I wrote an article for BBC World - a eulogy to insect-shaped insects. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, please do take a look!
I wrote an article for BBC World - a eulogy to insect-shaped insects. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, please do take a look!
This post comes courtesy of my third field assistant, Charlotte Milbank, a Cambridge Geography student who is doing her dissertation project on wild plant use in Soumosso, the site where I work in southwestern Burkina Faso.
The post is subtitled: AKA an emotional rant about the importance of education!
I am conducting research on wild food consumption and strategies in Burkina Faso. These are foods that are neither cultivated nor bought, but caught or collected by households. Charlotte’s shea caterpillars fall under this heading. I am interested in how the knowledge of these wild foods might influence consumption, and how this may differ between households of varying levels of food insecurity. Whilst this blog post precludes any data analysis, the insights and experiences my research here has granted me so far have agitated my interest in public health and given me food for thought...
It is becoming increasingly apparent through my interviews and discussions groups with the villagers here that nutritional ‘knowledge’, at least in a medicalised (and Western) sense of the word, is desperately lacking. Little is known about the components of a healthy diet. I have not heard any mention of ‘protein’, and when I have asked about the constituents of a healthy diet, I have been informed that the common diet consisting chiefly of toh (pronounced as rhymes with ‘slow’ - a staple made of maize flour and water) and (haricot) leaves is quite adequate. Dietary diversity in Burkina Faso has been estimated as the second lowest worldwide, based on a count of seven food groups - given the general consensus I have found through just brief interactions, this figure seems hardly surprising.
Whilst the villagers we encounter daily do not appear to be ‘chronically hungry’ (lacking in food quantity, defined by energy intake), it is highly probable that ‘hidden’ hunger (lacking in food quality) is profound here. According to the UN (2014), 2billion people globally suffer from hidden hunger, a deficiency in vitamins and nutrients, and subsequent malnourishment. Micronutrient deficiencies are hugely prevalent across West Africa. In Burkina, rates of anaemia are reported to be as high as 88%, and child stunting 35%. Almost all of the children we see around Soumosso have contracted, bloated stomachs, a common symptom of Kwashiorkor, the protein deficiency disease.
I was further appalled to discover that it is widely believed that the nutritional demands of everyone within the household are the same: everyone – men and children, teenagers and breastfeeding women - should eat the same things, as well as the same sized portions. This resonates with the findings of other West African nutritional studies, e.g. Huybregts et al. (2009) who reported that the additional nutritional burden of pregnancy is not accounted for in Burkinabe dietary practices, with no differences in food intake, food choice and nutritional intake between pregnant and non-pregnant women.
Women are a group of integral importance. As in many cultures around the world, they are the prime decision makers regarding household food consumption, and are involved in both food collection and preparation. In my own research, I am discovering the crucial role of women in wild food consumption. They are the key bearers of knowledge on a plethora of wild foods – they know which wild leaves are edible, which medicinal plants can be used to treat malaria, the seasonality of specific fruits, the list goes on… Meanwhile, they are also, especially at reproductive age, highly vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies such as anaemia. This, I believe, grants the horrific lack of nutritional understanding here all the more urgency.
Whilst I feel obliged by academia to stay focused on my own research, I cannot help but become exasperated by this sheer absence of medical knowledge. Worldwide, there are success stories of health interventions structured around the provision of health education. The SELEVER intervention, a women’s poultry program to improve income and nutrition funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one such Burkina-based example, although its impacts remain to be seen. In its drive to achieve the 2025 Global Nutrition Targets, the UN stresses the importance of integrating the education sector into development policies and programmes, as well as others beyond merely the health sector.
But such examples of policies and programmes are too few and far between. We need more and we need them to reach those who most need it. Women, as the predominant food providers, are key. Education provision need not be expensive, and the information needed is not complicated. But without it, my fear is that the villagers we have come to know and grow fond of these last few weeks will continue to suffer the same nutritional ailments as their previous generations.
