Kimanshigha is the Chagga name for Diplocyclos schliebenii, a climbing herbaceous plant in the cucumber family. This species grows in rich, moist soils in upland forests of Kenya and Tanzania. Its leaves are palmately 5-lobed and 7-13 centimeters across. Its fruits, borne singly or in small clusters, are oval shaped, about 3 centimeters long, and red (when mature) with longitudinal white stripes. Kimanshigha climbs several meters into the surrounding vegetation, attaching itself to trees and shrubs with tendrils.
The Chagga people live in northern Tanzania, around Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, and in the city of Moshi. The southern and eastern slopes of Kilimanjaro are among the most densely populated rural areas in Tanzania (up to 1,000 people per square kilometer) but, for centuries, the Chagga have used a highly sustainable agrisilvicultural system that supports both a large population and an incredible diversity of wild and cultivated plants as well as insects, birds, and other animals. Chagga homegardens (small subsistence plots) cover an area of about 1,000 square kilometers on Kilimanjaro, at an elevation of 900-1,800 meters above sea level. The Chagga homegarden system (or kihamba system) involves four vegetation layers: Trees provide shade for the plants below, as well as fodder and firewood; bananas, of which there are many varieties, form the basis of the local cuisine; arabica coffee (an important cash crop) grows beneath the bananas; and below the coffee bushes grow various vegetables and root crops, including taro and maize. Coffee, bananas, and taller trees provide structural support for kimanshigha and other vines and lianas such as Telfairia pedata (oysternut).
Only the leaves of kimanshigha are consumed, though the fruit is harvested for seed. Provided that there is enough moisture, the leaves are available throughout the year. If conditions are too dry or cool, the plants will desiccate, but the rootstock will survive below the soil. Kimanshigha leaves are a crucial ingredient in the traditional dish nyanyi kitalolo, which also includes green bananas or maize, beans (preferably cowpeas), and sour milk. This dish is highly nutritious and easy to swallow, making it suitable for children, the elderly, women who have just given birth, and the ill (including HIV/AIDS sufferers). The leaves can also be sautéed with onions and carrots and served with porridge, rice, or yams. Kimanshigha is traditionally used to treat stomach pains: Adults chew four clean leaves three times a day until the stomach ache subsides, while babies and small children eat leaves that their mothers have chewed up for them. Chagga and Meru people report that cows produce more milk if they eat kimanshigha.
Kimanshigha is not a popular or well-known food among young people, and the plant is vulnerable throughout its range due to deforestation. Even more worrying is the fact that the Chagga homegarden system is becoming less sustainable because of population pressure, low market prices for coffee, the erosion of local traditions (young people are not taking traditional farming over from their parents and grandparents), and climate change.