For many years, the tall grass growing on the banks of the Lwitikila River in the Mpika district in Northern Zambia, has been the focus of a unique salt extraction process.
The extraction of salt from grass is a craft, which has been passed on from generation to generation by residents of Chibwa village, an area on the banks of Lwitikila River.
In the olden days, the salt was extracted for consumption purposes only. After noticing increased demand for the salt, however, villagers from Chibwa decided to start selling salt to visitors and urban dwellers.
Today, households in Chibwa village rely on proceeds realized from selling this special salt to buy essential commodities such as food and clothing and pay bills.
The salt extraction process starts with the harvesting of Chibwa grass, which is said to have a high salt concentration. The harvesting of the grass takes place from August to October each year.
The grass is cut and left to dry. After drying it is burned to remove unwanted elements. The salt does not burn but remains in the ashes. The ashes are then put in a container; usually a calabash, and water is filtered slowly through the ashes.
The water dissolves the salt and carries it through small holes at the bottom of the container.
The salty solution collected is put in a clay pot and heated for about five to seven hours on an open fire. The clay pot serves as a casting mould and is broken after all the water has evaporated.
The end result of this process is a salt stone called Chibwa. The salt stone is then packaged using large leaves and tree bark.
“The salt business has created income opportunities for residents of Chibwa including youths the majority of whom are involved in the selling of the final product,” said 70-year-old Mwape Mulenga, an expert in Chibwa salt making.
Mulenga said that extracting salt from grass has enabled senior citizens like him and vulnerable communities around Lwitikila River to attain some level of financial independence.
Mary Bwalya, 45, another resident of Chibwa village specializing in selling Chibwa salt, said selling salt has helped her to earn a living and secure her children’s future.
Like many salt traders from Chibwa village, Bwalya has to travel several miles every day to get to Mpika town to sell Chibwa salt to locals and intercity travelers.
“I have been selling Chibwa salt for over six years now. I am able to buy food and ensure that my family has decent shelter,” explained Bwalya who sells Chibwa salt at an intercity bus terminus in Mpika town.
The single mother of five revealed that she earns an average of 150 Zambian kwachas (about 6.5 U.S. dollars) every day from selling Chibwa salt.
John Mambwe, 43, who runs a makeshift food stand in Mpika town area where he sells Chibwa salt among other items, asserted that the demand for Chibwa salt will continue to grow.
“More people are being encouraged to buy the salt after learning about how it is extracted and its supposed medicinal properties,” he said.