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Malawi: Where rats are a delicacy

In many parts of Malawi, rats are a common delicacy openly sold in markets, stalls or roadside kiosks. [PHOTO: PETER MUIRURI/ STANDARD]

By Peter Muiruri

When former Finance Minister Njeru Githae suggested that Kenyans eat rats to beat pangs of hunger, the condemnation was loud. Some argued he was callous for making a joke out of a serious situation.

What many may not know is that Mr Githae may have had some snippets that rats are savoured meals in some parts of Africa. In many parts of Malawi, for example, rats are a common delicacy openly sold in markets, stalls or roadside kiosks.

While Kenyan boys are busy hawking roasted groundnuts in the city and countryside, their counterparts in Malawi will be seen flashing rat skewers to motorists on the busy Lilongwe-Blantrye Road. 

On a recent visit to the commercial city of Blantyre, a group of Kenyan journalists recoiled at the sight of a lady sitting next to a heap of rats, or mbewa in Chichewa.

It is a hot Saturday morning when we meet Ms Gloria Maibula seated near the entrance to Blantyre Market, a heap of dried rats at her side. Although the stench is nauseating, people have no qualms eating some fruits or sweet potatoes being sold by her colleagues.

Maibula is surprised at our palpable curiosity. With several cameras trained on her, a small crowd soon gathers. They, too, cannot comprehend why she has become an instant “celeb’ – to use the Kenyan parlance. She is unable to speak English or Swahili for that matter. We invite one “witness” to interpret what she says.

Eaten with ugali

Selling rats is the only business Maibula knows. Widowed for the last decade, Maibula has relied on the proceeds of rat sales to feed her nine children and would not think of doing anything else.

She is the only one in the market-selling rats on this particular day.

This, we learn, is due to the fact that the rat catching season is slowly drawing to a close.  “This is my job. I have been doing this since the death of my husband. This is how I feed and educate my children. I have no intention of stopping as long as there are rats in the fields,” she tells us.

Throughout our interview, an occasional drunk saunters by the pile of rats, selects a few pieces, drops some notes to Maibula and walks away. For 50 Kwacha (Sh12.50) a piece, even the one of little means is assured of a meal.

Some, obviously too drunk to keep going eat the rats on the spot –head, fur, skin and all – much to the horrified faces of the Kenyans. No expert, I am told, has come up with any ill effects of rat eating. One of those in the crowd is Mr Gidson Bornwell. Born 21 years ago in Chikwawa, he has eaten rats most of his adult life and sees nothing unusual in that.

“This is food like any other. Some people like chicken or cow meat. Mbewa is my favourite,” says Bornwell with a wide smile. For years, Bornwell has shared in catching the rats during the high season that starts from May to August.

He says that during that period, he can catch as many as 1,000 rats in a day. According to him, the rats are hunted in maize fields after the harvest when they have grown plump on a diet of grains, fruits, grass and insects.

A common method used to catch them is to place a pot half full of water and pouring maize husks in it. As the rats rush to enjoy whatever is in the pot, they drown in the pot, ending up on the dinner table.

Bornwell then takes me through the preparation phase.

“First you remove the intestines before boiling them for about 40 minutes. Pour out the water and remove the fur by drying the rats. You can then fry them in oil just like fish or grill on fire like that one. Three or four pieces go well with tsima (ugali),” says Bornwell pointing to a jiko fire beside Maibula.

I try hard not to show any disdain for the ‘delicacy.’  “Not many in Kenya will eat rats no matter how well prepared they are,” I jokingly tell him. “Okay, no problem,” he says before disappearing into the crowd. Boiled, fried or salted rat?  Please place your order.