CHAMBO NG’UNI, Kabwe
AT the peak of their fame, the Glorious Band released a song that talked about mice (read that as rats) not being relish. Obviously, they were playing traditional cousinship with those from the Eastern Province.
But make no mistake, it is not a play thing; mbeba, as they call it, remains a delicacy among most peoples of the Eastern province.
You should see them during such ceremonies as the Nc’wala and Kulamba traditional ceremonies.
Mwizenge Tembo, a Zambian professor in the United States, has written extensively on the significance of mice in the diet of the Tumbuka people of the Eastern Province.
“The hunting and eating of mice is very deeply entrenched in the customs and traditions of the Tumbuka people of Eastern rural Zambia,” Prof Tembo writes.
“As a delicacy, mice might be offered with the nshima staple traditional meal, which is cooked by boiling plain water and stirring corn meal into it until the mixture is thick. The meal with mice might be served to guests, other respected elders, or eaten by the family as a special treat.
“A shrewd housewife will know to properly budget and ration the mice. If there is a difficult choice a wise wife who is worth her esteem is expected to reserve some for her husband if she loves and respects him.
“Common expressions among the Tumbuka include a couple yearning or wishing for a baby boy so that he can kill mice for them when he grows up. Parents chastise boys who bully their little sisters by telling them: ‘Who is going to cook mice for you when you grow up?’ One of the traditional criteria for a boy growing to manhood was the ability to dig for and kill mice. If a child is running and accidentally trips and falls, an adult will console the child by dusting him or her and saying: ‘Never mind, you killed a mouse’.”
But why wait for traditional ceremonies to cash in on mice when those that love them want to eat them at any time if at all they are available.
It is a business opportunity the likes of Jennifer Mwamba (note that she is not from the Eastern Province) and other women in Kabwe are exploiting to the full.
“I am able to make a profit which also helps me to take care of my family,” Jennifer says. “It’s just normal business.”
Jennifer conducts this business from June to August, which is normally the period when people catch the mice in the bush.
In her case, she orders mice from Shilumba area in Kapiri Mposhi. And after roasting them, she sells them at New Kasanda Market, which is located near the central business district (CBD) in Kabwe.
Jennifer buys the mbeba from people who hunt them for food. She also engages them in barter system in which she exchanges plates, cups and chitenge for mbeba.
She prepares the mbeba for consumption at her home. When this is done, she puts them on a tray and ensures that they are well covered to prevent flies from gaining access to them.
“Within three to four days, you can start selling,” Jennifer explains. “Depending on how you have prepared them, they can be preserved for about one week.”
The cooking of the mice is indeed very simple.
“The mice are gutted, boiled in plain water for about half an hour and salted. They are then fire dried until they are nearly bone dry,” Prof Tembo says. “Mice are never cooked any other way.”
He says the Tumbuka identify more than 14 major types or breeds of mice, all of which, are edible. These include thodwe, kabwanda, kamzumi, kapuku, tondo, mphundu, sakachulu, julungwere, damba, chivuku, chitute, kambinini or kafula-fula, and kabwira.
“Thodwe has a rich reddish brown back and a white stomach. It burrows in sandy soils in and outside the garden. It is a solitary mouse except when it is on heat and nursing young ones,” he says. “It is second in speed when running to the tondo type of mouse. Kabwanda is a very small mouse that burrows very deep into the ground. It has a lot of fat and is a highly-prized and sought after breed.”
Jennifer, who also sells scones, does not necessarily know which type of mice she sells.
But she knows her profits.
At order price, she sells a small hip of mbeba at K50 and smaller ones at K20. Otherwise, a mbeba, which is smaller in size goes for K1 while the much bigger one fetches for K2.
In terms of profit, she says she can earn between K90 and K100 on a good day.
But she is facing competition, particularly at New Kasanda Market.
“Business now is slow. Profit depends on how a day turns out,” she says.
But even with the competition, it remains big business.
“This is good business because many people are buying mbeba,” says Brenda Mtombo, who also sells at New Kasanda Market.
Brenda says she ventured into this business because she felt that it was profitable and did not want to sit just idle at home.
In her case, she sells mbeba between the price of K1 to K3. In a week, she earns a profit of between K150 to K200.
Around her, you can see buckets and trays of mice belonging to her colleagues. They are all locked up in negotiations with other traders for the fair price at which to sell a heap of mbeba.
As they negotiate order prices, the buyers and sellers employ their best negotiating skills to have a win-win deal.
The traders say selling mbeba is just like selling vegetables, tomatoes or fruits.
But obviously, there is a growing market for the mbeba.
“I have been selling mbeba for some time now,” says Rebecca Mubanga. “It’s good business because there are people who like them. We also make profit. You can’t sell things if there is no profit.
“What I have come to know is that it’s not only people from Chipata (Eastern Province) who eat mbeba even some Bembas eat. I also eat.”
Deyasi Kasanda, an easterner, enjoys eating roasted mbeba and describes it as a seasonal delicacy.
“For us, it is relish,” Ms Kasanda says. “We eat just like our forefathers used to do.”
Well, they must be proud of her.