Kapenta is the name used to refer to the silvery small type of fresh water lake fish and comes from two closely related species of Lake Tanganyika fresh water fish – a sardine and a sprat (Scientific names: Limnothrissa miodon and Stolothrissa tanganicae).

The original Bemba name for Kapenta is inshembe.

Kapenta was originally only found in the Rift Valley lakes (Rwanda, Congo DR, Tanzania and Zambia). It was introduced into the Zambezi River initially in 1959 on completion of Lake Kariba and in the 1970s into the new Cahora Bassa dam. This has made it easily available in Zimbabwe (where it is known as Matemba in Shona) and in Mozambique.

Since the increase in mining activity on the Copperbelt from the 1930s onwards, increasing numbers of people migrated from the rural areas into the towns. This increased the need for food supplies.
Sun dried Kapenta had a long shelf life and was lighter and easier to transport over long distances. Large quantities therefore found their way to Kitwe and other Zambian towns from Lake Tanganyika.

Kapenta was a tasty, affordable high protein dish that was easy to prepare quickly. This made it popular among young miners’ wives and girlfriends who spent more time at local pubs (known as taverns) than in the kitchen preparing family meals.

In the sixties and seventies, miners early shifts ended at 15.00hrs. A siren would sound at SOB shaft in Wusakile west. You could hear it all over Wusakile and as far as Chamboli and Ndeke townships. This gave these wives enough time to dash home and have the Nshima and Kapenta ready for their men. These women who frequented taverns, shared Chibuku drinks or Castle Lager with strange men and felt no shame dancing to the blaring Rhumba music. Most of these town women used to apply lipstick and applied glycerine to their arms and legs to make the skin look smooth and shiny. (It was rumoured that when they had spent all their money on drink and couldn’t afford glycerine, these women improvised by dissolving sugar in water to make a sticky liquid that had the same cosmetic effect). They were referred to as “Kapenta milomo” – “She who paints her lips.”

When those people who were recent arrivals on the Copperbelt from their villages who had conservative traditional values wanted to buy the Lake Tanganyika sardine they used to ask that do you have that small fish that is mainly bought and eaten by “Ba Kapenta Mililomo” – “Those who paint their lips”? With time, the Lake Tanganyika sardine thus came to be popularly known as “Kapenta”

I was first told this story by uncle Watson Lombe from Lubwa, Chinsali
Hon Kalalwe Mukosa

Hobson. D. (1996) Tales of Zambia

Kitwe online news (2013)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here