HARARE – Zimbabwe’s rainy season brings an abundance of wild mushrooms, which many rural families feast on and sell to supplement their incomes.
But the reward is also fraught with danger, as every year there are reports of people dying after eating poisonous mushrooms. The distinction between safe and toxic mushrooms has evolved into an intergenerational transmission of indigenous knowledge from mothers to daughters. Rich in protein, antioxidants and fiber, wild mushrooms are a prized delicacy and source of income in Zimbabwe, where food and formal work are scarce for many.
Vaisoni, a 46-year-old beauty who lives on the outskirts of the capital Harare, usually wakes at dawn, gathers plastic buckets, a basket, plates and a knife before heading into the forest 15 kilometers (9 miles) away.
Her 13-year-old daughter, Beverly, is a struggling student. In the forest, they join other foragers, mostly women, who work side by side with their children, combing through the morning dew for sprouts under the trees and dead leaves.
The police regularly warn people about the dangers of using wild mushrooms. In January, three girls in one family died after eating poisonous wild mushrooms. Such reports are filtered every season. A few years ago, 10 members of a family died after eating poisonous mushrooms.
To avoid such a fatal outcome, Vaisoni teaches her daughter how to identify safe mushrooms.
“It will kill people and businesses if it gets it wrong,” said Vaisoni, who says she started picking wild mushrooms as a child. Within hours, her baskets and buckets are filled with little red and brown buttons covered in dirt.
Women like Waisoni are the dominant players in Zimbabwe’s mushroom trade, said Vander Ngezimana, associate professor of horticulture at Marandera University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology.
“Mostly women were going, and they usually go with their daughters. They pass down indigenous knowledge from one generation to another,” Ngezimano told the Associated Press.
They distinguish edible mushrooms from poisonous ones by breaking open and revealing a “milky oozing fluid” and by scrutinizing the color underneath and on top of the mushrooms, he said. They also look for good collection points, such as anthills, areas near certain native tree species and decaying baobab trees, he said.
According to a 2021 study by Ngezimana and his university colleagues, around one in four women who harvest wild mushrooms are often accompanied by daughters. In “only a few cases” — 1.4% — mothers were accompanied by boys.
“Mothers were more knowledgeable about wild edible mushrooms than their father counterparts,” the researchers noted. The researchers interviewed about 100 people and observed mushroom picking in Bingo, an area in western Zimbabwe where growing Zimbabwe’s staple food, maize, is largely unviable due to drought and poor land quality. Many families in Bingo are too poor to afford basic food and other items.
So the mushroom season is important for the family. According to the study, on average, each family earned just over $100 a month from selling wild mushrooms, in addition to consuming food for their family.
Due in large part to harsh weather conditions, about a quarter of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are food insecure, meaning they are unsure where they will get their next meal, according to aid agencies. According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe has one of the world’s highest rates of food inflation at 264%.
To promote safe mushroom consumption and year-round income generation, the government promotes small-scale commercial production of certain species, such as oyster mushrooms.
But, apparently, wild ones remain the most popular.
“They go in as the ultimate delicacy. Even the flavor is completely different from the flavor of the mushrooms we make commercially, so people love them and in the process the community makes money,” said Ngezimano.
Vaisoni, a Harare-based trader, says the wild mushrooms have helped her get her children to school as well as survive the harsh economic conditions that have plagued Zimbabwe for the past two decades.
Her pre-dawn trip to the forest marks just the beginning of a day-long process. From the bush, Wysoni heads towards the busy highway. Using a knife and water, she cleans the mushrooms before joining fierce competition from other mushroom traders in the hope of attracting passing motorists.
The motorist shouted frantically to warn the roadside traders to move away. Instead, salespeople rushed forward, tripping over each other in hopes of earning a sale.
One motorist, Simbisai Rusenya, stopped and said that he could not pass by the seasonal forest mushrooms. But knowing the reports of deaths from the poison, he needed some convincing before buying.
“Looks appetizing, but won’t it kill my family?” he asked.
Vaisoni picked a button at random from her basket and calmly chewed on it to calm him down. “See?” she said, “It’s safe!”
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