Category Archives: Congo

Why I ate a Pangolin

The Lese people practice swidden horticulture in the Ituri Forest, Congo (formerly Zaire). Living in the same area are the Efe people, sometimes known as Pygmies (but that may be an inappropriate term). The Efe and Lese share a culture, in a sense, but are distinct entities within that culture, as distinct as any people living integrated by side by side ever are. The Efe are hunter-gatherers, but the gathering of wild food part of that is largely supplanted by a traditional system of tacit exchange between Efe women and Lese farmers, whereby the Efe provide labor and the farmers provide food. The Efe men also work on the farms sometimes, but their contribution to the family’s diet is more typically from foraged goods, including plants but mostly animals, and during a particular season of the year, the products of honey bee nests.

For several years, in the 1980s and early 90s, I lived in Zaire (now Congo) for several months out of each year (generally between May and January, roughly), and for much of that time I was in the Ituri with the Lese and Efe. During that time, I spent much of the time in the forest with the Efe (very few of the researches on that long term multidisciplinary project did that — most spent their time with the Lese for various reasons).

To go from our study site to the grocery store (which was not really a grocery store because they did not exist in that part of Zaire, but a city with markets) was about a week’s trip or more. Only a few days of that was driving, the rest fixing the broken truck, doing the shopping, etc. So, one did this infrequently. There was no local market during my time there, though one opened up 10 clicks away for a while, at which one might or might not be able to buy a chicken or a yam, if you showed up early.

I (and this pertains to most of my colleagues as well, only a few of us would be at the site at a time) would buy sacks of rice and beans and other long term food items in the city, and carefully curate them at the base camp, a small village constructed of wattle and daub leaf-roofed huts and outhouses. When I went to the forest just to live with or observe the Efe, I would bring the exact amount of food I would need to survive if all I did was feed myself. This way my presence would not affect the Efe’s food budget. But, this is a sharing culture and it would have been very bad for me to just eat that food. I feely shared my food with my fellow camp members, and they shared their food, and my food was almost exactly the same as their local food (rice was grown there) except I would have beans and they are not local. Otherwise, the same.

This meant that I ate what they ate.

Other times, I would hire Efe and maybe one Lese to go with me to the forest to carry out research. I’d be careful to hire them for limited amounts of time to not disrupt their lives too much, but there was very little difference between them working for me and, say, getting honey during honey season. I would only ask them to work with me for a few hours a day and they would otherwise forage. On these trips, I brought more food, for them, because our geographic location and the work we were doing interfered with their normal food getting activities, so I made up for that. But still, during these times we ate plenty of forest foods.

So, what do the Efe (and their Lese compatriot) eat?

Locally, the plant diet is insufficient nutritionally, and often, children are undernourished. There is a hunger season during which the plants from the forest and gardens are rare or absent at the same time, and this is often the death season. No one dies form starving, really (though that apparently can happen) but they have another dangerous disease, and the lack of food may put an ill individual over the top. During one bad hungers season, a small family attempted mass suicide, and mostly succeeded.

Locally, there is no beef, or as is the case a couple of hundred clicks away in most directions, commercially harvested fish. They have goats but the are ceremonial and seem to be never eaten. The Lese have chickens, a few, and they are eaten now and then. The wild animal foods they eat are incredibly important. Without that, they would be in very bad shape.

The most common animals they eat, as in day to day and mundane, are a form of antelope called the Blue Duiker, and monkeys, usually Mangabeys. During a certain season they eat a fair umber of another animal, like but not exactly a duiker, called a water Cheverotain. But since food supply is so unpredictable, they are always on the lookout, and they eat everything. A song bird or bat that flies too close may be batted down with a machete, a Honey Badger that stumbles up on a group of resting Efe may be chased own, an Elephant Shrew that happens on a camp will be dispatched by an archer and cooked up. The only time I ever saw the Efe not go after an animal that happened to show up is when a small herd of elephants came along, and the Efe made a lot of noise to chase them off, while at the same time making plans to hide in the nearby hide-from-the-elephant trees (yes, they have them.) And snakes. Something odd going on there with snakes (see below).

One of the focal points of my research was to look at how animals reacted to the Efe’s presence, and it is striking. Since the Efe will kill and eat almost anything they encounter, most of the animals are very careful to avoid the Efe, and even the Efe’s habitually used trails.

There is a certain amount of elephant hunting. Pygmies, generally, are the African elephant hunters, and apparently, have been so for a very long time. The importance of elephant is very under-appreciated by most experts. The data show that most of the food the Efe eat is plant food, and animal food makes up a percentage of their diet typical for tropical or subtropical African hunter gatherers. But those data never include elephant. I’ve estimated that the total amount of elephant meat they eat over medium periods of time, left to their own, is about the same as all the other meat combined. This happens because when someone does kill an elephant (a rare event compared to the daily killing of a duiker or other more common mammal), everyone from everywhere shows up and gorges on that meat for a few weeks.

So, even though most researchers would classify elephant as uncommon in their diet and therefor not a major contributor to the diet, they’ve simply got that wrong. It is a big deal.

Beyond that, the range of animals is huge, because the number of species native to the area is huge. Oddly, the Efe I was with (and these were more than one distinct group) didn’t seem to eat snakes, tough I know that others do. These Efe also often have a particular species of snake as their totem animal, and you don’t eat your totem animal. So, maybe that is the reason.

