science behind this is that the bright light attracts Nsenene. They fly towards  the light, hit on the shining iron sheets and slide into the barrel. And the trap works.

On the surface, Nsenene look like any other common insects. They are a collection of green, yellow and sometimes purple stripped long-horned grasshoppers.  Sometimes identified as bush crickets. Unlike several other types of insects, Nsenene are a delicacy in most parts of Uganda. So common among the Baganda, Banyankole, Bafumbira and Bakiga tribes. They are eaten fried. Without wings, legs and antennas  of course.  Their taste is kind of the skin on a fried chicken.

Plucking off of wings and legs is done by children and women. This is the stage when Nsenene die. The lucky ones which pass this stage alive die in the frying pan.  Frying is done by women and their daughters as men wait eagerly in the living rooms amidst strong aroma from the frying pans.  You do not need to fry Nsenene with oil. Their fatty abdomens provide enough oil for the frying process. They turn to golden-brown colour when ready.  Nsenene are eaten insatiably especially in urban centres. But in some rural areas, they are served during dinner and eaten with sweat potatoes. And some men crush them savagely. Everybody loves Nsenene. Almost everybody. No wonder some families never run out of preserved Nsenene till all members of the family have tasted on them.

Culturally although women were made to collect and fry Nsenene, they were never allowed to eat them. It was believed that women who eat Nsenene would bear children with deformed heads like those of a grasshoppers. It was a lie. Men wanted to enjoy them alone. Nowadays, Nsenene are consumed by most women.

And it is clear that without even mentioning the words, this insect is not only a delicacy but also good money for the trappers and vendors.

Ambrose Turyamureba is a perfect example of Ugandans who are digging gold from Nsenene. He  is aged 35 and short. He is neither frail nor stout. He is simply small. He fries Nsenene and sales them in Mbarara town. I first saw Turyamureba in Mbarara bus park. His name means ‘we shall see him’. He approached me from the bus window. “Nsenene, Nsenene hmmm?? Five hundred shillings only!,” he shouted as he looked at me with open eyes, holding several see-through plastic bags each containing a handful of fried Nsenene. I nodded in disagreement. He walked away rather reluctantly .

As we waited for more people to fill the 64-seater bus before it embarked on a 4 hour journey to Kampala city, it did not take long before Turyamureba sneaked into the bus. He again approached me.  “Nsenene, Nsenene?” he asked me once more as if he was seeing me for the first time. I did not reply him. I kept looking at him as he leisurely moved away to passengers seated behind me.

Three days later, Turyamureba approached me with his Nsenene. This time i was getting  off the bus as i return to Mbarara. “Nsenene, Nsenene?, he asked me. He seemed not to remember me again. But i clearly remembered him. I could tell from his high-pitched voice and the cap he wore the first time i met him. It has a picture of a green ganja plant leaf on it.

Amazingly, few weeks later , i met the same guy as i entered a supermarket in Mbarara town.  “Nsenene, Nsenene?, he sounded again as he pointed to the see-through plastic bags containing Nsenene. He carried them on a medium locally made basket in his left hand. What stunned  me, he still wore the same cap. But, this time, he smiled boyishly. I thought he had recognised me. But what a wrong impression that was. I smiled in return trying to befriend him. I wanted to find his story.

To the consternation of a passer-by, i grabbed him by his hand and we sat on a nearby pavement. He told me he has been in this business for the last 5 years. In November  and December when Nsenene come in plenty, he traps them and sells them live. However, in June when they are not in big numbers, he buys them from catchers , fries them and vends them in a state of ready-to- be-eaten to mostly passengers.

“I can collect up to a sack full of Nsenene in one night, if the sack is sold the next day, the collection can pay for my three children in primary school and have enough to run my family for about two weeks,” Turyamureba told me with a faint smile playing on his face as his hand rummaged in the basket containing Nsenene.

As his smile broadened, he narrated to me how he was able to raise his bride price from Nsenene business. Four cows and 500,000 shillings to be specific. ‘In a country, where for every one job in the formal sector, there are fifty people struggling for it, this is not an ordinary business!,’ i thought with unconcealed surprise.

Turyamureba was about to say something to me, probably bye when a brown young man approached us. He opened his mouth and closed it quickly without saying anything. He stood up hastily and asked the brown man the same old question, “Nsenene, Nsenene hmmm??,” I spotted the man nod in agreement as i moved away letting Turyamureba carryon with his Nsenene business.