Tag 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.

When Are Nomads Not Really Nomads? (Efe Pygmy Ethnoarchaeology)

“First, we’re going to collect our data,” Jack, the archaeologist, was telling me as we slogged down the narrow overgrown path. He seemed annoyed. “Then, we’ll leave. Until we leave, they won’t leave. They think it would be rude. After they leave, we’ll go back and map in the abandoned camp.”

I had just arrived at the research camp in the Ituri Forest, then Zaire and now the Congo, after a rather long and harrowing journey that took me from Boston to New York to London to Lagos to Kinshasa to Kisingani to Isiro, all by plane, then over 250 kilometers of increasingly less road-like road, to the world’s most “remote” research site to be found among human settlements anywhere on the planet. Jack’s research involved looking at what happened to Efe Pygmy “camps” after they were abandoned. The Efe hunter-gatherers were known to move camp an average of once every two weeks or so. An archaeologist would want to know what happens to a camp once it is abandoned because many of the ancient sites we excavate are exactly that, abandoned settlements. Jack had been tracking Efe movement and camp abandonment patterns for one year, and the expectation was that I would continue his data collection for another year, as he and his wife returned to Montana to write up their results.

A typical Efe forest camp.
A typical Efe forest camp.
The Efe, being very hospitable, were reluctant to leave a camp with visitors present, even if the visitors promised to leave with them, and certainly would never leave a camp if the visitors stayed behind. It just wasn’t done. Jack never told me how long it took for him and Helen to figure out that every time they visited a camp they were told would be abandoned that day, the Efe never actually moved, but eventually they came upon the method of arriving about the time of expected abandonment, collecting some preliminary data, and then leaving only to return hours, or perhaps a day, later.

“Oh, excuse, me have you moved yet? No? OK, see you tomorrow.”

When we arrived at the camp, which was located very near the Lese villages … the Lese are the farming people who with an overlapping culture and economy with the Efe … there were a lot of people there. This was a camp with several adult couples and a number of kids of all ages from baby up to nearly teenage. Since this was Jack and Helen’s last visit, they brought gifts to give to the people who had helped them out for the previous year. Project regulations and ethics required that any gifts be irrelevant to diet or economics, not usable as tools of poaching, not likely to change people’s status, and be likely to be used up or worn out quickly. So, everybody got plastic green sunglasses, the really cheap kind you buy by the dozen at a party store to use as favors.

A typical Lese village.
A typical Lese village.
The data collection involved listing all the people who were present, using coded references so no one could ever trace a real individual to any of our reports or publications. Years ago there was a revolution here in the Ituri during which lists of plantation workers or other employees, people who might be sympathetic to the Belgian colonials, were used to find and sometimes kill sympathizers. In case something like that ever happened again, we did not want our records to be used to identify people who were friendly to outsiders who might be seen as oppressors. That we tried very hard to not be oppressors was hardly the point; violent revolutions often get such things wrong. We would also offer everyone in the camp the opportunity to display their tools and other durable items so that we could inventory and photograph them. This was done voluntarily, but in this particular culture there was no proscription against it as long as we were looking only at regular household items or hunting weapons. Any sacred ritual items would be kept hidden, most likely, and we would not ask about them.

It was a party, a good time, lots of conversation, some weeping over the fact that the much beloved Jack and Helen would be moving back to the States, lots of fun with the green sunglasses, lots of data collected. Then, we left, and the next day we returned to map in the locations of the small dome shaped leaf-covered huts and other structures, fire hearths, stick chairs, drying racks, midden piles, trampled central-use areas, and so on and so forth. This is what the abandoned camp of a people known in the literature, and generally to outsiders, as “nomads” looked like. There was lots of stuff there, but all of it was made from materials available on the spot, transformed from wild growing plants to architecture and kitchen furniture, but eventually thrown out or left behind. Everything else was carried by the Efe, in one trip, to the next camp they would build from natural materials. Or almost everything.