Because Efe live the life they live, one without the privilege of access to unlimited supplies of cattle flesh, swine meat, domestic birds, and commercially caught or raised fish, they have a wide dietary niche. Because they live in a remote part of the African rain forest, this list includes a lot of animals many may have never even heard of, or that most regard as exotic, though they are very common there. They live a life where the plant foods often fail them, and collectively do not provide a sufficiently nutritious diet, so they do not have the privilege of eschewing meat, and in fact, perhaps with the knowledge that meat is the real hunger-killer in their environment, they prefer to spend as much time as they can chewing meat.

And I spent a lot of time sharing their culture and ecology with them, and in so doing, had the privilege of getting much closer to truly experiencing another culture than most ever get. Close enough, in fact, to know that I wasn’t even close, and knowing that is a privilege the dilettante missionary or subscriber to National Geo can not have.

Ebola: Have more knowledge, need vaccine more

I just watched, at a the Twin Cities Science Film Festival, a film called Nzara ’76, which is about the first known Ebola outbreak, the one that gave it its name, in southern Sudan. That’s about 150 miles, as the Mvo-Mvo flies, north of my long term project area in the Ituri Forest, an impassable distance over an unforgiving terrain if you are a person, well within the migratory range of an Ebola carrying fruit bat.

Back in the day, when Ebola would strike here and there, killing dozens, then disappearing back into the wild as quickly as it came, there was not much movement to get a vaccine. Then, one day, a fruit bat, carrying ebola, dropped some bat spit covered fruit bits to the ground, which were later picked up and mouthed by a toddler, who became patient zero in a pandemic that would ultimately kill over 11,000 people and sicken nearly 30,000. That would be a good argument to get a damn vaccine.

But, one could argue that even though Ebola is known to have been around since the 1970s, and may have been around before that (entire villages falling to a deadly disease is known historically in the region, with no understanding of what the disease was), it only arose as an epidemic once, so really, what’s the big deal? Next epidemic we’ll attack much more efficiently and quickly, and only hundreds, if that, will die.

Aside from the fact that the morbidity and mortality tolls in the tens of thousands should not inure us to the death of dozens or hundreds, we should also consider that the conditions that allowed this pandemic to occur arose only recently, so a pandemic is actually more likely in the near future than it was in the near past. Also, and this is from new research, now that Ebola has infected tens of thousands, it has a temporary reservoir in the post-infection population.

Research that could not have been conducted before has now been conduced (and is ongoing) in the pandemic region. It is now understood that survivors can have ebola in their systems for long periods of time after infection, and that in some cases, they can pass this on. It can be passed on through both breast milk and semen. I assume it could be passed on through blood.

It is simply NOT the case that thousands of post pandemic West Africans are restarting ebola epidemics wherever they go. Post pandemic transmission has been rare, and quickly managed. It is probably true that ebola will eventually leave all the post pandemic people. Humans are not really a reservoir, long term, for ebola.

But, consider the fruit bats. The story I gave above about the start of the pandemic is almost certainly true, but at the same time, fruit bats in the region came up empty when tested for Ebola. There are a lot of reasons that would happen, beyond the scope of this post, but it serves as a model for a near future West Africa. Perhaps ebola will last a long time in some individuals. Perhaps previously infected individuals will become reinfected, but not get sick, and be carriers for a year, or six months.

An ebola pandemic is not going to resurface easily, or form this source, in this population, because of post pandemic harboring. But, here and there, some people may get the disease, and if there is another outbreak somewhere else, we now know that the public health problems are even more complicated than previously thought.

The obvious way to solve this problem is with a good vaccine that is widespread and regularly administered.

The research I’m referring to hear was reported at a conference in Antwerp, Belgium, on September 12, and is briefly written up here, in Nature.

A few highlights, and a caveat, from that work:

Researchers will soon publish the first confirmed report of a person without obvious Ebola symptoms infecting another person. A seemingly healthy mother in Guinea passed the virus to her nine-month-old daughter in breast milk, and the child died from Ebola-virus infection in August 2015…

…some people who became infected during the recent outbreak escaped detection. Miles Carroll… tracked 80 people who had contact with Ebola patients in Guinea but did not themselves become noticeably ill. Yet 15–20% of these contacts developed immune responses capable of neutralizing Ebola viruses, suggesting that they had contracted mild infections that went undetected.

[Researchers] traced a cluster of new Ebola cases to a man who transmitted the virus to a sexual partner 17 months after recovering from his infection…

Researchers must show sensitivity in communicating such findings, says virologist Stephan Günther of the Bernhard Nocht Institute, and take care not to make life more difficult than it already is for Ebola survivors, who face discrimination and lingering health problems. “We have to be careful to stress that these are very, very rare events.”

On cannibalism and Jameson

A recent twitter conversation prompted me to dig up some old posts on cannibalism, and maybe a few memories of my time in Central Africa.

The twitter conversation concerned a story in which it is claimed that James Jameson, heir to the Jameson Irish whiskey empire, bought a slave girl (for the price of six handkerchiefs) in order to watch her be eviscerated and eaten by cannibals, and in particular, so that he could make some nice watercolor painting of the event. Apparently this is going around the internet.

If this is true, which as I will argue in a moment is not actually the case, then there are two things we would draw from the story. First, there were, in the late 18th century, villages of cannibals in Africa. Second, Jameson was a total jerk.

