A man sells mice at Manjawira
A man sells mice at Manjawira along the Lilongwe-Blantyre road in the Ntcheu District, eastern region of Malawi. Image Credit: AFP

Lilongwe, Malawi: A popular snack when food is bountiful, mice have become a vital source of protein in Malawi since the coronavirus outbreak aggravated food shortages and economic hardship.

Vendors waving long skewers of roasted field mice typically stand along Malawi's main highway, targeting motorists travelling between the two largest cities, Blantyre and Lilongwe.

Seasoned and cooked to a crisp, mice are also sold at street stalls and markets across the southeast African country.

But these salty roadside bites also come in handy when times get tough.

Malnutrition and food insecurity are perennial issues in the small, landlocked nation, where more than half of the population live below the poverty line.

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The coronavirus, which has infected nearly 5,500 people and killed more than 170, has only exacerbated food shortages as many livelihoods have been curtailed by confinement measures.

For mice hunter Bernard Simeon, from Malawi's central Ntcheu district, the pandemic has brought new complexities to his poverty-stricken life.

"We were already struggling before the coronavirus," he told AFP shortly after preparing his daily mice catch.

"But now because of the disease, things have really gone bad."

The 38-year-old is primarily a peasant farmer but he also hunts and hawks mice to supplement his livelihood. His wife Yankho Chalera and their child depend on his earnings.

"When times are hard we rely on mice to supplement our diet because we cannot afford to buy meat," said Chalera, washing dishes after lunch.

Free protein

Malawi's government has promised a $50 (42-euro) monthly stipend for people who lost income due to anti-coronavirus regulations that restricted movement and business.

The scheme was meant to start in June, but last week the government said roll-out logistics were still being finalised.

Health officials have meantime urged the poorest communities in some rural villages to supplement their diets with free and naturally available resources.

Mice are "one of the sources of proteins," said Sylvester Kathumba, principal nutritionist in the health ministry.

"We have been encouraging a diet of all food groups, especially in this time of coronavirus which attacks people with low immunity," said Francis Nthalika, nutrition coordinator at a government-run health office in the Balaka district.

The area, tucked into Malawi's Southern Region, is widely associated with mouse hunting.

Environmentalists, however, have voiced concern about damage caused by hunting methods as demand increases.

The rodents are typically found in corn fields, where they grow plump on grains, fruit, grass and the odd insect.

After crops are harvested, hunters burn bushes to identify mice holes so they can trap them.

'Long-term destruction'

In so doing they destroy a lot of the ecosystem within the bush," said Duncan Maphwesesa, director of the Balaka-based environmental rights group Azitona Development Services.

"Much as we appreciate that they have to sustain a livelihood due to poverty, the bushfire issue is a long-term destruction," he said.

"They don't see that they are affecting the environment and that they are part and parcel of those who are causing climate change".

But tradition is hard to break.

Fifty-year-old musician Lucius Banda reminisces about mouse-hunting adventures during his youth in rural Balaka.

"As a village boy, you learn how to hunt mice from as early as three years old," said Banda, a former two-time parliamentarian for the district.

"And in the village, this is not viewed as a task but more as a form of entertainment that is enjoyed by both boys and girls."

Banda added that children in his village were fed mice as a treat even before they tasted beef.

"Up to now I still eat mice, but more as a sentimental act than anything else," he said.