Fishing culture in Binga: Indigenous foods – from source to table

By Tandi Pilani

Some weeks ago many of us commemorated Africa month and I was overcome with nostalgia. A trip down memory lane reminded me of the continent’s rich resources. Natural resources! Healthy eating and nutrition are important subjects nowadays as we become more and more conscious of what we eat, and promote sustainable farming  #organic food. My high school experience in Zimbabwe was influential.  The A level Food Studies syllabus project involved independent research.  I chose to focus on the introduction of traditional foods into the modern diet. You may ask yourselves why so. I came up with the topic owing to my relationship with food from childhood. 

Traditional food memories, my inspiration

Top of the list is umfushwa as it is called by amaNdebele (people from the south-western part of Zimbabwe). The preparation involves cooking and sun drying green leafy vegetables such as the kale variety including Chou moellier. This preservative method is symbolic of my mother’s upbringing and she passed this on to my siblings and I. Secondly, Pumpkin leaves, Cucurbitaceae Telfairia, (Ibhobola in isiNdebele) are characterised by their large lobes and prickly spines. They are a good source of calcium, iron, folate, magnesium, protein, vitamins A, B and C. Thirdly, the ultimate comfort dish, steamed mealie bread, commonly accompanied with additions like vegetables and meat, was a treat especially in the winter months.

The creative in me decided to use my project as a way to try out four new dishes. 1)Melon jam, 2)Pumpkin cake, 3) Snot apple powder, (snot apple is Uxakuxaku in IsiNdebele. A friend humorously admitted that trying to pronounce the word really tested her tounge clicking abilities) 4) Caterpillar biscuits. I thoroughly enjoyed the product development experience, however, that conversation is to follow in a future post.

Today is about fish. The Zambezi River hosts a school of fish including Tilapia, Bream, Kapenta and Swordfish. The river is en-route to the Indian Ocean and flows through six countries, Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. My experience in Binga, the north-western part of Zimbabwe, incited more curiosity around indigenous foods. The optimum times for fishing are between March and August and the BaTonga, located in Binga, rely on fish as a good source of protein.

Traditionally it was the Tonga women who fished using Zubo baskets. However, the ethnic group was displaced by the construction of the Kariba dam during colonial times. 2012 marked the year when the women were able to engage in fishing projects again, a most welcome development since the resettlement in the late 1950s. With the help of the Bbindawuko Women Fishing Project the women were able to take up their spaces in the male dominated industry.

A collaboration between Zubo Trust and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs brought together three women’s organisations managing the aquaculture agricultural initiatives. The women were trained about the value of forming an association, a platform to raise their concerns at the meetings with the fisher-men where conversations about fishing projects took place. This was a necessary move as fishing is now male dominated and it is important that the women speak with a collective voice.

Fish farming project

Times have been difficult, severe drought coupled with hyperinflation has negatively affected the members of the Bbindawuko Women Fishing Cooperative. The drying up of the Zambezi River resulted in low kapenta catches and the water levels in the river have been decreasing since August 2019. This has had a devastating effect on the environment. Additionally, it has been impossible to keep up with the running costs of the rigs as well as the National Park remittances. The fishing rigs are not fully operational and the constant breakdowns have led to the women discontinuing their fish trading activities.

Consumption of fish locally

Although Kariba bream (Tilapia) and Kapenta fish are available, people now consume more beef than fish. This is based on a recent small sample survey of a 100 people. The shift towards beef is mostly for economic reasons.

Market consumption based on 100 people

“Original Tonga Traditional Cooking Methods”

The fish would be oiled and laid on twigs placed at the base of the pot. The twigs were placed on the base of a clay pot and the fish was laid on top.  Green leafy small vegetables known as “Chamudonga” in ChiTonga grow naturally on river banks. The vegetables would be prepared using the steaming method for a few minutes. Clay is a good conductor of heat and the food can be kept warm for up to three hours after cooking. Typically the fish could be served with rice, steamed potatoes or a maize meal thick porridge, isitshwala.

A variation to the above dish would instead incorporate an onion and tomato sauce and the addition of a flavour enhancer Hibiscus sabdariffa, popularly known as Rosella, a versatile plant that grows naturally in Binga. Alternatively used to add colour to jams and syrups, it has a high vitamin C content.  