There are a few things you need to know before evaluating this story. First, it is true that almost all Americans and Europeans in the 18th and 19th century who had an interest in Africa knew with a high degree of certainty that African were, generally, cannibalistic, even if not all of them were fully fledged cannibals. This presumption, however, is untrue. It is simply something that people believed as part of the prevailing very racist attitude about Africa. This applied to other places as well. It was assumed that the natives around the world were cannibals, and we even see the use of the term “cannibal” being used here and there interchangeably with “native.”

The second thing you need to know is that nineteenth century traveler’s accounts and other documents are notoriously inaccurate, and often designed for a purpose other than to convey the truth, such as self aggrandizement or to disparage rivals, or, of course, to further the racist trope or support colonialism.

The third thing you need to know is that by the time Jameson got to the village in question, the mainly middle to later 19th century practice of slave trading was in full swing in the interior of Central Africa, mainly as part of a larger slave and ivory trade focuses on the Indian Ocean and probably North Africa. So, there were villages of slave traders, some of whom were really shady characters, and the village Jameson visited was almost certainly one of them. This was during the period of colonialism in the Congo when there was a full scale genocide starting out, orchestrated bv the King of Belgium and utilizing such notable players as the famous Henry Morton Stanley. So, if there were gruesome murders and even cannibalism, this would not have been normal for the local cultures.

Here’s the third thing you need to know. Even though it is very hard to find confirmed cases of cannibalism in the historic record for Central Africa, the idea of cannibalism is widespread. But you have to understand this in a cultural context. To help you understand this, I’m going to switch for a moment to the United States.

In the US, we have serial killers. For every actual serial killer, there are probably a dozen stories about serial killers, some based on actual serial killers, some just made up books and movies. We seem to be very interested in serial killers. We teach our children to avoid strangers because some of them might be bad people, and the idea of a stranger being a serial killer (as opposed to, say, a rapist or something) is absolutely part of that concern. So, in the US we fear serial killers, amuse ourselves with stories of serial killers, and even teach our children to avoid them.

So, does this mean that Americans are serial killers? In Africa, there are many many stories of cannibals, many traditional Africans fear cannibalism and think it is fairly common and consider this to be something to avoid and instruct children about. There are probably many more actual serial killers in the US than there are cannibals in Africa. Of course, some of the American serial killers have been cannibals, and that may be the case in Africa too. But the point is, these two things — serial killing and cannibalism — are sort of real but in fact very very rare, and are blown way out of proportion by the cultures in the two regions.

Now, the fourth thing you need to know is this. The Jameson story is known from two places. One is an account written by someone who probably wanted to damage Jameson (they had a thing), later promoted by a major rival (HM Stanley himself). The other comes from Jameson’s documents assembled and conveyed by his widow after his death.

In the first story, the one written by the Jameson haters, Jameson asks to have a demonstration of cannibalism and offers six handkerchiefs, which sounds like a cheap price but that’s only because you don’t know the value of cloth in late 19th century Central Africa (they would have actually been fairly valuable) to buy a young girl, a slave, so she could be eviscerated, butchered, and eaten while he painted the process.

In the second version of the story, from Jameson (indirectly), something like this did happen, but he did not knowingly pay for a slave (but there were handkerchiefs involved), a girl was killed and butchered (but there is no clear evidence she was eaten, I believe). It was not done at his request, he was aghast and horrified, and also, it all happened very quickly and given the situation he was powerless to stop it.

More recent write-ups of this event seem to make the assumption that the more gruesome version of the story is real, and in those write-ups we see lame excuses for things like there has never been any evidence that any paintings were every produced or existed in any form.

I know a guy who told me he was with the Zaire police when they were called to a village run by a cannibalistic chief. They found body parts everywhere and arrested the chief. He also told me that this people come from a location to the northeast of where he lived and were scattered to the four winds by a nuclear explosion. And he told me a lot of other things.

When I was living near the Rwenzori, this happened. There were rebels up on the mountain at that time. They had been there for years. (Now, they are the government, but that is another story). One day the army went up there to harass them, as they did now and then. A villager, it is said, told the army where to find the rebels. Eventually the army left, and the rebels captured the villagers and …

… well, that part of the story almost certainly happened but the rest is in question ….

… and then killed him and ate him in front of the other villagers, to teach them a lesson. The problem is, isn’t any really good evidence that they killed anybody and even less evidence that anybody ate anybody. But throughout the region, people’s fear of the rebels grew. The cannibalism story works.

I could tell you many more stories like this. I, myself, am a cannibal according to some. (But, honest, I’m not.) People have searched for confirmed cases of cannibalism and found very few. The Jameson story is unbelievable for a number of reasons, but partly plausible given the context of a village of bad guy slave traders. But to assume that it was routine to have “cannibal villages” is incorrect.

Cannibal is real. We see it here and there in the archaeology. But usually it involves eating your ancestors, maybe their ground up bones processed in a respectfully funerary rite. Most cases of “normal” (culturally accepted) cannibalism is probably of those who died on their own or were killed as part of warfare. Other cases are symbolic (like the Christian ritual of eating Jesus Christ and drinking his blood). And, as in discussed in one of the items linked to below, sometimes eating other people is done as a separate event form their death, like when human blood is consumed from an injured person. For medicinal purposes, of course.

As noted, I’ve written about cannibalism and expanded on these themes in a few places. In You come from Cannibals I talk about cannibalism in Classic and European history. In Among Cannibals I talk about the Rwenzori incident in more detail, and talk about cannibalism in other contexts. In Cannibal, Native, Indigenous, I have a little fun with Google N-Gram Viewer.

