Annus horribilis for Jamataka’s phane people

Facing hunger: Kenalemang Hulela and a relative are among Jamataka's phane harvesters. PIC: PINI BOTHOKO
Facing hunger: Kenalemang Hulela and a relative are among Jamataka's phane harvesters. PIC: PINI BOTHOKO

Each year, the women and children of Jamataka know that the festive season brings more than shiny- bowed presents. The sight of moths aflutter in the bush veldt heralds the onset of the phane season, where the dark, thorny worms will be plucked for profits. However, this year Mmegi Correspondent, PINI BOTHOKO, notes that times have changed.

For the womenfolk of Jamataka, the natural resources around their rural village are virtually the source of their livelihood.

A pall of poverty has hung over the 600-plus residents of the village, located along the Francistown/Orapa road, for decades since its establishment, breeding the social ills of youth unemployment and misbehaviour.

While some youth hang about idling, drinking alcohol and smoking, the determined women of Jamataka forage through the bushveld in search of moretlwa, morula and any other natural profit-spinner.

Among the most lucrative – one that can be banked upon each year – is the humble mopane worm, a caterpillar that is traditionally a local delicacy within Botswana and the region. Known as infinkubala in Zambia, amacimbi in Zimbabwe and phane in Botswana, the women of Jamataka simply call it a livelihood.

Every festive season, the moths are spotted in the bushes around the village, which are dotted with morula and mophane trees. The moths mean only one thing: the laying of eggs that will become phane that will become relish and profit that will become life.

Women in this part of the country spend weeks or even months out in the thickets camping and harvesting phane, making sure that it is cooked immediately and then spread on plastic bags and left to dry.

Children too are roped in to the family business. While their mothers forage in the bush, they are left behind by the roadside to sell the dried phane to travellers.

A small cup of phane, on average, costs as little as P5 but selling enough of these will generate enough revenue to support one’s family.

This is the cycle of life in Jamataka, with late December/early January harvesting before another harvest period in April. This year, however, there is no phane and frustration has joined poverty in stalking the area. For many, Ipelegeng may be the only answer this year.

 In separate interviews recently, the women opened up and revealed that they were in dire straits due to the failure of phane this season. Dicheleketo Kaisara says back in the day, they used to collect phane starting from mid November until January, but this year they are still waiting and hoping to see the moths lay their eggs.

“We always knew that when people celebrate Christmas, we will be out camping collecting phane, but this year we do not know what went wrong,” she says worriedly.

“We are now looking further down the season for moretlwa, which we usually harvest during winter. We are hopeful because moretlwa trees are green and have started flowering.”

For her part, Mareledi Sentsho explains that the phane season has traditionally allowed her to raise money for the family’s survival. “We travelled as far as Sese village after Tonota to search for it and all in vain,” she says.

“We used to make a lot of money through sales of phane and now we know we have to try other means. We are praying for moretlwa to be available so that we can collect and sell it.”

Another harvester, Letlhogonolo Dintwa recalls turning away customers coming from Francistown in search of the nutritious caterpillar.

“It is healthy. You can eat it daily and still need it more.

“Our customers from Francistown have been coming here trying to buy as usual and have been disappointed.

“By this time, you would expect the mophane trees to only be bare branches with all leaves eaten by phane. But as you can see, the trees are all green.”

Village chief, Mosalagae Galebonwe says without the Ipelegeng programme, the area’s poverty situation would have been even worse.

“There are no job opportunities in this village,” he notes. “This has led to many residents relying on government for survival while youths spend most of their time idling and abusing alcohol.”

Ipelegeng and moretlwa stand between hunger and sustenance for the families of Jamataka, as they shake off the disappointment of the phane season and look forward.

Meanwhile, village elder Buzwani Makhotiso revealed that for the past eight years there has been shortage of phane in their village.

He attributed the phane drought to climate change, though he could not deny or confirm the prevalence of consuming the larva (Dingongoro) by residents of Jamataka and other nearby settlements. The larva is viewed as a delicacy, not only among residents of that area, but the country and even beyond where it is found.

Though he could not directly say it, Makhotiso said that as elders they did not allow harvest of Dingongoro at all. “Residents are aware that Dingongoro should not be eaten because that destroys its (Phane)’s life cycle. We have told them to rather harvest the one that will be going under ground.

“Commonly in Setswana we say,  ‘Phane ebo eya sombe’ (it pupates)”, he said.

Makhotiso blamed shortage of rainfall as having the most negative impact on the life cycle of phane. “For years we have not had reliable rainfall in our area and when it does rain, it comes as a hailstorm which then destroys the eggs laid by phane butterflies on leaves. Again, I suspect that we might not be following some traditional phane taboos (meila) that we are not aware of,” he said. He said that last year they could only collect phane as far as Nakalakgongwana cattle posts around Matsitama and Mmeya.

Footnote: Like most caterpillars, the mopane worm’s life cycle starts when it hatches in the summer, after which it proceeds to eat the foliage in its immediate vicinity. As the larva grows, it moults four times in its five larval stages, after which the mopane worm is considered most desirable for harvesting.

Provided that the larva has not been harvested after its fourth moult, it burrows underground to pupate, the stage at which it undergoes complete transformation to become the adult moth.  This stage happens over winter, for a duration of six to seven months, whereafter it emerges at the beginning of summer (November or December). The adult moths live only for three to four days, during which time they seek to mate and lay their eggs. (Wikipedia)

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

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