In Zimbabwe, women forage for wild mushrooms during the rainy season

HARARE, Zimbabwe — The rainy season in Zimbabwe brings the bounty of wild mushrooms, which many rural families feast on and sell to supplement their income.

But the rewards also come with dangers, as there are reports every year of people dying after eating poisonous mushrooms. Distinguishing between safe and poisonous mushrooms is an intergenerational transmission of indigenous knowledge from mothers to daughters. Rich in protein, antioxidants and fiber, wild mushrooms are a revered delicacy and income earner in Zimbabwe, where food and formal jobs are scarce for many.

Waisoni, a 46-year-old beauty who lives on the outskirts of the capital Harare, usually wakes up at dawn and packs plastic buckets, a basket, plates and a knife before traveling to the forest 15 kilometers (9 miles) away.

His 13-year-old daughter, Beverly, follows him as a valet. In the forest, the two of them join the other pickers, mostly women working side by side with their children, combing through the morning dew to shoot under the trees and dead leaves.

Police regularly warn people about the dangers of eating wild mushrooms. In January, three girls in a family died after eating poisonous wild mushrooms. Such reports filter through every season. A few years ago, 10 family members died from eating poisonous mushrooms.

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To avoid such a fatal outcome, Waisoni teaches her daughter how to identify safe mushrooms.

“It’s going to kill people and the business if you do it wrong,” said Waisoni, who said she started picking wild mushrooms as a young girl. Within hours, your baskets and buckets are filled with little red and brown buttons covered in dirt.

Wonder Ngezimana, associate professor of horticulture at Marondera University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, key players in Zimbabwe’s mushroom trade, such as Waisoni.

“Predominantly women were collectors and usually with their daughters. They pass down indigenous knowledge from one generation to the next,” Ngezimana told The Associated Press.

Edible mushrooms are distinguished from poisonous ones by cracking them open and detecting the “ooze of a milky liquid” and by examining the color of the underside and top of the mushroom, he said. They also look for good collection sites, such as anthills, areas near certain native trees and decaying baobab trees, he said.

According to research conducted by Ngezimana and colleagues at the university in 2021, about one in four women foraging for wild mushrooms is often accompanied by her daughter. “In only a few cases” – 1.4% – the mothers were accompanied by a male child.

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“Mothers were more knowledgeable about wild edible mushrooms than their counterparts – fathers,” the researchers noted. The researchers interviewed nearly 100 people and observed mushroom gathering in Binga, a district in western Zimbabwe where the cultivation of Zimbabwe’s staple food, maize, is largely unviable due to drought and poor soil quality. Many families in Binga are too poor to afford basic food and other items.

The mushroom season is therefore important for families. According to the research, on average each family earned just over $100 per month from selling wild mushrooms, in addition to relying on mushrooms for their own household food consumption.

Aid agencies say about a quarter of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are food insecure, largely due to harsh weather conditions, meaning they are unsure where they will get their next meal. According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe has one of the highest food inflation rates in the world at 264 percent.

In order to promote safe mushroom consumption and year-round income generation, the government supports the small-scale commercial production of certain varieties, such as oyster mushrooms.

But wild ones still seem to be the most popular.

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“They come in as a better delicacy. Even the smell is completely different from the mushroom commercially, so people love it and communities make money in the process,” said Ngezimana.

Waisoni, a trader in Harare, says wild mushrooms have helped him send his children to school and weather Zimbabwe’s harsh economic conditions over the past two decades.

Your pre-dawn trip to the forest is just the beginning of a day-long process. From the bush, Waisoni heads towards a busy highway. He cleans the mushroom with a knife and water before joining the fierce competition of other mushroom sellers, hoping to attract passing motorists.

A speeding motorist honked his horn frantically to warn traders on the side of the road to move away. Instead, the sellers stepped forward and tripped over each other in hopes of making a sale.

One motorist, Simbisai Rusenya, stopped and said he could not pass through the seasonal forest mushrooms. But being aware of the reported poisoning deaths, he had to be convinced before buying.

“Looks appetizing, but won’t it kill my family?” asked.

Waisoni casually took out a button from his basket and calmly chewed it to appease him. “You see?” he said “Safe!”