By Ernest Bazanye
Food is dumb. This does not mean predators like ourselves are geniuses. It just means you need to activate and pursue a particular level of idiocy to get caught and eaten in the first place. Crayfish in Lake Bunyonyi prove this.
They are not native to the west-Ugandan lake. This animal, the Louisiana red swamp crayfish, was introduced to these waters in the 1970s and instantly began to thrive. There was plenty of space, they lay plenty of eggs, they copulated a lot, plus, they had left their natural predators back where they came from and the Bakiga around Bunyonyi saw little use for them, except as chicken feed or snacks for their dogs.
The fishermen who would occasionally find engara, as they called it, crawling around the reeds viewed them as irritating little pests that ate too much of the reeds that would have been put to better use as thatch or as material for weaving baskets and mats.
But this was only until the tourists began to arrive. With their arrival came the crayfish’s first predator in Lake Bunyonyi—the Human Muzungu.
“Before tourism became popular, when we would find them, we would throw them away or give them to dogs or pound them for chicken feed,” says Friday Kato, the gentleman who helps manage this island resort, Byoona Amagara.
We are at the lip of Itambira Island finding that it is incredibly easy to catch these little fools. Fishing is kind of tough on this lake these days. Nets do not come up heavy-laden and hooks often dangle in futility. But in one night, we have over a hundred crayfish in our traps.
The trap itself is insultingly simple — a basket with a funnel entrance and a blocked exit. Pop some cabbage or some other vegetable in there and leave a few of those baskets lying around in the reeds and the next day, the imbecility of the crayfish is manifest.
The first one is excusable. Everyone makes mistakes. But it is the fact that more and more entered the trap and once trapped, did not realise that they could warn their cousins to stay out! None of them said: “Alex, don’t! It is a trap!” Either they are too selfish, too dumb or crayfish suffer from the same foolishness as human teens: you can warn them as much as you want, but they just do not listen.
We had about 20 in each basket and that was just this haul. On the other side of the island there are cages underneath the docks where hundreds more are stored/imprisoned; they are kept alive to keep them fresh.
“It is only tourists and some of us who have been with tourists who eat them,” says Friday.
That the people who live around the lake have not developed a taste for crayfish is understandable. It looks quite gross, like an insect, with its eight sinister legs and its tiny evil beady eyes. And then there is that ominous clicking sound its pincers make. Delicious things should not click like that. Eugh.
If this is food it is very well disguised. No one would think anything that looks as ugly as the crayfish could be edible.
But then again, lobsters and prawns bear the same regrettable looks and there are those who love them.
Friday has never eaten a lobster and when he asks me if I have, I do not want to admit to it, so we carry the bucket of the clicking morons up the hill to the kitchen where their fate awaits. It is a grisly one. Nobody has time to kill each crayfish individually, so they just toss them all into a saucepan and boil them to death. This achieves three things: First, it achieves their demise. Secondly, it softens their hard shell, which would otherwise be impenetrable. Thirdly, it achieves payback for all the precious reed that the marauding crayfish have laid to waste.
Now that the shell is soft, the cooks can “peel” them. It is the tail of the crayfish that is eaten, but only after it is released from the shell, a soft, pink curl of flesh.
It can be cooked in a variety of ways. As fish, it will surrender to various recipes, including crayfish pizza, crayfish salads, fried or boiled.
At Byoona Amagara Resort, where Friday and I were when we trapped and cooked these, I had a dish called Crayfish Masala off the menu. It looked delicious, nothing at all like the gross dwanzies from which it originated. What did it taste like? Well, I had expected an explosion to rival that detonated by nsenene to rock my mouth, if only to justify the eating of animals with six legs, but what actually happened was that it tasted like fish. Like bits of fish cooked nicely in a pleasant vegetable stir fry.
It may be a while before crayfish catch on here.
On the way to catch my bus the next day, my taxi guy, Jackson, told me about the actual local cuisine of the Bakiga. He told me how you can make one bushera and potato meal for breakfast and have no need for anything further for the rest of the day, this after assuring me that the bushera I had taken in Kampala that I thought I loved was pale and dull compared to the real thing from Kigezi. Until crayfish can measure up to those standards, it will probably stay a tourist delicacy.