But there is another side to the coin. As I finish my research here, I am able to reflect on the insights I now have into ‘indigenous’ knowledge around food consumption. What is intriguing is that as well as alarming divides between these local knowledge systems and medical knowledge, there are overlaps - and even things we in Western society might be able to learn from…
I have been astounded by the medicinal knowledge that some villagers hold in using plants to treat common maladies, such as malaria, colds and morning sickness. Faced with the rising threat of antibiotic resistance and superbugs in the UK and worldwide, the ability to turn to such knowledge is surely something we must aspire towards. Not rushing to the GP (or heaven forbid A&E, but don't even get me started on this topic!) for drugs at the first symptoms of a common cold, but utilising other (natural) remedial sources.
Seasonality is another issue that as a country with the ability to import gross quantities of fruit and vegetables, we are growing ignorant of. Whilst in both societies, there is awareness of their vitamin-related benefits, our knowledge and consumption of seasonal, locally-available produce is comparatively poor. We Brits consume kiwis, bananas, mangoes year-round in a bid to reach our precious ‘five-a-day’. Here, people of all ages collect and consume the wild fruit of the season, safe in the knowledge that when it runs out, another tree will come to bear fruit. Seasonality is a pertinent (indeed life-threatening) nutritional issue here in Burkina. Whilst overlaps between our knowledge systems do exist, there is much that we in the UK should relearn.
Our ignorance of certain nutrition and health knowledge in the West has grown, and we must be sure that others do not suffer the same fate. Some villagers have raised with me their acute awareness – and their concern – that local knowledge is being lost. Overreliance on manufactured pharmaceuticals and settlement growth, amongst other forms of modernisation, threaten their everyday practices of food consumption.
To return then to my original argument: adequate nutritional and health education is of the utmost importance to the improvement and maintenance of community wellbeing. But the solution is not as simple as just imposing Western nutritional norms and knowledge onto remote communities. Indeed, there are many horror stories of where ignorant attempts to do so have done severe damage. By engaging with and trying to understand communities such as that of Soumosso, I sincerely hope that as researchers, we can bridge the (unhealthy) divides between indigenous and Western medical knowledge, whilst being sensitive to and addressing local contexts and needs, to ensure the conservation of valuable indigenous knowledge. In doing so, nutritional and health concepts that may currently seem alien can be made a normality and reality, and conditions of malnourishment ameliorated.
 Rather confusingly also called Charlotte, we are affectionately known by the villagers as ‘grande’ and ‘petite’ Charlotte.
 Gelli et al. (2017) ‘Improving diets and nutrition through an integrated poultry value chain and nutrition intervention (SELEVER) in Burkina Faso: study protocol for a randomised trial’. Trials, 18:412 DOI 10.1186/s13063-017-2156-4
 Huybregts et al. (2009) ‘Dietary behaviour, food and nutrient intake of pregnant women in a rural community in Burkina Faso’. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Maternal and Child Nutrition, 5. pp.211-222
 Gelli et al. (2017). As previous.
Some well-cooked city caterpillars! These were from a similar recipe to the one described in this post, but the chef - working in a kitchen of a high end restaurant - left the caterpillars whole, as he prefers them that way. I think I prefer Catherine's recipe, which is why that's the one I've written about here...
Last month, I published a caterpillar recipe here.
For that recipe, my neighbour Argita and I cooked the caterpillars together , and I weighed and timed everything. I did the same with other women, and each recipe seemed to be a subtle variation on the same theme. Every dish was fairly similar, but I think I liked Argita’s the best.
(I’ve saved them all, in the vague hope that Felicity Cloake might one day wish to write her column on ‘how to cook the perfect caterpillars’)
City cuisine, though, is different.
When I spent some time in Ouagadougou, Catherine, the wife of one of my collaborators, showed me a new and different way of cooking dried caterpillars. Again, I weighed and timed everything.
This recipe uses more oil - which is probably one reason that I’ve not seen caterpillars cooked this way in the village, where oil is a luxury and used sparingly - but admittedly, it is delicious. So, for those of you lucky enough to have access to dried caterpillars and lots of oil, here’s recipe #2 for you:
*Cirina butyrospermi caterpillars - although the closely related Cirina forda caterpillar, or even the Gonimbrasia belina caterpillar known as the mopane worm, would probably also work well in this recipe.
