Nze nsenene. Nva lugendo.
Grasshoppers are a ubiquitous snack in Southern Uganda. They are lured by lights, trapped in barrels, and then fried up in a little oil with salt. Kids love them and the ones you see enjoying them here are orphans from Nazareth Children’s Home in Nyendo, Masaka.
Nyendo’s a suburb that sits 45 minutes away from the Equator on a stretch of highway that curves around Lake Victoria. It’s a place where busses from as far away as Kigali, Rwanda and Mombasa, Kenya stop in the middle of the night for their passengers to relieve themselves and stock up on street foods like meat-on-a-stick and fried lungfish. Grasshoppers are plentiful too. Teenage street vendors peddle nsenene from minibus to minibus with same entrepreneurial spirit as the guys who feel obligated to squeegee your windshield in New York.
The coming of the grasshoppers coincides with the end of each rainy season. You know it’s that time of year again when you see fluorescent floodlights pop up with the glow of a car dealership lot. Overnight they are set up in unlikely places. They span over several rooftops in slum areas, deep in the middle of swamps, or in a neighbor’s backyard. Often the traps are assembled where there was previously no electricity, but someone has shimmed up a nearby power line with a cable for a free hook-up.
The traps themselves are metal barrels fitted with a 10 foot piece of corrugated iron sheeting. The lights are aimed at the metallic surface and the grasshoppers become dazzled by the display, much like moths around a porch light. The insects are drawn into the brilliant luminance and whack themselves on the metal sheeting. Stunned, they slide down into the bottom of the barrel. At the end of the night they are collected in plastic bags and sold at roadside markets.
The Ugandan varieties of these insects are not the same grasshoppers that you’d find in America or Europe. They’re actually a type of katydid that are closely related to the same migratory locusts that plagued Pharaoh in the book of Exodus. Like Egypt, Uganda also sits along the banks of the river Nile (and Moses has always been a popular name), but the grasshoppers there are too delicious to pose a threat. However, if the insects weren’t eaten they could strip the lush tropical environment of its foliage. On one acre of land, fifty live grasshoppers (or two recommended serving sizes in fried snack form) have the same grazing power as a cow. For a country where 80% of its inhabitants’ livelihood depends on agriculture the result would be devastating.
Yet most Ugandans don’t see themselves as agents in pest control. They consume grasshoppers because they’re a nutritious snack. Every 100 grams of grasshopper contains a whopping 20.6 grams of protein. That’s as much as in an equivalent weight of beef. Many people in the impoverished, rural areas of the country are malnourished. Grasshoppers provide them with a cheap, and often free, source of nutrition.
Nsenene is a perfect afternoon snack for kids. The orphans in the video tried nabbing a few hoppers even before they were done cooking. Nazareth Children’s Home was started in 1978 by a woman named Josephine. Many of the children you see were dropped off on her doorstep in the middle of the night. Today the orphanage looks after 25 orphans who range in age from 1 to 20 years old. Josephine’s still around, but one of the older orphans, Nankya Carol, has taken up most of the home’s responsibilities. Carol’s the young woman in the video frying up the grasshoppers. She makes sure that the other kids are healthy and that they go to school. She also keeps a small garden that provides food for the orphanage. Nazareth Children’s Home loves visitors so if you find yourself around Masaka visit them. Their postal address is:
If you can’t make it out to Uganda, I’ve done my best to piece together Carol’s Nsenene recipe below.
Collect grasshoppers- as many as you can catch
Peal wings and legs off
Soak in water for 15-20 minutes
Drain the water from pan
Add a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil
Fry until golden brown over medium heat
Stir occasionally to prevent burning
Add salt to taste
I’d also like to thank Lisandro Torre, a Peace Corps volunteer, who served at Nazareth Children’s Home. He’s the mysterious white hand in the movie that you see sampling the nsenene. Without his assistance, this video wouldn’t have gotten made.
The Internet is well versed on eating weird foods and Ugandan grasshopper culture is no exception. Here are some other blogs and websites on the subject. Many have their own variations to the classic nsenene recipe.
- The popular Bizarre Foods show on the Travel Channel featured grasshoppers on its Ugandan episode.
- One blogger had 9 bags of nsenene airmailed from Kampala to the States.
- This blog laments the ever-rising market price of the grasshoppers.
- The grasshopper is an important totem in the Buganda tribal clan system.
- Fascinating grasshopper facts that include their nutritional value and how high they can jump.