A young woman sits at Nyika Growth Point in Bikita, selling roasted ant-like creatures. To the people in this area, this is a traditional delicacy and, she says — albeit jokingly — if you come to Bikita and go back without eating harurwa, then you have not been to Bikita.
The joke, however, is an apt summation of the value that the people in this area attach to these tiny edible creatures that are such an essential part of their diet.
On a good day after selling the dry, salted harurwa, the young woman, Loice of Masunda Village, says she makes anything between $10 and $15. A small cup costs 50 cents.
Reuben Runozivei (57) supplies the women at the market with the harurwa, which are light green in colour.
His hands have black smudges and cracks, a result of the harurwa’s urine.
Folklore in this part of the country has it that if the urine, which can easily tear off the skin on your palms, gets into your eyes, you can easily go blind.
Reuben comes from Nerumedzo Village, a good 80km from Nyika Growth Point. Norumedzo is the hub of harurwa. In fact, it is the only place where this tiny creature abounds.
He says the delicacy is seasonal, with the prime time being between March and May each year.
“They (harurwa) settle in the trees in forests in early March, and those trees are not supposed to be cut down if you want to pick them up,” he says.
The villagers, who can’t wait to lay hands on the tiny creatures, cannot just move in anyhow they like.
“People have to be told that today we’re moving in this particular direction, then tomorrow, in another direction. This is done to preserve the harurwa,” he revealed Chief Nerumedzo.
When people enter the huge sacred forest, they shake the trees so that the edible creatures fall to the ground where they easily pick them up.
This is usually done early in the morning between 6am and 8am, after which the harurwa are said to vanish from sight.
After picking the harurwa, they carry them home, and they are not supposed to be killed anyhow.
They put them into a tin and gently pour warm water while stirring until they all go still. Then they put them into a pan to roast them.
While it would appear as if they are burning, they do not burn, and their colour changes from green to a golden brown.
According to Rugare Zvikuva (30), of Marozva Village, one has to be choosy when picking the harurwa.
“There are some with black chests. These have a very bitter taste, so it’s wise to choose those without black chests,” he said. The harurwa is also believed to have medicinal properties and such is their reputation that people are said to come from as far as South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique just to buy them
“Imi mukwasha mune flu, harurwa dzinorapa (My son-in-law (a Shona term used respectfully to a male stranger) you’re suffering from a cold. Harurwa can cure you),” said Loice.
Harurwa, however, is just a significant part of the customs of the people of Bikita as there are certain traditional rituals that are held before people can go into the forest to pick them up.
The harurwa flourish in forests that are dense and thick, spreading out for as far as 10km on either side and are sub-divided into areas that include Guraravasikana, Matariwana, Pamasarasara, Chitaka, Rushuro, Mukozvo, Pastishi, Nechimva, Pafuve and Pamusasa where the jiri (harurwa’s epicentre) is located.
Chief Nerumedzo says there are certain rituals carried out to mark the beginning of the harurwa season. The community prepares traditional beer, which is called doro reharurwa, in either March or April.
Then the four headmen enter the heartland of the forest, from which one of them returns bearing the news that munda waibva, which means the field is now ripe. The four headmen then stand on either side of the jiri (hub).
The area’s chief then carries the same message to the District Administrator and to the police to inform them that it’s almost time for harurwa.
“The moment the rituals are done, including the beer preparations, swarms of harurwa just appear in the sky, they’ll be so many that they even shield the sun, and that is the sign that we would have adhered to the rituals well,” says Chief Norumedzo.
He said in the past, the harurwa would not last for the entire season, and the people were told by spirit mediums that they had to prepare the beer.
Chief Norumedzo further explains that he himself does not get into the jiri, and custom does not even allow him to look into the sky as swarms of the harurwa appear.
If the chief oversteps that custom, the harurwa will not get into the jiri but will just dissipate as if in protest at a cultural aberration. His subjects are the ones who bring him the harurwa to his home.
“Harurwa is (like) gold here,” he says. “They were used to pay our mothers’ lobola (bride price).”