Mice as a Delicacy
The Significance of Mice in the Diet of the Tumbuka, People of Eastern Zambia
The hunting and eating of mice is very deeply entrenched in the customs and traditions of the Tumbuka people of Eastern rural Zambia. As a delicacy, mice might be offered with the nshima staple traditional meal, which is cooked by boiling plain water and stirring corn meal into it until the mixture is thick. The meal with mice might be served to guests, other respected elders, or eaten by the family as a special treat. A shrewd housewife will know to properly budget and ration the mice. If there is a difficult choice a wise wife who is worth her esteem is expected to reserve some for her husband if she loves and respects him. Common expressions among the Tumbuka include a couple yearning or wishing for a baby boy so that he can kill mice for them when he grows up. Parents chastise boys who bully their little sisters by telling them: "Who is going to cook mice for you when you grow up?" One of the traditional criteria for a boy growing to manhood was the ability to dig for and kill mice. If a child is running and accidentally trips and falls, an adult will console the child by dusting him or her and saying: "Never mind, you killed a mouse."
There is a famous legend among the Tumbuka that illustrates how embedded the mouse consumption as a dietary practice is in the culture of the people. A man went to the fields and caught six mice. He brought them home to the village for his wife to cook. They were nicely dried. The man ate two of them with nshima and enjoyed them a great deal. The next meal, to the husband’s chagrin, he was served the nshima meal with delele green leaf vegetables. He angrily summoned his wife for an explanation. The husband stated that there were six mice, he had only eaten two. He asked where the other four had gone. The poor wife explained that she and the children had eaten two and her uncle and other guests who had visited earlier had eaten the other two. The husband proceeded to give the wife a beating for being so irresponsible. The wife proceeded to wail saying that her brute of a husband was killing her because of mbeba or mice.
In the village court, the elders severely rebuked the husband. He was so disgraced in his village and those surrounding ones because he was trying to run w hat was going on in the kitchen and particularly the kitchen pot which was hardly a man’s responsibility. From that time, men never count pieces of meat in the kitchen pot be it beef, chicken, small birds, or eggs. The mice legend plays many functions among the Tumbuka people. It defines limits of behavior between married men and women, reaffirms sexual division of labor and responsibilities, and discourages excesses in terms of husbands physically abusing their wives. The punishment for an erring husband will be public shame and disgrace.