Enjoy. If that’s what you want to call it!


Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.

Ebola and "the French Disease"

Jim Moore and I were both students in the PhD Program in Anthropology at Harvard a few years ago. He graduated about the time I entered the program. To give a rough historical touchstone, I remember the day he needed to get his thesis off to the Registrar, and there was a delay because it was taking longer than expected to deburst the pages fresh out of the printer. Anyway, Jim is Professor of Anthropology at UC San Diego, and has done a great deal of work with Old World Primates, the evolution of social systems, and related topics. A while back Jim wrote an important piece for American Scientist which was a summary of his intensive research on the complex origin of HIV in Africa. Jim and I got to talking the other day about that topic in relation to the current West African Ebola outbreak (though this really relates to Ebola across the region in West and Central Africa). I invited Jim to write a guest blog post on the topic, he did, and that post is below. The graphic above accompanies the post and is used with permission from Jim’s earlier American Scientist article.

Ebola and “the French Disease”

Jim Moore

The origin of AIDS

By comparing the degree of variation among samples of HIV 1 group M (the virus responsible for the pandemic), we can estimate how long it has been since the original variant existed; that gives us a time for the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA) of between 1908 and 1920 (depending on which recent analysis you like). For group O (which has not spread far), the TMRCA is a few years later, about 1920 to 1926. Put in the error estimates for these dates, and the range is about 1903 to 1948. Group N, with fewer than 20 patients known, is thought to have originated between 1948 – 1977 and the range for group P (2 patients) spans more than a century.

By comparing HIV 1 with different strains of SIVcpz and SIVgor (simian immunodeficiency virus of chimpanzees and gorillas), we find the closest match for group M comes from chimpanzee groups in SE Cameroon, just over the border from RP Congo (“Congo Brazzaville” to distinguish it from the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], ex-Zaire, ex-Belgian Congo). Group O appears to be derived from SIVgor, most likely someplace in southwest Cameroon. That discovery involved collecting thousands of samples of ape feces from all over Africa and screening them for SIV, a prodigious project overseen by Beatrice Hahn. And a recent paper in Science makes a good case that for HIV 1 group M, after initially becoming established in someone in northern RP Congo/SE Cameroon, the virus traveled down the Sangha River to Kinshasa (personally, I don’t think they can meaningfully separate Kinshasa and Brazzaville at this stage) around 1920, where it was maintained at a low prevalence until about 1960 when the pandemic began.

Do the same exercises for HIV 2, and the two epidemic groups (A & B) most likely originated around 1940 – 1945 (1924 to 1959) from SIVsm (sooty mangabey) someplace in or near Ivory Coast. Like HIV1 group M, the virus seems to have travelled from its point of origin (sooty mangabeys in the Tai Forest, Ivory Coast, have the closest SIV matches to both groups) to where they caught on and eventually became pandemic (Guinea-Bissau, where the war of independence seems to have facilitated the process).

Now here’s the thing: people in both areas have eaten primates, and so been exposed to SIVs, for millennia. And as a sexually transmitted disease, well, sex has been going on for even longer. Massively increased promiscuity in the context of commercial sex workers in rapidly urbanizing and poor populations? That’s more a twentieth century thing, starting early in the century but really taking off after World War Two and ongoing today. Furthermore, in around 1960 disposable plastic syringes became widely available and, in poor areas, were often reused and/or easily available to traditional healers and charlatans, making unsterile injections more common. And of course travel by trains, cars, and planes has increased through the 20th century (with an important caveat that in parts of Africa such as the DRC, many railroads and roads weren’t maintained after independence and fell apart post–1960s).

So exposure to SIV has been going on for millennia, and “the usual suspects” in terms of STD risk factors became important early in the 20th century but increased dramatically (and have remained high) since the late 1950s, and despite that the only strains of HIV that have “caught on” all date from around 1920 – 1945. What is missing?

The French Connection

Those places, those times: French Equatorial Africa and French West Africa. There are SIV-carrying primates in many parts of Africa, under various colonial powers at various times, but all four zoonotic HIV strains happened under the French. Bad luck?

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 11.13.54 AMIt is impossible to be sure, but I have argued that for HIV 1 the catalyst was the combination of two things. First comes the unbelievably brutal treatment of Africans in both French Equatorial Africa (FEA) and the Belgian Congo, resulting (among other things) in labor camps where men were overworked, malnourished, and provided with women as a matter of policy to keep the workers – well, “happy” is probably not the best word, but you get the idea. The second element was the effort to cure smallpox and sleeping sickness through aggressive diagnosis/treatment/inoculation campaigns using traveling “mobile clinics” that had inadequate equipment for the scale of the job they were doing. For example, one sleeping sickness expedition in 1916 into what is now Central African Republic diagnosed/treated more than 89,000 people with just 6 syringes (the number of needles isn’t recorded). Over more than a decade, these mobile clinics, pioneered by Dr. Eugene Jamot, reached – and injected – millions of people. The importance of sterile equipment was well understood, but the logistics (I speculate) would have been prohibitive. The campaigns represent a major humanitarian effort that saved many lives, but the combination of widespread use of unsterile needles and stress-induced immunosuppression could not have been better designed for adapting a virus to new hosts.

