Ant Culture and Cuisine in Africa, 19th Century and Now

Termite mounds. Ant underground and above ground abodes are similar. Source: Liebig

Nearly all the 19th Century explorers in Africa mention the ants – their destructiveness, painfulness when biting people, and use as food.  Here are some passages from Stanley and from Livingstone, discussing these things.

From Stanley’s Journals:

…Emerging from the jungle, we entered a thin forest, where numerous ant-hills were seen like so many sand-dunes. I imagine that these ant-hills were formed during a remarkably wet season, when, possibly, the forest-clad plain was inundated. I have seen the ants at work by thousands, engaged in the work of erecting their hills in other districts suffering from inundation. What a wonderful system of cells these tiny insects construct! A perfect labyrinth—cell within cell, room within room, hall within hall—an exhibition of engineering talents and high architectural capacity—a model city, cunningly contrived for safety and comfort!

… Second to the earwigs in importance and in numbers were the white ants, whose powers of destructiveness were simply awful. Mats, cloth, portmanteaus, clothes, in short, every article I possessed, seemed on the verge of destruction, and, as I witnessed their voracity, I felt anxious lest my tent should be devoured while I slept. This was the first khambi since leaving the coast where their presence became a matter of anxiety; at all other camping places hitherto the red and black ants had usurped our attention, but at Mpwapwa the red species were not seen, while the black were also very scarce.

…The stores this man had detained at Unyanyembe were in a most sorry state. … The white ants had not only eaten up bodily the box in which the guns were packed, but they had also eaten the gunstocks. The barrels were corroded, and the locks were quite destroyed. The brandy bottles, most singular to relate, had also fallen a prey to the voracious and irresistible destroyers the white ants—…. Two bottles of brandy and one small zinc case of medicines only were saved out of the otherwise utter wreck.

Stanley, H.M. HOW I FOUND LIVINGSTONE. Travels, Adventures and Discoveries in Central Africa including four months residence with Dr. Livingstone. c.1871


From Livingstone’s Journals:

18th October, 1869

A whole regiment of Soldier ants in my hut were put into a panic by a detachment of Driver ants called Sirufu. The Chungu or black soldiers rushed out with their eggs and young, putting them down and running for more. A dozen Sirafu pitched on one Chungu and killed him. The Chungu made new quarters for themselves.

When the white ants cast off their colony of winged emigrants a canopy is erected like an umbrella over the ant-hill. As soon as the ants fly against the roof they tumble down in a shower and their wings instantly become detached from their bodies. They are then helpless, and are swept up in baskets to be fried, when they make a very palatable food.

Catching Ants. Source: Livingstone, Last Journals... Vol.2

Livingstone, The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, Volume 2 (of 2), 1866-1868.

This is the method of catching white ants that is used today, as the following picture shows.  I took the picture upcountry in an area where I go to do training from time to time:

A flying ant 'cage' in upcountry Burundi. Captured ants are grilled and sold, or retained for future use.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, Explorers & exploration, Food, Recipes. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Ant Culture and Cuisine in Africa, 19th Century and Now

  1. Diane says:

    This was fascinating to read. Thank you.


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