**Any oil should work well, apparently - it’s a matter of preference. Catherine likes palm oil, as it’s locally available at an affordable price, and her family enjoys the taste. But European consumers might want to go for something more sustainable…
In Catherine’s house, we all sat around a communal plate of caterpillars, took chunks of bread, and heaped caterpillars onto our bread as we ate. We also just ate the caterpillars on their own occasionally, as you might help yourself to a few peanuts at a time. Her children were especially enthusiastic about the caterpillars, which are a rare treat.
Years ago, I was invited to participate in a panel at the 5th US-Japan Youth Forum in Tokyo. One of my fellow panellists was Kjerstin Erickson, who founded a successful non-profit organization, FORGE, at the age of 20. On stage, she was an amazing and inspiring speaker. But in person, too, she was an extremely honest, intelligent and thoughtful person to bounce ideas around with. She was also a lot of fun! We had a great time visiting one of my favourite things to see in Tokyo, the Elvises in Yoyogi Park...
Last year, Kjerstin posted something on Facebook about her new startup - Simbi, a website for people to trade skills and services, without any money changing hands. Members offer or requests services - anything from edits to illustrations to yoga lessons to babysitting to IT support to gardening to language lessons - and instead of paying in money, everything is paid for in a virual currency. This currency can then be exchanged for more services! The currency has no cash value, so all the effort you put in only goes towards helping other individuals. Also, everyone starts out equal, which is how the world ought to be.
It's a very simple idea, and pretty intuitive, too, so it's been really successful. Just a year after it was founded, Simbi is now a brilliant and thriving online community, populated by a huge number of people, all of whom share a common set of values. I really recommend it to everyone and anyone.
The point of this story is firstly to encourage you to join Simbi! But also to introduce my first fieldwork video :)
A few days ago, I sent a few of my unedited video clips - taken this year in Burkina Faso - to another Simbi member. In no time at all, he put a lovely short film together for me. It's only a minute and a half long, and it shows caterpillars in Burkina Faso being prepared by my Burkinabe neighbours, Argita and Momoni, and you can watch it here on YouTube. I hope you like it!
Here are a few screenshots from the film, and also one of the Simbi manifesto:
Here I offer you a recipe for cooking dried caterpillars, courtesy of my neighbour Argita.
Sure, the main ingredient may be unobtainable and obscure at present – but watch this space. After all, if inhabitants of Smethwick can enjoy their caterpillars, why cant the rest of the world?
Soumbala (Alternative – a splash of soy sauce, a teaspoon of miso paste, a tablespoon of natto) 30g
Stock cube ½ cube
The above measurements are rounded up or down from weights measured in the field. The result was delicious. Promise. I even have video to prove it. Here’s what you need to do:
After collecting a bucketful of live caterpillars, what next?
This no doubt varies a great deal by region and by species, but for the women I’ve spoken to here:
1. Wash them. Caterpillars (they’ve been traversing sandy soils, after all) should be washed thoroughly - at least three times with fresh water, and any leaf debris etc picked out by hand.
2. Kill them. Dissolve potassium in water and add this to a thick-bottomed metal cooking-pot. (Optional: Add salt to the water at this stage. Doing this will improve the flavour, and will also help to preserve the caterpillars) Add the caterpillars (the volume of caterpillars can be about 4 or 5 times the volume of water). Heat over a steady fire for 4-6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the water boils up and over the top of the caterpillars and all are very definitely no longer alive.
3. Drain them, reserving the black liquid for the next batch, if you like.
4. Now comes a choice: Sell them, dry them, or eat them?
a. Sell them: Great. They are ready to be sold. Put them in a bucket and wander to the nearest thoroughfare – e.g. any dirt track that goes between the villages. Present them to a woman who will inevitably be sitting by the side of the path with sacks of caterpillars and a large tin known as a ‘boite’. She’ll fill it to the brim, and then pack more on top until it is overflowing. Then she’ll tip it into her sack, and add a handful just for good measure. This is ‘one boite’, and you’ll be charged per boite.
b. Dry them: Lay them on sackcloth in direct sunlight for 2-3 days.
c. Eat them: The most common method here, when cooking with fresh caterpillars, is to fry them. Add some oil to a pan and heat. Wash the caterpillars and – here people have differing preferences. Some break them in half, some remove the heads, some cook them whole – add them to the pan. Chop onion, tomatoes, chilli pepper, as you like, and add these to the pan, stirring well to ensure everything is cooked thoroughly. The mixture will be ready to eat after 10-12 minutes. Some people claim the caterpillars are best enjoyed in a sandwich, others ate them with rice or maizemeal, and others prefer them unaccompanied.
