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Zimbabweans Warned of Poisonous Mushrooms

In Zimbabwe, health experts are asking consumers to beware of purchasing poisoned mushrooms. This year, several people in the town of Epworth died after eating them. The deaths made headlines, but haven’t deterred the public from buying wild mushrooms. Given the harsh economic climate, wild mushrooms are viewed by many as an affordable source of fiber and vitamins. But consuming this fungus may be fatal, as Voice of America, Zimbabwe Service’s Derek Moyo reports from the town of Bromley, Zimbabwe.

After traveling about 47 kilometers from the capital, along the Harare/Marondera highway, you come to the area called Bromley. As cars speed by, groups of vendors dot the roadside, selling mushrooms.

One of the traders, who introduced himself has Thompson Thompson, says he’s been in the mushroom business "for a long time". He said he picks the mushrooms, from underneath nearby shrubs. Thompson is confident his merchandise is safe. He says he knows they're not poisonous because they grow near Muzhanje and Msasa trees, and near the mountains.

With the confidence of an experienced salesman, Thompson points out different types of mushrooms. He says he sells various kinds, including the nhedzi, the chihombiriri, tsuketsuke and the ndzeve. When asked how he convinces people his mushrooms are safe, he says he tastes one: “When we are now selling the mushrooms and want to convince people that the mushrooms are safe, we begin first by eating and swallowing the mushrooms while they are looking at us. This is meant to show then that the mushrooms are not poisonous and are safe to eat. And when we do this, people buy [them.]”

Joshua Nyundo, a commercial white button mushroom grower in Bromley, warns there's no way of telling if the mushrooms are poisonous or not. He says consumers risk their lives by buying mushrooms at the side of the road, “Its not very safe to just buy mushrooms by the road side because other mushrooms out there in the bushes are so poisonous that if say one picks a poisonous mushroom, and puts it in a basket where there are some non-poisonous mushrooms and then later on they discover that this is a poisonous mushroom, picks it from the basket and throws it away you will have contaminated those mushrooms which are edible. So, it’s also possible that you can have problems from edible mushrooms because they would have been mixed with poisonous mushrooms.”

Nyundo adds that while some traders might be selling mushrooms that are not poisonous, the public should be aware that some types of toxic mushrooms are identical in appearance to safe mushrooms. For example, he says the local popular edible mushroom, Nhedzi, is in the Amanita category of mushrooms, and poisonous mushrooms are members of the same group.

But warnings may not deter the desperate or hungry. One of the reasons wild mushrooms remain popular is their affordability. At one time, a plate of mushrooms, sold along the Harare-Marondera route, for about 2,000 Zimbabwe dollars per kilogram -- much cheaper than the white button mushrooms, which can be over 15 times more expensive.

When the mushroom traders were asked if police had been warning them about eating the mushrooms, they said no, that the police often were the ones to buy them.