Diverse Termite use in Africa

Michael sitting on top of a termite mound.

As I came across a blog which stated that some tribes in Africa consumed termite frass (also known as faeces) I became quite curious. Was this an urban legend? Or was it actually a true termite use? Is it common to eat termites, their faecal matter or the insects themselves? Let’s have a little look into what I found..

Eating Termite Droppings?

Dr Joe Schwarcz writes in his book The Genie in the Bottle Termite droppings, of all things, happen to be very high in magnesium, and it is interesting to note that since ancient times certain African tribes have treated fatigue with little balls of the stuff.
I would deem the source as credible, but very vague in this instance. Africa is a massive continent, with 54 different nations, and an estimate of over 2000 tribes. Where in Africa is this, what tribes eat the frass and have they found any other use for termites?

Further digging lead me to this incredibly detailed and interesting article: Cultural significance of termites in sub-Saharan Africa by Arnold van Huis. As the name entails this is a broad investigation into the human termite use and their significance in sub-Sahara.

Termite use as medicine

If we focus our eyes on the frass eating, keep in mind that termites build their mounds with their droppings, van Huis’ research shows as quoted:

The act of eating [termite] soil (geophagy) among women, especially those that are pregnant, is practised all over Africa.

and then further investigation of the geophagy;

Most informants indicated that pregnant women eat soil and very often from termite mounds or termite runways. Sometimes the soil from huts is used as these are constructed from termite mounds. In Sierra Leone the soil may be dried and smoked over the fire before being used []. The most frequent reason for eating termite soil was that women feel an urge to do so.

Some Informants indicated that it was necessary for the growth of the foetus and others that it provided iron which is present in the soil. This is confirmed by a study reviewing geophagy by pregnant women []. Soil may provide 14% of the recommended dietary allowance of iron in pregnancy. This study among pregnant women in a number of African countries reveals a prevalence of geophagy between 15 and 84% percent. In western Kenya, it was about 50% and half of those preferred termite soil.

The mound soil is considered a medicine to treat all sorts of ailments in Subsahara.

The ground-up mound material is used as a paste to cure skin diseases (Togo), to treat swelling of the feet (Togo: Mina), to cure an abscess (Benin: Nagot; CAR: Gbaya; Chad: Sara-Niellim; Gambia: Jola; Sudan), to use as plaster (splint) when having a fracture (Chad: Mgambaye; Mali Songhay), and to cure angina (Senegal: Fula), an inflammation of the parotid glands (parotitis) (Benin: Bariba, Fon, Nagot; Cameroon: Bakoko), tonsillitis (Sudan; Tanzania: Iraqw) or swollen udders of cows (Tanzania: Mwarusha). It is used when a child has fever (Tanzania: Digo, Mwarusha).”

Curious Termite Use

I find this incredibly interesting especially as part of the article van Huis has written, mentions all sorts of use for termites. The use of soldiers to stitch up wounds: “When the soldiers bite, their bodies are snipped off. The row of mandibles is left in place until the wound heals.” An absolutely stunning and curious termite use!

Huis tells us of other uses such as geochemical prospecting as the termites dig deep but around precious metals. He also writes that the soil from the mounds is used as building materials for homes. Another use for the soil is to make cooking pots.

And there is more! Tribes believe mounds are connected to spirits and ancestors. They are used in an array of rituals, “In Mali (Songhai) when somebody is possessed by the devil (Bori) a traditional string instrument played like a violin (Goge) is used near the termite mound and offerings (like kola nuts or sugar) need to be made.

If you want to read more about termite use in Subsahara, please follow the link as I have struggled to fit most of it into this blog post.

Termite Geophagy in Australia

A quick search for more information regarding indigenous use of termites in Australia took me to this article and geophagy appears to be commonplace within the Minang population in lower south western Australia. The article entails how the Minang population was marginalised by colonisers. And as a result of this forced into permanent starvation leading to more consistent geophagy habits.

Conclusion

In conclusion, women throughout Subsahara eat termite droppings to help them through their pregnancies. Termite soil is considered to be a vitamin or a medicine to help cure different types of ailments. But the termite use goes deeper than that as the mounds are used to find precious metals, as building materials and for religious purposes. It is interesting to me as they (nowadays, and by the white population) are mainly viewed as a pest in Australia. With perhaps Amitermes meridionalis, commonly known as the magnetic termite or compass termite, being the only one considered a curiosity rather than a pest.

Perhaps termite soil geophagy is common throughout indigenous populations across the globe? The mound material is high in vitamins and nutrients, so it makes sense to consume this to ensure you stay strong and healthy, and especially so if living conditions are harsh.

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