I do not know the relevant history of French West Africa (FWA) so am cautious about saying the same thing happened there with HIV 2. However, it is worth noting that in 1931 Jamot was held responsible for the accidental blinding of hundreds of people being treated by one of his subordinates (sleeping sickness was treated with an arsenic derivative, and the subordinate apparently tried out a higher dosage, with disastrous results). With a cloud over his reputation, Jamot shifted from FEA to – Ouagadougou, in FWA. There he took charge of the sleeping sickness campaign, again with mobile clinics and again treating thousands of people under difficult conditions over several years before his health deteriorated.

About 20 years between the origins of HIV 1 in FEA and HIV 2 in FWA, and about 15 years between the onset of Jamot’s work in FEA and his move to FWA. Very circumstantial, but it gives one pause.

Why belabor the French?

Eugene Jamot was a genuine hero, and while colonial support for the mobile clinics wasn’t all humanitarian (there were concerns about the loss of [forced] labor if too many died), I am sure the people involved were doing their best to help other people in need. It might seem mean-spirited to point the finger of AIDS at them.

Well, here is one reason. A recent article in Science by Faria et al. examined the history of HIV 1 group M, concluding that the virus arrived in Kinshasa in about 1920 where it barely kept up with population growth until about 1960, when it began rapidly spreading in the pandemic we see today. It is valuable and interesting work. The actual origin of the virus is not their focus, but they summarize it thusly:

After localized transmission, presumably resulting from the hunting of primates, the virus probably traveled via ferry along the Sangha River system to Kinshasa. During the period of German colonization of Cameroon (1884 – 1916), fluvial connections between southern Cameroon and Kinshasa were frequent due to the exploitation of rubber and ivory. (page 58)

German colonization? Well, yes; the Germans were in Cameroon up until 1916 (when French/Belgian forces that had traveled up the Sangha in 1914 finally drove them out; Jamot was a medical officer with the expeditionary force). But traffic on the Sangha River didn’t end in 1916, and most of it was between Brazzaville/Kinshasa and the French towns of Ouesso, Nola, and Carnot anyhow. Why specify the “period of German colonization”?? I do not KNOW, but I note that (1) there is no other mention of any colonial power in the Faria et al. article, and (2) of the 14 authors, 6 are affiliated with institutions in Belgium or France (the rest, UK and USA). It looks to me like there may have been a bit of whitewashing going on there, and using a scientific article to blow historical smoke in our eyes gets my dander up.

AIDS and Ebola

Here is a better reason for acknowledging the likelihood that AIDS got its start as an unanticipated consequence of underfunded, understaffed humanitarian efforts to deal with infectious diseases in equatorial/west Africa: history can repeat itself. To ignore ebola in West Africa is not an option, and half-measures have whole risks.


Further reading

The puzzling origins of AIDS (2004). Jim Moore. American Scientist 92: 540–547. pdf

The early spread and epidemic ignition of HIV–1 in human populations (2014).
Nuno R. Faria, Andrew Rambaut, Marc A. Suchard, Guy Baele, Trevor Bedford, Melissa J.Ward, Andrew J. Tatem, João D. Sousa, Nimalan Arinaminpathy, Jacques Pépin, David Posada, Martine Peeters, Oliver G. Pybus, and Philippe Lemey. Science 346: 56 – 61.

Some other material of mine on HIV origins


Further note: Readers of this blog will avoid confusion by noting that this Jim Moore is not the Aquatic Ape Jim Moore. Same name, different guy.

New Stanley

As instructed, I arrived at the New Stanley Hotel, in downtown Nairobi, at just before 11:00 AM, to meet Pat Soffer, primatologist. Willoughby didn’t have to tell me about the fish and chips at the hotel’s cafe; I’d eaten here many times. The Thorn Tree was a pretty standard meeting place in Nairobi. A block or so from the Hilton, at the end of the main downtown street, a short walk from the central government buildings, across from a central bus station, it was a slightly pricey but reasonable hotel with an inexpensive, leisurely outdoor restaurant open early in the morning for breakfast and coffee, all day for lunch and dinner, and late into the evening for drinks.

A giant tree…a thorn tree as it happens…grew from the middle of the outdoor eating area, and around the tree was built a bulletin board. The bulletin board was mainly for travelers and tourists to hang notes for other travelers and tourists. A typical scenario might be for a couple of backpackers to cross paths in Malawi or Tanzania or Uganda, both thinking they’d be passing through Nairobi in a month or so. Then, when either would arrive in town, they would search for a note from the other and put up one of their own, and in so doing, sometimes reconnect in the Tourist Capital of East Africa. Among these numerous mostly unanswered missives, other more interesting but less overt messaging would also take place. A small but steady amount of arms, drugs, and intelligence trafficking was facilitated by notes on the Thorn Tree’s bulletin board. And, now and then, people organizing expeditions into the Congo would meet up here.

So on my arrival at the Cafe, I went right to the tree to look for a note from Pat Soffer, prepared to write my own. I realized I had no idea what my contact looked like, and the restaurant was full of westerners any one of which could be Pat Soffer, Primatologist. Seeing nothing, I took out a note pad, located a blank page and penned:

“Looking for Pat, Mutual Interest in Monkeys”

And I was just about to pin this to the board when a woman who had been standing next to me also looking at the bulletin board took a step closer and snatched the paper from my hand. “Welcome to Nairobi,” she said, gesturing toward a table already set for tea, along the back wall. “you’re early.”

