Ensenene - Uganda's Christmas gift from Nature
Christmas is around the corner, and the year is definitely coming to an end. As always, everyone is eagerly looking forward to the festive season. There is warmth in every home, and the mood is bright.
Here in the pearl of Africa, nature joins us each year as we celebrate and remember the birth of our Lord, by gifting us with the delicious grasshopper (nsenene) snack.
Whether you have accomplished this year’s resolutions or not, no one cares. What matters is that you are alive and well.
A gift from mother Nature
The rich heavens shower us each year, not only with life giving rain waters, but also with a special kind of special green delicacy. This is the first sign that Christmas is around the Corner. If you have been here, you know what I am talking about. If you haven’t, perhaps you have heard or read about it.
All over the country, across streets in towns and villages, the word on every one's lips (young and old) is ‘ensenene’. This green flying 'manna' is the leading cause of ecstasy. Men, women and children stay up late in the night to trap the seasonal grasshopper.
In towns where the good lord has blessed the dwellers with electric power, the job is simpler. The wise men of the towns organize traps through out the day with enthusiasm and attention to detail. Passion and expectation 'burns' on their African faces.
The fine trap consists of vertically placed iron sheets nailed to eucalyptus poles, and a metallic drum at the base. At the top of the poles are bright lamps that will illuminate the night to attract the unsuspecting hoppers.
Children are ideally not allowed in the vicinity because their place is at school during these hours. Occasionally however, I see one or two children assisting some adults. I take the assumption that the adults are parents and am wondering why they have decided to deny these young chaps their place in school.
Later I learn from an expert, that it's important for the children to learn the specifics of setting up this trap for purposes of continuity of this lucrative annual business. After all, what is Christmas without 'ensenene'?
As night falls, the unsuspecting grasshoppers ( that managed to survive the sharp eye of preying birds during day) emerge from their hide outs. They converge and fly around the bright lamps in millions. You could think they should be laying strategies on how to evade the hungry humans and birds that want to turn their big juicy abdomens into breakfast.
Those whose wings tire take a break on nearby vegetation, poles, and the slippery iron sheets. Unfortunately, those that rest on the sheets end up in the metallic drum at the base. For some reason they are unable to escape. Since they are in millions, their friends don’t even notice that they are missing, and so the meeting continues as more and more get trapped.
In the villages, the job is exciting but tougher because they don't have the bright lamps due to lack of electricity. It is thus long nights of cat and mouse chase. The children and the more agile youth, spend sleepless nights running after grasshoppers through banana plantations and bushes. Perhaps this is why those of us who are too lazy to leave our beds for fear of the biting cold of the night, feel the sting in the pocket the following morning at the market place.
At home, the insects are stripped naked, in the spirit of Christmas. Wings legs and antennae are removed leaving only the head, thorax and abdomen (some careless hands even pull off the heads as they attempt to remove the wings).
They are washed and dropped into the pan to cook with the fat in their own bellies. One time (during my childhood days) I attempted to eat one of these insects alive to prove a point to a bunch of peers. I learned a lesson I haven’t forgotten to this day, and swore never to participate in the mutilation of these insects again. Instead I wait for them on the plate when they can't bite my tongue.
But Where do Grasshoppers come from?
The crunchy delicious 'ensenene' as they are known in Luganda - a local dialect in central Uganda - is a long horned grasshopper in the family tettigoniidae, commonly called the bush cricket, whose scientific name is R.baileyi (Wikipedia, 2014).
Grass hoppers don’t have Nests or territories. Many species go on long migrations to find new food. The migratory species gather in huge groups of millions. Because of the fact that they don’t have nests, they are susceptible to predators and harsh environmental conditions. They fly and hide as a way of protection. Their body color serves well for camouflage as they hide in plantations. They also produce a brownish liquid at the mouth in attempt to scare offenders. They thus live only for a short time. They are herbivores and eat plant leaves, flowers, stems and seeds.
Ensenene is a tasty snack rich in protein and fat. If you can overcome your fear for eating bugs, you should plan a visit to Uganda next Christmas. You will not regret the experience. Merry Christmas
The insect is also eaten in neighboring countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. Traditionally in Uganda, women and children did the treacherous work of gathering the grasshopper. The women were however not allowed to eat them as it was believed that women who ate the insects would bear children with deformed heads with a shape similar to that of the bush cricket. This myth is however long gone and women enjoy the snack as much as their male counterparts.
Tettigoniids are distinguished from other grasshoppers mainly by the length of their filamentous antennae, which often exceeds their own body length. Females are usually larger than the males. The life cycle of a grasshopper moves quickly through a metamorphosis period of six weeks. Like many insects, grasshoppers engage in direct sexual reproduction. Male grasshoppers ‘chirp’ to attract females. The male deposits a spermatophore or sperm packet into the female’s vagina. The sperm then travels through tiny canals called micropyles before entering the eggs. Each female produces a clutch of 10-25 eggs in her abdomen. After fertilization the female uses the long sharp extension at the end of her abdomen to deposit the eggs in stems of plants. The eggs hatch in a few days and the nymph go through incomplete metamorphosis. In other wards the young grasshoppers resemble small wingless adults. Each stage they undergo looks a lot like the adult but adds a few changes each time skin is shed. They usually shed skin between 5-6 times before they turn into adults that can reproduce. Females will try to look for a good place to lay their eggs, and that’s it. They don’t take care of their young ones.