Last month, a report by the UN elicited “consumer disgust” in some Western countries when it advised the incorporation of more insects into the diet. The report said eating more bugs could boost nutrition and reduce pollution worldwide.
But here in Uganda we’re way ahead of the UN.
Nsenene is a type of grasshopper eaten as a snack in Uganda. In many Bantu languages in Uganda, November is called musenene, which loosely translates as the month of the grasshoppers.
When I was younger, the nsenene would always come in May and November during the rains. However, November is considered the official grasshopper season.
The biggest supplier of grasshoppers in the country is the town of Masaka, about 120 kilometres west of the capital city Kampala.
At the peak of the season there are pick-up trucks on the highway, packed to the brim with sacks full of grasshoppers destined for Kampala’s markets.
Grasshoppers are trapped mainly at night since they are attracted to light, so in Masaka, people set up very bright lights to catch the insects.
They use iron sheets and metal drums to make the traps; the iron sheets act as a funnel into the drum, and as the grasshoppers come to the light, they land on the iron sheet and fall into the drum.
They are caught mainly by women and children.
While this season is good for the nsenene entrepreneur, it is a headache for the country’s electricity supplier, Umeme, since there are very many illegal connections made at this time.
Grasshoppers are prepared in a unique way. Ash is used when taking the wings and legs off, it helps ease the process. The insects are then washed and placed in the sun to dry, after which they are fried, usually without any oil added since they contain their own fat. A little salt is added for flavour. Some people fry them in onions and pepper, for a mouth-watering aroma.
If the grasshoppers are kept longer than a day, they are washed then boiled in salty water before taking the wings and legs off. These can be added to groundnut or beef stew.
The most common form of a nsenene snack is the fried type, mainly sold by roadside vendors on Kampala streets. They carry the insects around in see-through buckets, and wrap the snacks in aluminium foil containers. The smallest container costs Ush5,000 ($1.9), while a tablespoonful of grasshoppers costs for Ush1,000 ($0.4).
Nsenene also have a cultural distinction. The Buganda community, which is in central Uganda, has a Nsenene clan; people who belong to this clan are not supposed to eat these grasshoppers. In the past, women were also not allowed to eat the insects.
Traditionally, the women would catch these grasshoppers and give them to their husbands. He would then be obliged to buy her a gomesi (the traditional central region dress) or esuuti (the name for the traditional dress in parts of western Uganda).
To catch the grasshoppers, a special kind of alarm is sounded to alert people that the insects have been spotted in a particular area.
Nsenene come in three different colours; a common green one, a brown one, and a very rare almost red one.
Among the Batooro, a community from Western Uganda, the brown coloured grasshopper is called akati komeere which means dry twig. This was not supposed to be given to the head of the family.
The rare near red grasshopper is called omwana which means child; one of these can be exchanged for four green ones.
When you are in Kampala, especially in the months of November and December, have a nsenene, a snack that some people say tastes like crunchy fish.