Pat Soffer struck me right away as someone who’d been around the block more than once and who knew how to take care of herself. Darkly tanned with a lot of split ends in her black hair, brown eyes, broad shouldered, trim and muscular, I had the vague impression that she was of Greek ancestry, though her last name did not match. For just a second I was surprised she was a girl. “Pat” is the ultimate western non-gendered name. Surprised but glad. I was tired of working with that special Intrepid Explorer Ego that usually accompanies western Y-chromosomes in the bush.

So we talked. Pat confirmed that Dieter was her advisor in undergraduate school. She had a vaguely defined plan to get a Master’s degree at Oxford, then return to Dieter’s institution to work under him towards a PhD, but by that time there had been some difficulties and for some reason or another Dieter was no longer taking on female graduate students. Other than the one he had just married, that is. Yes, it was true; all the complexities of high school relationships returned but with a vengeance in graduate school, especially in Anthropology where fieldwork complicated things. Pat ended up getting her PhD elsewhere, and spent most of the time since those days off in the field somewhere.

Dieter Phillips had asked her to consider joining him on an expedition to the Eastern Congo, where we were now heading, under the condition that she, Pat, would only be in the field at the same time as Dieter’s wife, at the new Mrs. Phillip’s request. Pat had no problem with that. She explained it this way to me: “Dieter Phillips was not my type. Phyllis, on the other hand, was, physically; but not emotionally or mentally. She was a child. But I would have enjoyed the window dressing and had fun playing with the dynamic, especially if it would have given Dieter a hard time. I wasn’t really happy about being rejected from my choice of graduate school because of marital insecurity by two emotionally retarded latter day hipsters, which is how I regarded the two of them.”

“So your interest in South Dakota was not for the opportunity to work with the great Dieter Phillips?” I inquired.

“Hell no. I wanted access to their primate skeletal collection. It is the largest and best documented in the world. At the time, that’s what I wanted to do…measure bones. In the end, I’m glad it didn’t work out. I live in the field now. You know what I’m talking about.”

I certainly did. If you spend enough time in the field, not being in the field feels strange.

“Let me ask you, then, what was the point of Phillips” expedition, the one you didn’t go on? Why didn’t you go, in the end, and what did he find? I’ve been told almost nothing about it, other than that I’m to help you.”

“Ah. I figured that. They were probably worried you would not come if you knew…”

I waited, now more intrigued than ever.

“Dieter Phillips was looking for a new species of primate, a kind of ape, called Sungudogo,” she said.

“He had evidence that it really existed and intended to document its presence, collect a few to bring back as specimens, and then get funding for a much larger project.”

“OK, that much I either knew from what they told me in Brussels, or inferred. Why would you NOT go on such a search? Even if Sungudogo did not exist, there are probably plenty of other primate-related things in the area you could have worked on.”

“Sungudogo is a gorilla no taller than this,” she said, as she held her hand about four feet off the ground.

“While knuckle walking?” I asked, “Four feet would be about right. you’re saying Sungudogo is a bit bigger than the average gorilla?”

“No,” she said, glancing at her hand and with a grin moving it a few inches to one side. “This tall. From the top of the table. While standing full height on its hind limbs.”

“What?” I said, wishing I hadn’t been sipping my tea at just that moment. “A two and a half foot tall gorilla?”

“Well,” she said. “You should have guessed from the name; “sungu” from ape or chimp and “dogo” for small, like the word “kidogo.” Small Ape. Sungudogo.”

“Yeah, I had noticed that, those two terms are used in a lot of languages in the area. But I didn’t think…” I thought for a moment. “Wait, is this why you didn’t join Phillips? Because Sungudogo is no more likely to exist than Bigfoot?”

“Exactly,” she said. “I told him that I’d be the first to join his second expedition!”

“So, they went off without you. How did they explain Sungudogo in the end? Was it a local totemic symbol, or some other sort of made up creature, or something lost in the translation, or what?”

“Ah…no, not exactly,” she said, that same wry grin returning to her lips.

“What then?”

“It exists,” she said, suddenly getting serious. “I’ve seen one.”

I stared. Waiting for the punchline.

“I think they killed Dieter.”

That was not the punchline I was looking for.

“Listen,” she said, leaning in close and moving my half finished cup of tea off to the side. “You are going to have to trust me on something,” now putting her hand on my forearm, as though what she was about to say might cause me to bolt.

I looked at her, and saw something in her eyes that caught my attention. Worry. Fear, maybe.

“There are a couple of things that have to be cleared up, very soon, before we can go forward with this expedition. I have been sworn to absolute secrecy and I can’t even tell you certain things.”

“That won’t do at all,” I replied, maybe a little too tersely. For that I earned a tighter grip on my forearm.

“I know,” she said. “This is where you have to trust me. We’re both going to Goma, Zaire. You know that place, right?”

“Only in as much as I live there when I’m in country and not on a job, sure.”

“Do you have a place there?”

“No,” I replied. “Not at the moment, I gave that up. I stay in a hotel. But yes, I know the place. I understand We’re going to points north of Goma, so that is where I assume we’ll start out. Arrange a vehicle, get supplies, maybe poke around for information, get our land legs.”

“Here’s what we need to do, Mallows. We’ll meet in Goma in a few days. I’ll supply the vehicle, I have access to a Land Rover. I need to make a stop and verify something and then, if all that works out, I can tell you everything I know. I promised to not tell anybody, you included, everything that I know until we are in country. We’ll talk in Goma in about a week.”

