African Tales – Caterpillars

June 7 – In a kopje in the area was a cave called Mlevu’s Cave, a cave where African Christians had hidden the belongings of the white missionaries who had fled to Bulawayo during the Second Matabele War. After the rebellion was over, the missionaries returned to the mission and got their things back safely.


Msasa caterpillars

I remember being in that cave several times, and once I had cause to regret being in there. Unnoticed by me was a large cluster of hairy caterpillars that were spending the day hanging upside down from the cave ceiling. My head and back brushed against them at some point, causing many of their irritation hairs to fall down inside my shirt. What a lot of itchy welts I had to cope with after that!

There were another species of large moth living in that country that also had very large (and hairy) caterpillars. They spent their days motionless in groups on tree trunks, and ate leaves by night. They were pretty things, some golden and some silvery in color, but their hairs were irritating and poisonous and one encounter with those kept one on the lookout for the caterpillars ever after. Even their cocoons were not to be handled because they were composed of those same hairs stuck together with caterpillar silk.

Mopane worms ready for sale

Mopane worms ready for sale

Speaking of caterpillars reminds me of a more useful and less harmful caterpillar that was very common in Rhodesia among the mopane trees. They were large, greenish caterpillars that eventually turned into large moths, providing they were not first eaten first!

Many of the local Africans loved to eat them and would collect them by the hundreds when they were in season, stripping the innards out by hand and retaining the outer skin and flesh to take home and cook for supper. These are still available today, commercially canned, in stores in Zimbabwe.

They also ate termites, certain large crickets, and locusts. When the locust swarms would arrive and descend upon fields and villages, villagers would rush out and capture all they could and dry them for future use. Which was only fair, since the locusts were devouring their crops! One year there was a mild famine in Northern Rhodesia and the missionaries had to find something to feed the students at Rusangu Mission. They went out into the surrounding villages and bought up bags of dried locusts, and also some of the missionary men took their rifles and went out into the wild country and shot Cape buffalo and took the meat back to the mission. Quite a diet for students, eh?

Locust swarm

Locust swarm

I still remember a couple of locust swarms that passed over the mission where we were at the time, and looking up at the vast numbers of those insects going overhead and darkening the sun. Many of them would come down and settle on anything green and eat it, while the swarm above kept flying on looking for more food. When the food was all eaten, the locusts would fly back up and join the swarm still passing overhead. Africans would be out shouting and yelling and waving branches at them, but locusts are deaf and just kept eating the crops. Behind the swarm would be rows of locust birds, big storks, flying along and gobbling the locusts as they came to them in the air. Nowadays, thanks to spraying and poisons and other means of control, locusts are not nearly as serious a pest as they used to be. – DALE

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2 Responses to African Tales – Caterpillars

  1. MaitoMike says:

    Thank you for stopping by my blog! I was just about to comment that I’ve never seen caterpillars that big before! I enjoyed the history about the caves, but I don’t know how I would’ve felt or reacted had I encountered a hairy cluster of insects.


  2. Michael Dube says:

    They call them zvikukwa in shona, very dangerous and harmful, even those who would want to cut trees use a method of getting them off


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