If Trevor Noah can eat mopane worms…

mopane worms

Big, fat, yellow writhing blobs dropping off trees, carpeting the floor like a panoramic sea of black-speckled, custard-infused dog turd. Mopane trees…mopane worms. We were visiting my grandpa Ray at his plot in Ashburton, Natal. And it was raining caterpillars—thousands. No, millions. Look down and a worm could drop on your head, look up and you’d burst a bunch underfoot. Hobson’s choice. I’m from Joburg, the suburbs—we have parktown prawns but mopane rain, jislaaik! What could I do, other than scrunch my eyes, grit my teeth, fight the grils and look down; mopane guts splatting all over the place as I hopped, unsuccessfully, through the gauntlet. If the little horrors were going to come into contact with my person, I’d rather it were under the soles of my shoes than a spongy plop on my upturned face, thanks.

Some might describe the taste of the mopane worm as salty, like peanuts or burnt steak—depending on whether you’re snacking on it fresh or eating it fried. Like that time one of the waiters at Squires in Edenvale (where my man Zan) worked, whipped out a bag of dried mopanes, fried ‘em up and chugged ‘em down. I’d like to say that on that day in Ashburton the ghost of ‘oops’ flitted across my conscience as I remembered mopane worms are how many of the poorest South Africans survive the day but if there was such a shadow, it was quickly murdered by an onslaught of terror.

Now, we’ve always a strict gratitude policy in our house when it comes to food. One little inch of a complaint and it’s dry bread. And wasting is a ‘no-way’ thing. If you’re full, that’s fine but not finishing a meal ‘just because’ and you’ll get your leftovers for breakfast…then lunch, dinner—as long as it takes. We’ve had some interesting encounters with Weetbix, scrambled egg and a bite of zucchini that stayed in my 4-year-old son’s mouth for six hours—he refused to swallow, we refused to let him spit. Silence. Hours of it. From 1pm until bedtime, whereupon Jackson opened his mouth so that we could brush his teeth…and there, in his cheek, nestled the soggy scrap of zucchini he’d inserted a lifetime ago. Jackson might’ve won that battle but not the war—never the war.

It’s basically this: there are people starving in the world, we are privileged and at the very least, we can show respect by having the curtesy not to complain about good food that, in another time, place or paradigm, would be not only life saving and sustaining but damn delicious. And there’s another thing: we live a multicultural city where people eat all sorts of things and, in fact, learning to accommodate a variety of strange tastes is never a bad thing. Right?

Also, I’m South African. 

Eat what what you’re given and say thank you. Unless it’s caterpillars.

Walkie Talkies, chicken feet, tongue, mushy Weetbix that you asked for and then took too long to eat, scrambled egg that got cold, a squishy zucchini that wouldn’t have been as squishy if you’d just chewed and swallowed in the first place—fine. But mopane worms…

I know.

I can feel the blood cascading out my eyes and down my face as I haemorrhage middle-class, white hypocrisy all over my easy morality. Respect for food, poverty and culture blah blah blah.

Have you heard Trevor Noah’s mopane worm story? Let me share it…

There was one month I’ll never forget, the worst month of my life. We were so broke that for weeks we ate nothing but bowls of marogo, a kind of wild spinach, cooked with caterpillars. Mopane worms, they’re called. Mopane worms are literally the cheapest thing that only the poorest of poor people eat. I grew up poor, but there’s poor and then there’s “Wait, I’m eating worms.” Mopane worms are the sort of thing where even people in Soweto would be like, “Eh … no.” They’re these spiny, brightly colored caterpillars the size of your finger. They’re nothing like escargot, where someone took a snail and gave it a fancy name. They’re fucking worms. They have black spines that prick the roof of your mouth as you’re eating them. When you bite into a mopane worm, it’s not uncommon for its yellow-green excrement to squirt into your mouth. For a while I sort of enjoyed the caterpillars. It was like a food adventure, but then over the course of weeks, eating them every day, day after day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I’ll never forget the day I bit a mopane worm in half and that yellow-green ooze came out and I thought, “I’m eating caterpillar shit.” Instantly I wanted to throw up. I snapped and ran to my mom crying. “I don’t want to eat caterpillars anymore!” That night she scraped some money together and bought us chicken. As poor as we’d been in the past, we’d never been without food. That was the period of my life I hated the most—work all night, sleep in some car, wake up, wash up in a janitor’s sink, brush my teeth in a little metal basin, brush my hair in the rearview mirror of a Toyota, then try to get dressed without getting oil and grease all over my school clothes so the kids at school won’t know I live in a garage. Oh, I hated it so much. I hated cars. I hated sleeping in cars. I hated working on cars. I hated getting my hands dirty. I hated eating worms. I hated it all.

—Trevor Noah, Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Honestly, what a guy.

(Not sold on the squirting yellow-green excrement though.)

So, one day I’m making dinner and one of my children starts the vaguest hint of a complaint—“Is there going to be onion in the salad?” or “Is the beetroot for everyone?”…and without thinking I blurt out indignantly, “If Trevor Noah can eat mopane worms then you can eat your damn beetroot and be thankful for it, too.” Mic drop.

And it seems to have stuck. These days, all it takes is a look; and my children lift their hands, “Yes, yes, we know—if Trevor Noah can eat mopane worms.” 

If Trevor Noah can eat mopane worms…

…then perhaps I can too.

Or not.



Author & Storyteller: Andrea Zanin

Andrea is a writer, wife, mother and dreamer; also the author of this website. She moved to London in 2006 to earn £s, travel, see bands and buy 24-up Dr Martens—which she did, and then ended up staying. Andrea lives in North London with her husband (also a Saffa) and five children. She loves this grand old city but misses her home and wishes her children could say “lekker” (like a South African) and knew what a “khoki” is.

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