I don’t know exactly what made me trust her, but really, the cost was not high. If things didn’t work out, Goma was where I should be anyway. This is where the action was in mining and mercenary work. Once I got to Goma, even if Pat never showed up, I’d be fine. I gave a nod.

“Besides,” she said, seeing my nod and relaxing a little. “Goma’s where you would normally go this time of year anyway, since your job in Brussels is done.” Echoing my thoughts, knowing more about me than I thought she did, like everyone else I’d spoken to so far. She let go of my arm, reached out her hand for me to shake it, and as I did so, she stood. “See you in Goma in a week. I’ll send a telegraph to the
Pierre Hotel when I know my exact schedule. That’s the one you usually stay in, right?”

And without waiting for an answer, she turned and walked out of the Thorn Tree Cafe, took a right towards the Hilton and Government Center, and disappeared. …


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King Leopold’s Soliloquy

I first became aware of, and read, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, which is not his soliloquy but a parody of what he might say according to Samuel Clemens, while doing fieldwork in the ex-Belgian Congo. That is where the real story that inspired the essay took place. I lived in an area that at one time had a few a plantations, but the plantations only existed briefly and are now long gone. The “road” through this area was passable only with a very tenacious four wheel drive vehicle (we had a Land Rover) and grew worse every year. But the road at one time was excellent.

I knew a guy, an older Efe Pygmy man, with one leg. When I first arrived in the Ituri Forest I was shown by my colleague an abandoned camp that a group of Efe Pygmies has only recently been living in, and told “everyone in this group lived here but the old man and his wife … he’s a bit contentious and there was an argument.” Having read all the literature written in English about Pygmies, I was aware of the fact that these foraging people, who moved frequently — perhaps ten times a year or more — would often change the composition of their residence groups to reflect forming and breaking alliances among people who often, but not always, lived together. After hanging out in the camp long enough for my colleague to collect some data, we went back to the road via a different path and passed the old man, Kobou (pronounced “Ko-bo-oo”), and his wife in a small clearing in a freshly cut garden. “Strange,” I thought, “They live in a square hut. Everyone else lives in a dome-shaped hut. I guess some Efe live in square huts.”

But no. Kobou is the only Efe I ever came across to always build square huts. Maybe somewhere else in the Central African Rain Forest, but not around these parts.

Thin, old, bearded, fierce eyes contagious laugh and one leg. Kobou1 was the father of one of my main informants. Kobou would come by the research base camp whenever I was there, more or less daily. He’d sit in a chair and chill for a while, then we might chat about one thing or another. Then he’d say “I’ve come to get my plantains” or “I’ve come to get my mohogo” or “I’ve come to get my [fill in the blank with something to eat that we had growing in our fields]”. The base camp did have a rather large garden, and the main purpose of the garden was so that Kobou and a handful of other Efe could come by now and then and claim some of the food.

“You’d better cut your plantains, then,” I’d say.

Kobou and I hanging around in the Harvard Ituri Project base camp.
Kobou and I hanging around in the Harvard Ituri Project base camp.
More often than not he’d reply, “I did already,” pointing with his bearded chin to some big bunch of plantains at the edge of the clearing. Then he’d speak to a child or other handy person in KiLese (the local language) and that person would drag the food over to Kobou. Kobou would then pull out some vines he always seemed to have handy and create a tumpline strap or other carrying device incorporating the plantains or other food item, stand up on his one leg, grab one of his hand-fashioned canes, attach the food to himself, and grabbing the other cane head off to his camp. Unless his wife was with him, then Mrs. Kobou would carry the food.

Kobou had lost his leg to a snake. He had been bitten by a full grown Gabon Viper. The Gabon Viper is one of the scariest of snakes. It’s head is huge, it’s body very stout, and it’s venom is the richest venom known in a snake, both neurotoxic and haemotoxic.

When my friend was bitten by the snake, he was driven by someone from a nearby plantation to a hospital, to have is leg cut off, which was the only way to save his life. In the days I lived there, this drive required many many hours (or a day or two), and would beat the hell out of the truck. But in those days, they were able to drive him there in a few hours. At 120 kpm, it would have been a two or three hour drive.

But the reason that the road was so good is because of the sort of policy satirized in King Leopold’s Soliloquy. In those days, a Belgian Colonial Administrator would drive a vehicle at 100 kilometers per hour down this road with a glass of water on his dashboard. Wherever water spilled form his full glass, he would stop, and his agents would beat and/or maim the nearest villagers. This encouraged the villagers to keep the dirt road in perfect condition by constant attention to any rivulets or potholes, using hand labor and simple tools.

Eventually, the revolution came, in it’s own way, and the Belgians, guilty of a decades-long holocaust, got their due. They were burned to death in the buildings they hid in, they were shot, strangled, and drowned, and a few got away.

At a later time, I stayed in one of King Leopold’s mansions. Well, not really. We kept some of our stuff in the mansion. The mansion had no roof, and was filled with birds and bats, and their guano. It was better to stay in a tent, outside, even though one would risk being trampled by a hippo or hassled by a hyena. This was Ishango, known locally as “The Most Beautiful Place on the Earth.” It is. But they should really tear down those old mansions (Two stood there side by side) and neaten the place up just a little. Leopold had mansions here and there across his Congo, though he never actually visited the place.

