Wednesday, March 30, 2016

About those ants...

Unfortunately the brief interview of Loyom Joyce that Francis helped me with at the market the other day takes a back seat to clarification on my insectovoracious activities.
How strange to see all their tiny legs as residue in the pan--like pieces of straw or plant material.  As I listened to the harvesting stories of white ants ("wen" in the local language) I puzzled over why there's no European tradition of eating insects. I hypothesize that early humans were willing to try foods they saw other animal species eating (I mean, how else do you know to eat a potato or some of those other root vegetables?) Jump in here and correct me if I'm wrong, but beyond bears raiding honey bee hives, are there any mammalian insectivores in northern climates? In this area of Africa it's possible to clearly witness apes and primates inserting tree branches like swizzle sticks into termite mounds and find anteaters with a diet completely of crunchy crawlers. 

So, this is Anena Paska
She would like Americans to know that the sale of wen is her sole support. She is eager to develop her market overseas as a snack food (Popants?) She purchases her ants from the villagers that harvest them. To "force" a harvest (as apposed to simply encouraging a harvest at the perfect time seasonally) a person needs to dig a hole next to the ant hill and build a mini hut over the hole so the wiser ants can't just fly off.  Then, she reports, you flood the anthill with water and they all fall into the hole. When I arrived home with my bag of wen Dr. Wilfred's eyes brightened with the memory of harvests in his younger years. He describes carefully monitoring the anthills and, during the rainy season (if I heard him correctly) there are mini mounds and holes at the base of the hill that indicate their activity. It reminded me of the way you can look for bubbles/blowholes in moist, coastal sand  to indicate where you should dig for your clams.  Dr. Wilfred then said the ants are photophilic (photophobic is for vampires-- they avoid light) so you can just go out with a torch at night and out they all rush for you to collect. The excitement on his face as he described this reminded me of the feeling I get when I just stepped into a particularly good blueberry patch. Oooohh....ahhhh...imagine the jam and pie!  As he went on to describe, you can pulverize your wen into a paste in which to dip your cassava chips, or you can cook them up with tomatoes and vegetables. The fry pan technique I used does give off a particular odor, and though not unpleasant, I didn't experience the childish swoon that brought Francis into the kitchen "something is smelling good!" They really weren't bad. I ate a few teaspoons. I suppose you could market them like Corn Nuts: ranch flavor, siracha, nacho...
If you grew up with this food and move to another part of the world I imagine you long for it.

Anena Paska is describing a forced harvest because the rainy season hasn't come to this area. Our reserve tank of water here at the house has run dry. They announced the regional drought on the radio. There have been a few showers and a bit of violent lightening. We continue to purchase drinking water and there's a local place to fill the yellow, plastic jerry cans. We are the lucky ones. The jerry (or geri) can came to the African continent through the German presence in North Africa during WWII. They came with metal fuel  containers that stacked and transported well. The original metal ones weighed 10 pounds before being filled with fluid. By the late 1960s the jerry can was a ubiquitous symbol of how precious water is to this equatorial climate. Our current conditions mean many local women have to walk far away in the evening to find a water source. In 1970 they began selling the yellow jerry we know today coming in at only 3.5 pounds.

Playing and growing is hard work!
Tika the kitten is thriving. Like everyone else who can afford it, I sleep with a mosquito net. This functions like a spider web for a kitten who wants to snuggle with you at night... I managed to untangle her without her nails leaving holes in the net!  Very soon she should be old enough for her spay surgery and I hope to have news about finding her a home!

Surgery protocols for spay/neuter:
I never mentioned the adaptations the doctors have made for the climate and conditions.  The lateral (side) spay incision, allows for easier post-surgical monitoring and cleanliness. For healthy, non-pregnant females the doctors may choose only to remove the ovaries and not the entire uterus. They've developed a remarkable neutering technique for the male dogs. At first I thought they were talking about the "ping pong technique" which sounded like a lot of fun! They were saying "pinhole technique". An anesthetize dog is shaved and scrubbed as if he were going to have an "open castration"-- one that includes an incision and externalizing the testes. Instead, a metal canula (just a big syringe needle) is inserted through the skin and out the other side. Suture material is threaded through the canula. The result of a few rounds of this is a subcutaneous
(invisible) ring of suture that cuts off blood supply to the testes. "If the owner does not see swelling of the next days then you have done it wrong" Dr. Moses explained. A similar technique is used in young livestock for castration but our companion animals suffer severe extrernal wounds and complications when/if a layperson tries this.  The pinhole technique means the dogs don't need special collars to prevent licking and it is harder for them to develop complications.

Back to my market field trip with Francis to help with language. Loyom Joyce shared a recurring story I heard at the market: she works with her village contacts to purchase her goods from the farmers. These women are entrepreneurs, extrovert 'connector' people. One of those American business guys who writes about networking and human systems needs to step up and talk to them.  The profit margin for their wares is incredibly slim.  A kilo of beans may sell for 3000 schillings, approximately 1 USD. Joyce also sells her groundnut paste. In the opening photo you can see the paste stacked in containers on the wall behind her. When asked what her favorite thing to sell is she remarked on the seasonality of her goods and the freshness. Purchasers are aware of when things are "in season" and their demand matches her sales.

There is an entire annex for sale of dried fish. My tolerance for the odor depends on the day and the heat. This is Caroline. I have learned that if someone of Acholi origin does not offer a last name do not press them for it. It's likely they have one of those Acholi name markers that indicates something other than "I love this child".  (See earlier post when I described Tika's naming process). Once in a while someone refrains from sharing their name to spare my embarrassment at mispronouncing it.  Like the other "middle women" at the market Caroline purchases her fish from the fisherman who've already caught and dried them. Fish come from Lake Virctoria and Lake Albert. The lakes are relatively close, but I've yet to write about the challenge of overland travel around here.
The dried fish area of the market is, like, 2000 square feet of cubicles, each with a seller. Fish range from the tiny silverfish minnows, to large halibut-size whoppers. The whole dried fish is cooked with cabbage, tomatoes and spices (Dr. Wilfred did an AMAZING job of it last night!) and the bones and any other unwelcome bits are removed. The silverfish are shared with companion animals and humans equally. They are used in baby porridge and call also be cooked in several ways.  The teeny fish would seem to add good calcium and minerals as their mini skeletons get eaten as well.