She wore bright red lipstick. Lots of it, and I could see that she was quite embarrassed. Blushing, with her eyes fixed to the floor she tried to stuff all my stuff into a small, multi-coloured paper bag. Two pairs of latex gloves, an enema pump (without powder) and some rub alcohol.
She had to recount my change twice and nearly dropped the bag as she handed it over to me. It was clear she was new at the pharmacy.
On my way back to the car I popped into a supermarket to get a beverage. Of all the supermarkets in town this one is very different. It is nothing of the well-lit, neatly organized kind. It has these dark little corners and counters filled to the brim with weird and interesting stuff. It’s smells different too.
Kind of like your auntie with the sweet, cheap perfume coming home after she’d worked in the vegetable garden on her way back from a prolonged visit to the fishmonger. Surf-and-turf with a hint of au de cologne.
On a shelf near the entrance, I spotted rows of small plastic bags filled with small dried fish. Kapenta!
Kapenta consists of two species, Limnothrissa miodon and Stolothrissa tanganicae. The Tanganyika sardine is a small planktivorous, pelagic, freshwater clupeid originating from Lake Tanganyika in East Africa. There it goes by the name Daaga or Ndgaa.
Written records of Kapenta fishing dates back nearly two centuries. In 1860 the explorer Richard Burton observed fishermen using circular nets and the light from a “mbaula” (a wood-fired brazier) to catch small fish in Lake Tanganyika.
The first attempt to introduce Kapenta fish into the waters of Southern Africa dates back to February 1962. The mission failed as all harvested fry died before they could be released.
A year later 350 fry were harvested and transported to Mbala from where it was airlifted and flown to Kariba Airport and then driven to the lake itself. Only about 45% survived the seven-and-half-hour journey. Half of those died the next day in the holding facility. Of the original 350, only 14 survived and were kept in a holding net in the Lake itself. Three months later a storm destroyed the net, and our 14 brave warriors escaped captivity to become the first Kapenta ever to swim freely in Lake Kariba.
Between July and November of 1967 26 more airlifts were made and 250,000 fry were released and a year later, another 120,000 more found a new home in Lake Kariba.
Commercial Kapenta fishing started on the then Rhodesian side of the Lake in 1976 and on the Zambian side four years later. Amazingly some had even made their way 220 km’s downstream to Cahora Bassa in Mozambique.
Most fish are caught using boats (called rigs), a dip net and lights to attract the fish to the surface.
Once caught, the fish are either salted or iced depending on whether it is to be sold as dried and salted or frozen Kapenta.
Dried Kapenta has a long shelf-life (some say 6 months) making it a valuable source of protein in areas with no refrigeration.
For a little fish, it packs a mean protein punch, especially when dried. Dried Kapenta have nearly three times as many calories as fresh Kapenta and nearly four times more protein. It also has a higher iron content. Two cups of dried Kapenta could thus easily serve the daily protein requirements of a small family.
An additional benefit is that it can be bought in small quantities and is easy and quick to cook.
According to oral sources, Kapenta means ‘ladies’ painted lips’ suggesting that this is the perfect dish for idle urban ladies who’d rather spend their time in the beer hall than in the kitchen.
The few Kapenta dishes I had before were all made with some variation of a basic tomato and onion sauce. I found this understandable given that I have had this in the poor areas of Lusaka, but for me it was a bit bland.
Trying to find my way back into the traffic, I had to pass the pharmacy once more. I caught another glimpse of her where she was attending to another customer. This time she was smiling, her cheeks no longer the colour of her lipstick.
Given its name, and her lips, I now think a Kapenta dish would suit her, so I dedicate this recipe to her and to the 14 brave warriors whose descendants I just ate.
And no, I never told her that the stuff in the multi-coloured paper bag was not really for me. I use it to clean my camera.