HARARE, Zimbabwe –
Zimbabwe’s rainy season brings with it a bonanza of wild mushrooms, which many rural families eat and sell to boost their income.
But the bounties also come with dangers, as every year there are reports of people dying after eating poisonous mushrooms. The distinction between safe and poisonous mushrooms has evolved into an intergenerational transfer of indigenous knowledge from mothers to daughters. Rich in protein, antioxidants and fiber, wild mushrooms are a revered delicacy and income generator in Zimbabwe, where food and formal jobs are scarce for many.
Beauty Waisoni, 46, who lives on the outskirts of the capital Harare, usually wakes up at dawn, packing plastic buckets, a basket, plates and a knife before hiking into a forest 15 kilometers away.
Their 13-year-old daughter Beverly is in tow as an apprentice. In the forest they are joined by the other two pickers, mostly women, who work side by side with their children, combing the morning dew for sprouts under trees and dried leaves.
Police routinely 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 each season. A few years ago, 10 family members died after eating poisonous mushrooms.
To avoid such a deadly outcome, Waisoni teaches her daughter to identify safe mushrooms.
“She’ll kill people and the business if she gets it wrong,” said Waisoni, who says she started collecting wild mushrooms as a young girl. Within a few hours, their baskets and buckets fill up with small red and brown knobs covered in dirt.
Women like Waisoni are dominant players in the mushroom trade in Zimbabwe, said Wonder Ngezimana, associate professor of horticulture at Marondera University of Agricultural Science and Technology.
“Mostly women were gatherers and usually go there with their daughters. They pass on the knowledge of the indigenous people from one generation to another,” Ngezimana told The Associated Press.
They distinguish edible mushrooms from poisonous ones by breaking open and detecting “milk-like liquids that ooze out” and examining the color underneath and on top of the mushrooms, he said. They also look for good gathering spots like anthills, areas near certain species of native trees and decomposing baobab trees, he said.
According to research conducted by Ngezimana and colleagues at the university in 2021, about one in four women searching for wild mushrooms are often accompanied by their daughters. In “only a few cases” – 1.4 percent – mothers were accompanied by a young child.
“Mothers were better informed about wild edible mushrooms than their fellow fathers,” the researchers found. The researchers interviewed nearly 100 people and observed mushroom picking in Binga, a district in western Zimbabwe where growing maize, Zimbabwe’s staple crop, is largely unprofitable due to drought and poor soil quality. Many families in the binga are too poor to afford basic groceries and other necessities.
So the mushroom season is important for the families. According to the study, each family made an average of just over $100 a month selling wild mushrooms, in addition to relying on the mushrooms for their own household food consumption.
About a quarter of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are food insecure, largely due to the harsh weather conditions, meaning they are unsure where their next meal will come from, aid organizations say. According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe has one of the highest food inflation rates in the world at 264 percent.
To encourage safe mushroom consumption and year-round income generation, the government encourages small-scale commercial production of certain species, such as oyster mushrooms.
But it seems the wild ones remain the most popular.
“They are a better delicacy. Even the flavor is totally different from that of the mushroom that we produce from a commercial point of view, so people love them and the communities make some money from it,” Ngezimana said.
Waisoni, the trader in Harare, says the wild mushrooms have helped her get her children through school and also weather the harsh economic conditions that have plagued Zimbabwe over the past two decades.
Your pre-dawn excursion into the forest marks just the beginning of a day-long process. From the bush, Waisoni walks to a busy highway. Using a knife and water, she cleans the mushrooms before joining stiff competition from other mushroom vendors hoping to lure passing motorists.
A speeding motorist honked his horn frantically to warn roadside vendors to pull away. Instead, sellers charged forward and tripped over each other in hopes of making a sale.
A motorist, Simbisai Rusenya, stopped and said he couldn’t get past the seasonal wild mushrooms. But, being aware of the reported deaths from toxins, he had to be persuaded before buying.
“Looks appetizing, but won’t it kill my family?” he asked.
Waisoni happened to take a button from her basket and quietly chewed it to calm him down. “See?” she said, “It’s safe!”