I have ruled the Congo State not as a trustee of the Powers, an agent, a subordinate, a foreman, but as a sovereign — sovereign over a fruitful domain four times as large as the German Empire — sovereign absolute, irresponsible, above all law; trampling the Berlin-made Congo charter under foot; barring out all foreign traders but myself; restricting commerce to myself, through concessionaires who are my creatures and confederates; seizing and holding the State as my personal property, the whole of its vast revenues as my private “swag” — mine, solely mine — claiming and holding its millions of people as my private property, my serfs, my slaves; their labor mine, with or without wage; the food they raise not their property but mine; the rubber, the ivory and all the other riches of the land mine — mine solely — and gathered for me by the men, the women and the little children under compulsion of lash and bullet, fire, starvation, mutilation and the halter.

Leopold did not say that. Clemens puts those words in his mouth as a political and social parody. But it is absolutely accurate; had Leopold said those word he would have been speaking the truth.


1Here and elsewhere, when I write about people in the Congo, I use fake names. There are reasons.

Why are some animals rare, and why is this very important?

A friend of mine told me this story: As a special forces soldier, a Green Beret, he was alone and traveling through a dense area of jungle in or near Viet Nam during the 1960s. Enemy soldiers were nearby and he intended to pass through their patrol area to arrive at some safe destination, but he fully expected to run into a trip wire, a sentry, or a squadron of hostiles. His rifle was loaded and ready to fire at any moment. Continue reading Why are some animals rare, and why is this very important?

Sungudogo is on Smashwords

Sungudogo, the highly entertaining and exciting adventure novella set in the Central African rain forest, which provides the Skeptics Movement with its own Origin Myth, has been available on the Kindle for a while now, but it is now also available on Smashwords, HERE.


Sungudogo is a little known zoological mystery, an “undiscovered” primate living in the remote and rugged region of the eastern Congo, where the Central African Rain Forest fringes the high walls of the western edge of the Great Rift Valley.

Sometimes called the “fourth African ape,” Sungudogo is not a Gorilla, not a Chimpanzee, not a Bonobo, and possibly not even real.

Years ago, Sungudogo drew the interest of the world famous primatologist Dieter Phillips, who was funded by a secret society of “scholars and gentlemen” to launch an expedition to determine the veracity of this mysterious primate. Dieter never returned from that expedition, and as the years passed, the whole story drifted into obscurity.

But the secret society was always watching, always waiting, for clues pertaining to the fate of this expedition. Eventually, evidence came to light that renewed the secret society’s interest in Sungudogo and prompted them to further investigate the outcome of Phillip’s ill fated trek into the Rain Forest. Who better to follow Dieter Phillip’s tracks than his former student, aided by an explorer and mercenary familiar with the area, assisted by two willing Congolese park guards?

They were to learn things that went beyond their wildest imaginations, and they would discover secrets about expedition, about the rift valley, about themselves, about humanity, that they would never be able to share.

… Until now …

In search of the elusive Sungudogo …

…Sungudogo is a little known zoological mystery, an “undiscovered” primate living in the remote and rugged region of the eastern Congo, where the Central African Rain Forest fringes the high walls of the western edge of the Great Rift Valley.

Sometimes called the “fourth African ape,” Sungudogo is not a Gorilla, not a Chimpanzee, not a Bonobo, and possibly not even real.

Years ago, Sungudogo drew the interest of the world famous primatologist Dieter Phillips, who was funded by a secret society of “scholars and gentlemen” to launch an expedition to determine the veracity of this mysterious primate. Dieter never returned from that expedition, and as the years passed, the whole story drifted into obscurity.

But the secret society was always watching, always waiting, for clues pertaining to the fate of this expedition. Eventually, evidence came to light that renewed the secret society’s interest in Sungudogo and prompted them to further investigate the outcome of Phillip’s ill fated trek into the Rain Forest. Who better to follow Dieter Phillip’s tracks than his former student, aided by an explorer and mercenary familiar with the area, assisted by two willing Congolese park guards?

They were to learn things that went beyond their wildest imaginations, and they would discover secrets about expedition, about the rift valley, about themselves, about humanity, that they would never be able to share.

… Until now …

Sungudogo” is a manuscript that chronicles the history of this expedition, as dictated by one of the expedition members, from it’s beginnings in Brussels, then via Nairobi, Kenya, to Goma, Zaire, and from there into the remotest region of the African continent.

The chronicle details the expedition’s encounters with the local culture, the challenges brought on by the rugged environment, and the shocking discoveries made by the intrepid team.

You may have guessed by now that Sungudogo is a novel, originally drafted over a period of 37 hours as part of a fundraising challenge for the Secular Student Alliance, and now heavily revised and rewritten and available for your Kindle. Other formats will be available soon, and I’ll let you know as that happens.

Shades of the Heart of Darkness, reminiscent of an obscure science fiction novel written by a fictional science fiction writer who was an obscure character in other science fiction novels, with a Lovecraftian theme with a strong dose of Indiana Jones, there really aren’t enough allusion-drenched adjectives to describe this novel, which is really a novella. So it won’t take you that long to read.

“… for us lucky few that read it as it flowed out of Greg like a bad case of tropical amoebal infection, we can just say that it’s like the love child of Barbara Kingsolver and Kilgore Trout..”

-Mark Leue, High School Friend of the Author

“Yes, Dear, it was really good.”
-Amanda Laden, the Author’s wife

“… I liked it a lot, it is an interesting adventure into Africa. It is a thriller that will leave you guessing until the very end, and has some unexpected laughs…”

-Sarah Moglia, SSA staff member and the only real person who is in the book

The novel has a web page at The X Blog, HERE.