Childhood City Adventures: Nature Trails and Wild Fruit Harvesting

Part of Soche Hill

Part of Soche Hill


For a balance, it might be better to highlight a few adventures that were endorsed by the parents. This is in sharp contrast to the ones that have been covered by the last two articles. These articles are about fond memories of the yesteryears when as a child growing up in the Nkolokosa neighbourhood in Blantyre, I had plenty of pleasant afternoons with fellow boys spent exploring nature around us.

Nkolokosa has two parts – A and B, or 1 and 2. We were staying in Nkolokosa B also called Nkolokosa 2. Our house was House KS/302, and just across the street, it was facing Houses KS/2 and KS/3. Behind these houses was an open area with a perennial stream that separated the two parts of the neighbourhood. I was born across the river but moved to the other side as a 5 year old. This was our backyard, and a stage for many games, adventures, explorations and hunting sprees.

My favourite of all was taking a nature trail walk along the stream. This was 100% endorsed by the parents. We started with exploring part of the stream around the pedestrian bridge that connected the two areas of our location. This was a makeshift bridge that took all sorts of shapes. Sometimes it was just a couple of logs put next to each other. Sometimes it was a rickety wooden affair. And at other times, it was a row of huge rocks with ominous gaps in-between. Whatever the shape of the bridge, the waters below offered hours of fun. Sometimes the stream would be allowed to flow unabated. And at one time, it was partially blocked and a pool was created. I don’t recall the purpose of this exercise, only that it provided more surface area for us to explore.

I took interest in catching tadpoles and keeping them at home. There was no sign of any fish, so the tadpoles were just fine. Then this expanded to catching crabs, water skitters, and water scorpions. However, the best catch was nsambi-nsambi. These agile swimmers, also known as water boatman in English (or perhaps water beetle), were the most difficult to corner, as they could easily dive, turn and twist at a moment’s notice. The best way to catch them was to lower down both arms into the water with capped palms facing upward, and gently let them swim into the trap. Then once within range, you’d have to quickly excavate the water – the faster the better the chances of getting them. Using palms was much better than using a plastic bottle cut open on one side, which would then be lowered into the pool upside down.

Then slowly we started venturing out in both directions of the stream. Soon our curiosity got ahold of us, and prompted us to hunt for the source. Eventually, we found it outside our neighbourhood at some swampy bog. Having satisfied our curiosity, we turned in the other direction and followed it downstream. It turned out this part was more dangerous than the swampy source. What had started as gully erosion became a yawning chasm that could easily swallow a two story house. It took a couple of attempts to determine the best way forward. We could either walk above the trench – the most obvious choice. Or we could walk next to the stream or in the stream. The latter proved scary at some point. We reverted to the obvious choice.

All this was not a one day affair. It took several iterations, and each cycle had its pleasant surprises. The vines, large crabs, super high-jump frogs and other fascinations held our attention. There were also moments of fright. As a result, I had to change a few partners until one day the entire stream was traced to where it joined Naperi River as a tributary. Naperi River ran as a boundary on the other side of Nkolokosa. And when I tried to explore it with my cousin Richard, we came across a human skull that had been exhumed from an old cemetery by flush floods. We took off like startled gazelle and the scare managed to quench our curiosity for a while.

And then there was wild fruit harvesting. Despite having bananas and other fruits at home, the appeal for wild fruits held sway. I think it was a romantic idea that allowed us to escape the city life and let us imagine ourselves foraging like the ancient men. The best of the fruits were monkey sweets, which are also called masuku in the vernacular. These brown round fruits with a thick kernel have a tasty yellowish cream paste, sweet to the tongue and packed with a melancholic aroma. Monkeys and people alike enjoy having this seasonal fruit, and when in season it is found in many local markets across the country. In our case, we did not want the ones bought at the market, no, we wanted to venture out in the wild and harvest them ourselves.

The best spot for monkey sweets was Soche hill, the nearest high elevation to the south of our neighbourhood. At that time the hill was covered with beautiful indigenous trees. Alas, it is not the case anymore these days. Wanton illegal harvesting has cleared the hill bare. The few trees trying to come back hardly reach teenage years before meeting the cruel end of an axe or a machete.

The other wild fruits included mpinimbi, which looks like the poisonous fruit from Gmelina arborea or malaina in Chichewa. But these ones, when ripe are black inside, sweet and taste like violet (I imagine that’s the taste of the colour violet). After indulging, mpinimbi would leave your mouth, teeth and tongue pitch black. It was a sight of amusement, and endless laughter. Though it was easy to find wild custard apple at the village, it wasn’t an easy hunt in the forests around our neighbourhood. Then there was jakjak fruit, or matowo. This fruit with a thick grey hide, has to be chewed in order to release an oozy snail slime stuff. Once the fruit is inside the mouth, it is best not to take it out during mastication. Focusing on the sweetness, rather than the feel of the slime was and still remains the best approach to enjoy this local treat.

And the list is endless: katope, mkuyu (fig), maula (common in villages), malambe (baobab – found at the market, from lakeshore areas), bwemba (indigenous tamarind) and so on. Some were very elusive to find. Some ended up remaining on the shopping list from the local markets – disappointingly so. But the quest to hunt them nevertheless was as pleasant as having a buffet of wild fruits.

This one time, Fred Lisimba, one of the leaders of our group chanced upon a scarlet fruit loosely shaped like a pear. It looked menacing, and though we were all curious to identify it, we kept it at a distance. And then Fred just grabbed it, and munched it with gusto, white seeds like those from a gourd flying out of his mouth. Shocked, we asked after its name. Between a mouthful he said it was a “mchuchuchu”! I had never heard of this name. And after pestering him about it, later in the day, he admitted that it was a made-up name. He had never seen this fruit before, just like the rest of us. In a single act of bravado, he proceeded to devour it. Fortunately, it didn’t lead to his last breath. And luckily too, I don’t like using the word silly on old friends.

Nature trails along the stream in Nkolokosa, and foraging of wild fruits in the forests surrounding our neighbourhood gave us many a pleasant afternoon under the harsh African sun. I wonder if future generations will have the same privilege to interact with nature just like we did in our childhood? Let’s hope so.

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