So these are the methods by which people reap their harvest of caterpillars. And what are the benefits?
When selling them fresh to a woman on the road (and these women will usually have traveled from the nearest large town), you can expect to receive between 350-700 francs per boite. This is the price range I’ve recorded at my study sites this year. The variation is due partly to the huge fluctuations in availability during the short season, and also to the variation among my study sites in their distance from the nearest car-accessible road.
When selling dried caterpillars, I’m told you can receive between 1000-2000 francs per boite. However, the caterpillars shrink when dried, so three boites of fresh caterpillars become one boite of dried caterpillars. Therefore, it’s not necessarily financially astute to dry them – unless you live far from the nearest road and would rather make a single trip and sell all of your caterpillars in one go, rather than day by day.
As for the benefits of eating caterpillars, watch this space! But I definitely agree with the enthusiasm of everyone I’ve spoken with here – nearly all of whom claim to eat caterpillars at every opportunity during the season, and as a result they get to ‘eat meat every day’ – that they definitely make a tasty and filling meal.
Left: A Shea tree stripped bare by the caterpillars (the leaves visible in the tree are those of parasitic plants; all the Shea leaves are reduced to their pale yellow spines. It's a bit like when English trees shed their leaves, and in winter the mistletoe is visible as a result). Right: a 7-cm long caterpillar eating a shea leaf
I had been here a few weeks before the caterpillars came.
In those first few weeks people said they had seen the moths at night, and eventually I began to see little egg clusters nestled in the lower branches, or on the bark of the trunk, of the occasional shea tree. These didn't seem to be so very numerous to me, but my new friends disagreed. Everyone in the village anticipated a LOT of caterpillars.
A week or so after the eggs first appeared, they began to hatch. The newly emerged caterpillars were tiny – 2 or 3mm in length – and their transluscent green bodies would have been invisible against the green of the leaves were it not for (1) their black heads, (2) their obvious signature of a leaf stripped down to its structure, leaving only its ribs and backbone intact, and (3) the fact that they are gregarious, clustering in groups of over 100. Nevertheless, in the verdant shea trees towering above newly planted fields, each one crowned with dense foliage, these tiny caterpillars were not easy to spot. Not yet.
A few days later, they had grown in size. A week passed, and they were becoming easier to spot, in trees where they had defoliated entire branches. And after just a couple of weeks, the trees were transformed.
No longer was I working in idyllic landscapes scattered with fertile, flourishing trees. The crops continued to grow, but the trees – the trees were like ghosts. The majority of shea trees were now stripped bare by their tiny predators. The pale yellow spines of leaves were all that remained on the branches, and these shone in clouds around the crown of each tree. Meanwhile, the caterpillars had moved on to the next tree. Each day as I walked across fields, paths, even on roads, the caterpillars could be seen underfoot, steadily inching across the soil below with a clear purpose – to find more food.
Meanwhile, the villagers were happy – they had been right in their predictions, and their only expressed worry was that perhaps there were too many caterpillars and not enough trees, so that many would die before meeting maturity.
This is to set the scene for my next few posts (& I’ll add photos when I can!)
A is for Agroforestry – the landscape here is dominated by fields of crops scattered with trees, mostly shea (Vitellaria paradoxa) and African locust bean (Parkia biglobosa).
B is for Bigamy - most men in the villages, when they can afford to, take a second wife. Islamic tradition here permits up to four wives.
C is for Caterpillars - this is why I’m here! C is also for ‘Chitoumou’, the name used across Burkina for the edible caterpillar Cirinabutryospermi.
D is for Dolo - the millet beer brewed in large terracotta pots by several families in the village, each of whom serve it in their courtyard as soon as it is ready to drink, in large dried gourd-halves for 100F per litre. It is drunk by men, women and children alike.
E is for Elephants - Burkina has one of the largest remaining elephant populations. They don’t often come to this part of the country often, although I saw them here in April.
F is for Fieldwork - I’m spending my days collecting data, and this includes collecting, measuring and weighing caterpillars, collecting samples of other insects, measuring trees and the defoliation caused by the caterpillars, doing bird surveys in fields and forests, and also conducting interviews with men and women in the village.
