Lazack Kesongo steps barefoot into the shallow water of Mara River and walks slowly to the other bank to search for kirerema. Kirerema is an edible, leafy green plant that climbs like a vine on trees called macheno, which grow near rivers. Mara River is one of Tanzania’s biggest, flowing into Lake Victoria in the northwest of the country.
In the 1980s, villagers like Mr. Kesongo didn’t have to cross the river. Wild foods like mushrooms and leafy greens grew abundantly on farms and open areas in Mara Region. Local elders and district agriculture officers say that indigenous vegetables were plentiful. But today, people travel up to 20 kilometres to find these healthy and cost-free foods, some of which can be used to treat common ailments.
Mr. Kesongo has been farming for more than 30 years in Matongo, a village in Tarime district near the Mara River. He says many wild plants have medicinal properties. For example, rikororobhe is a plant with small leaves that grows near anthills.
Mr. Kesongo explains: “Rikororobhe contributes to improved blood circulation in the body, [and other local wild plants help to] cure boils or ease abdominal pains after childbirth.” These medicinal plants include muhandighonkore, rityambwi, limenyo, mgagani, and mlenda.
Defroza Hamis lives on the outskirts of a village called Kegonga B, also in Mara Region. She has used various wild plants to treat ailments. For instance, she had abdominal pains after giving birth, so she boiled the kirerema plant and drank the infusion. She says it was enough to make her feel better.
Mrs. Hamis says, “In the past, after school, parents would ask you to pick mushrooms for food, but now mushrooms are no longer available.” She says these plants became rare as the population increased, people built more houses, and cleared land for farming.
Nyabasamba Nyaiboha sells vegetables in Kegonga B village. She says that, in the past, people could easily find wild vegetables and pick them for free. But now, people have to buy them or travel at least 10 kilometres from the village to collect them in the bush.
Mrs. Nyaiboha explains: “We [now] have to walk really far to get them. We sell a handful for 200 Tanzanian shillings [US$0.09]. If you have a big family, you pay 1,000 shillings [US$0.44]. In the past, we would get them in the bush for free. But now, when you don’t have money to buy vegetables, the children go to sleep hungry.”
A number of factors may have led to the disappearance of these wild plants. Some people chop them down and make no effort to preserve them. Roaming livestock also step on the plants, which destroys them.
Njonga William is the natural resources officer for Tarime district. He says that indigenous vegetation has disappeared because of deforestation and climate change.
Mr. William adds: “There should be a policy that if a person cuts down a tree, they have to show that they have planted a [replacement] tree. When one wants to keep animals, experts should determine if the area is suitable for animal keeping. Different sectors should be involved and work together.”
Doto Mungo is the environment officer for Tarime district. He says industrial fertilizers have contributed to the problem by reducing soil fertility. He points out that foreign tree species such as eucalyptus absorb a lot of water from the soil, which may also affect the health and survival of indigenous species.
John Marwa has another theory. Mr. Marwa is the secretary of Tarime district council. He says that indigenous vegetables are disappearing because they have been displaced by new species of vegetables such as cabbage. He adds that youth dislike eating the indigenous varieties that used to sustain their elders.
Holding up a bunch of leafy kirerema, Lazack Kesongo says he and other residents want to learn how to encourage these indigenous foods to grow near the village. He adds: “People should be trained in how to protect the environment to help preserve these local vegetables, because they are very nutritious and they are less expensive compared to other varieties.”
Uniterra provided funding for this story. Uniterra Tanzania works with local partners in the fruit and vegetable and tourism sub-sectors to help young people and women access better economic opportunities. Uniterra receives financial support from the Government of Canada, provided through Global Affairs Canada, www.international.gc.ca. Learn more and follow Uniterra Tanzania on Facebook at: facebook.com/wusctanzania