HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Zimbabwe’s rainy season brings a bounty of wild mushrooms, which many rural families feast on and sell to supplement their incomes.
But the reward also comes with danger as there are reports of people dying from eating the poisonous fungus every year. Distinguishing between safe and poisonous mushrooms has evolved in the inter-generational transfer of indigenous knowledge from mothers to daughters. Rich in protein, antioxidants and fibre, wild mushrooms are a revered delicacy and income earner in Zimbabwe, where food and formal jobs are scarce for many.
Beauty Vaisoni, 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 walking 15 kilometers (9 miles) into the forest.
An intern has her 13-year-old daughter, Beverly, in tow. In the forest, the two are joined by other pickers, mainly women working side by side with their children, combing through morning dew for shoots under trees and dry leaves.
Police regularly warn the public about the dangers of eating wild mushrooms. In January, three girls of a family died after consuming poisonous wild mushrooms. Such reports are filtered by each season. A few years ago, 10 members of the family died after eating poisonous mushrooms.
To avoid such a fatal outcome, Vaisoni teaches her daughter to identify safe mushrooms.
“She’ll kill people, and businesses, if she gets it wrong,” said Vasoni, who says she started picking wild mushrooms as a young girl. Within hours, her baskets and buckets are filled with tiny red and brown buttons covered in dirt.
Women like Vaisoni are key players in Zimbabwe’s mushroom trade, said Wonder Ngezimana, an associate professor of horticulture at the Marondera University of Agricultural Science and Technology.
“Mainly women have been the collectors and they usually go with their daughters. They transfer indigenous knowledge from one generation to the next,” Ngezimana told The Associated Press.
He states that he distinguishes edible mushrooms from poisonous ones by breaking the “milky ooze” and by examining the color of the bottom and top of the mushroom. They also look for good collection points such as anthills, areas near certain types of indigenous trees, and rotting baobab trees, he said.
Nearly one in four women forage for wild mushrooms, often with their daughters, according to 2021 research by Ngezimana and colleagues at the university. In a “few cases” – 1.4% – the mothers had a boy.
“Mothers had better knowledge of wild edible mushrooms than their counterparts — fathers,” the researchers said. The researchers interviewed nearly 100 people and observed mushroom collection in Binga, a district in western Zimbabwe where drought and poor land quality make growing Zimbabwe’s staple food, maize, largely unviable. Many families in Binga are too poor to afford basic food and other items.
That’s why mushroom season is important for families. According to research, on average each household earned more than $100 per month from selling wild mushrooms, in addition to relying on the fungus for their household food consumption.
Due to harsh weather conditions, about a quarter of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are food insecure, according to aid agencies, meaning they are not sure where their next meal will come from. According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe has one of the highest rates of food inflation in the world at 264%.
To promote safe consumption of mushrooms and year-round income generation, the government is promoting small-scale commercial production of certain types of oyster mushrooms.
But it appears that wild ones are the most popular.
“They come across as a better delicacy. Even the aroma is completely different from the mushrooms we do on the commercial aspect, so people love them and in the process the community earns some money,” Ngezimana he said.
Harare trader Vaisoni says wild mushrooms have helped him send his children to school and also weather Zimbabwe’s harsh economic conditions over the past two decades.
Her pre-dawn trip to the woods is just the beginning of a daylong process. From the bush, Vaisoni leads to a busy highway. Using a knife and water, she cleans the mushrooms before joining stiff competition from other mushroom sellers hoping to attract passing motorists.
A speeding motorist hooted loudly to warn roadside traders to move away. Instead, vendors charge back and forth, tripping over each other in hopes of scoring a sale.
A motorist, Simbisai Rusenya, stopped and said he could not pass the seasonal wild mushrooms. But, after learning about the deaths from the poisoned ones, he needed some convincing before buying.
“Looks delicious, but won’t it kill my family?” He asked.
Vasoni randomly picked up a button from his basket and chewed it calmly to reassure him. “saw?” She said, “It’s safe!”