G is for Garden - I have some land outside my house that I’m allowed to cultivate. Rain is scarce, insects are abundant, and it’s late in the season, but I’ve planted some okra and aubergine.
H is for Herding - when a person buys a cow, goat or sheep, s/he (probably he) can lease it to a person who is essentially a wandering shepherd (and of a distinct ethnicity). The shepherd is responsible for grazing and caring for the animals, and in return is entitled to one of every two newborn calves/lambs/kids. Most of the people shepherding the animals are young boys, in groups of two or three.
I is for Immigrants - there are many economic/climate immigrants living here, most of whom were born in the northern, dry, Sahelian regions of Burkina Faso and travelled here in the past few decades in search of fertile land. They speak a different language and are of a different ethnicity, but (partly also because of female exogamy - women often marry outside their village) many ethnicities live here, speaking many languages, and there is no animosity evident along ethnic lines.
J is for Jula - the main local language, although Moore and Dagara are also spoken commonly, and those who have been to school (most of the men, few of the women, especially older women) speak some French.
K is for Karite - the French name for shea, the tree that dominates the landscape and yields sweet fruits, which contain a seed that is roasted and cracked to reveal a nut, which is then process to make shea butter. Shea butter is used locally as a cooking oil and as an ointment, and is sold to an international market for use in both confectionary and cosmetics. It is a major export crop for Burkina.
L is for Liana - found in the small remaining patches of forest, with one very common species bearing a sweetly sour orange fruit. During my first two months here, I often came back after forest surveys with pockets filled with this fruit!
M is for Moto - in the quiet of my house, which is surrounded by trees, scrub and fields with my nearest neighbour over half a kilometreaway, the only sound other than birdsong and thunder is the occasional motorbike passing by.
P is for Palm - there are many palm trees in one of my field sites, and they are tapped to make palm wine.
Q is for Quarrel - I’ve not yet seen any real disputes, unless you count an argument between husband and wife one day when he accused her of not preparing any food for him that evening and she retorted by pointing out that he hadn’t brought any food home with him for her to prepare. It was 10pm and they were drinking locally-distilled cane spirit.
R is for Religion - The village is a mix of Muslims (slightly in the majority) and Christians (a significant minority). They mix socially, and again, I’ve not seen or heard any animosity along religious lines.
S is for Spirits - of the otherworldly kind. There are at least two people in the village who communicate with spirits from the forest, on behalf of others. I’ve only just encountered it and am not sure how common it is. But there is one elderly man here who is allegedly so renowned that people travel all the way from Ouagadougou (the capital city, which is 6-7 hours away by road) to see him.
T is for Tailor - for clothes, most people purchase lengths of cloth known as ‘fani’, which are typically colourful and patterned, in batik, print or tie-dye, and are also worn without adjustment as a wrap-around skirt - and pay one of the village tailors to make their trousers, skirts, dresses, shirts. This is a far cheaper option than the few second-hand clothes that are sold for high prices on market day.
U is for Umami - the savoury taste, which here is achieved using fermented locust beans known as ‘soumbala’. Coincidentally, the fermentation is similar to that of Japanese natto.
V is for Velo - the most common form of transport here is the bicycle, and I now have one of my own!
W is for Water, Well, Wheelbarrow - Like many households here, I walk to the nearest groundwater well to get my water. But unlike the women and children who balance their 20 or 30 litre jerrycans on their heads or cycle with them strapped precariously on their bikes, I use a wheelbarrow.
X is for XX - women (and girls) here collect the water, work in the fields (hoeing, planting, harvesting), gather wood for the fire, buy and sell the produce at the village market, prepare the food, make and sell the beer - and all this with their babies strapped to their backs.
Y is if for YX - men (and boys) here do some of the work in the fields - they plough using hired cattle, and those who can afford to spray their crops with agrochemicals. Some men own businesses - they are mechanics, fixing bikes and motorbikes, or they have small shops selling soap, sardines, tea, sugar, etc. There are exceptions to every rule and tasks are divided along lines of both wealth and gender - but for the most part, men seem to have control of most of the wealth while women seem to do most of the physical labour required by everyday life.
Z is for Zebra-donkey