Fish oil as prevalent in these traditional cooking methods would be extracted from the initial cooking process and preserved for future use. Fish has natural oils and is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. Commonly fish and other meat products would be served with a variation of a thick porridge whose base ingredient would be maize, millet, sorghum or rapoko. Thick porridge is a staple consistency of dried grains cooked in water. In ChiTonga that consistency is called Insima, the most popular being  Insima yamayila (amabele/sorghum) and Insima yanzembwe (inyawuthi/millet). The diet is highly nutritional.

The benefits of fish
Fish is a natural source of protein, omega oils, B-complex vitamins, vitamin D and vitamin A and micro-nutrients such as zinc, iodine and iron. Inspired by the delicious Zambezi bream that I was served during my stay, I decided to improvise and come up with a recipe. I substituted the River Bream for Sea Bream and made a Sea-bream & Lemongrass dish.


2 boneless sea bream

For the marinade
4 tablespoons of olive oil

I tsp of chopped ginger

1 stalk of lemon grass

1 sprig of fresh thyme

½ lemon squeezed

2 cloves of garlic ( finely chopped)

Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Mix all the marinade ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Peel the stalks and then bash the stalks with a rolling pin, this will break down the cell structure and make easy the release of the aromatic flavours.
  3. Marinate the fish for approximately 30 minutes so that the flavours seep in.
  4. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celcius/Gas Mark 6 (10 min before cooking time)
  5. Wrap the marinated fish in very lightly oiled aluminium foil and place in the middle shelf of the oven.
  6. Cook for 17 minutes. Serve with seasonal vegetables.
  7. My side dishes were roast potatoes, butternut and green beans, with a lemon grass sauce

Lemongrass, scientific name – Cymbopogn of the  Poaceae family grows naturally in Binga. Introducing the herb into my recipes was particularly motivated by the fact that it is grown by the Zubo women.  The complexities of the continental drift are so interesting, for instance one would not commonly associate the botanics such as lemongrass from Asia to Binga in Africa. The multifunctional herb is not only known for its culinary uses but also for its skincare and remedial uses.

Lemongrass growing in Zubo’s Nutrition Garden


I have come full circle. My high school studies have connected me to the work I do now. The intersections between malnutrition, gender and household dynamics are apparent. Marginalised communities have to maintain sustainable methods of farming. Rural women play a central role in food production but face many constraints, for example the cessation of the fish farming project referred to earlier due to environmental and financial challenges. The low kapenta catches cited reinforce the importance of biodiversity. Organisations such as The World Fish Centre support initiatives for rural women. Many parallels can be drawn with the countries where the research is conducted.

Indigenous foods certainly have a place in our diets today. We need to make conscious efforts to advance sustainable development. Documentation of traditional food systems is critical and should be passed on to future generations. I am of the opinion that the relationship between food and culture is intimate. There is so much one can learn from inter-generational stories about traditional foods. Lately I have been positively influenced by the Chef and Author of Through the Eyes of an African Chef, a self-published cookbook by Nompumelo Mqwebu. This great piece of work received the Gourmand Best In The World Cookbook Award.  Mqwebu’s passion for the promotion of preserving African traditional cooking is indubitible. I follow her work and she challenges me to think more of how to address malnutrition with readily available produce.  It is about creatively incorporating indigenous foods into our daily diets.

The journey goes on, I am keen to engage more on projects which document and appreciate indigenous foods. Traditional foods need a renaissance. Living in contemporary times means not to lose our culinary heritage.

#womeninfishfarming #foodsecurity #socialinnovation #livelihoods #teachinglanguagethroughfood #sustainabledevelopmentgoals

4 thoughts on “Fishing culture in Binga: Indigenous foods – from source to table

  1. Nutrition, culture, lifestyle and gender all at once yet not overbearing. You blog and your content is refreshing. I’m learning so much about a country I was born and raised in. We have a culture to preserve and to elevate and that’s where I think you’re headed to

    Liked by 1 person

  2. i much enjoyed this article. You really take a reader along here with personal experience and professional expertise; and links to interesting resources. Am looking forward to another installment. This is your subject! And i agree with you, indigenous food and from the African continent in particular is a great resource yet to be explored and highlighted. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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