Saying goodbye to Jack and Helen.
Saying goodbye to Jack and Helen.
To understand the movement of the Efe across the landscape, one had to first understand the seasonal cycles of the villages and the forest. While the Efe were hunter gatherers, living off the land in the African rain forest, they also associated with the Lese Villagers, farmers who grew crops in swidden (slash and burn) gardens. Sometimes the Efe men helped the Lese to develop the gardens, especially new gardens, by cutting and burning trees, in exchange for some goods, often tobacco and marijuana (which were always consumed together). But much more regularly, the women worked in the gardens planting, tending, harvesting, and processing rice, peanuts, cassava, plantains, and other crops. These gardens had a seasonal cycle. Being almost on the equator, there were two growing seasons, a wet season for “dry” country rice and a less wet season for growing peanuts. The other crops were grown year round. So, there was a harvesting and planting season around June, and another harvesting and planting season around November.

Collecting data from an abandoned camp.
Collecting data from an abandoned camp.
In return for their work in the fields, Efe could take food from the gardens. In the end, about half of the food the Efe ate consisted of agricultural produce procured in exchange for this work and the other half of their food came from the forest, mostly hunted meat but also gathered fruits and roots and other things.

And the forest had it’s seasonal cycle as well. During the dry season, which lasted several weeks around November and December, certain animals were easier to hunt because the streams they hid in, or that would impair hunter’s movement through the forest, were very low. Staring in late June and running into August, the famous African Killer Honey Bees (the wild version of our own domesticated honey bee) produced copious honey in nests about 100 feet up in the forest canopy. The Efe men were very dedicated to harvesting this honey.

If you think about that information for a bit you’ll notice possible conflict. For example, the Efe are drawn to the deep forest for Honey Season, but this overlaps with the mid-year harvest and planting. The November harvest and planting overlapped and conflicted with the dry season hunting. You might guess that men and women would have different opinions about where to reside during these periods of conflicts. The women would never stay overnight in a farm village during harvest; they moved each day by foot from the Efe camp to the gardens and back. But as it became more desirable to camp farther and farther into the forest, that commute became longer and longer. We say (usually tongue in cheek) that Western couples fight over certain things, like money or how to raise the kids or what channel to watch on TV. Efe couples argue over where to put the camp in relation to the horticultural villages vs. the deep forest.

I ended up never continuing Jack and Helen’s data collection project. That I would spend a year doing Part II of another graduate student’s thesis was an idea cooked up by our shared advisor, but neither Jack nor I saw the benefit in doing that. He had enough data, I had other things to do. So, instead, I studied the larger scale structure of Efe nomadism, of their movements across the landscape and their use of forest resources.

I discovered that each Efe group possessed (and that is a carefully chosen word) rights to a trail, usually one single trail but sometimes something a bit more complicated, that ran from the villages out into the forest. Along this trail, at intervals of almost exactly 1.5 kilometers, was a potential camp site. Of these camp sites, a handful were used again and again as the Efe moved through their seasonal cycle. Some of the other camps were used only occasionally. This was interesting, because it meant that even though the efe might move over 20 times a year, the part of their movement in the deep forest had them return to the same exact four or five camps again and again for years. They would also repeatedly use the same camps near the villages, but since village farmers often moved their swidden gardens, wiping out grown-over sections of the forest in one area and abandoning a garden elsewhere, the Efe “village camps” … the camps used during planting and harvest seasons … were often destroyed or otherwise became inconvenient.

Efe hunter.  As a general rule, if you don't know at least approximately where something is in the forest before you go looking for it, you're not likely to find it.
Efe hunter. As a general rule, if you don’t know at least approximately where something is in the forest before you go looking for it, you’re not likely to find it.
I also discovered that the Efe named each of their camps. This should not be surprising. Humans everywhere use place names to navigate and situate themselves in space. As with place names generally, the names of camps often had a meaningful history. One camp was named “Near the rotten orange tree.” That was a camp located near a garden where there once stood a citrus tree, long gone. That was revealing because there were no villages anywhere near the old orang tree today, the original village having been left decades ago. The best camp name I encountered was “Place the women refuse to pass.” This meant that this was the location along that particular group’s trail that the women refused to move camp beyond during the seasons they commuted to work in the gardens. As it was, this camp was about two hours walk from the villages. No wonder they refused to live beyond that point while working in the farms!

And now we come to the interesting anthropological lesson that emerges when we look at other cultures, in this case, the Efe and Lese. In books and articles about the Pygmies of the Central African rain forest, the Pygmies (including the Efe as well as other groups with different names) are often called “nomads.” Nomads, we all know, are people who move a lot. The term also invokes, for many, a certain amount of randomness, or at least, uncertainty in where one might be moving next. There is indeed uncertainty, of a sort, among the Efe as to when they are going to move and where to. But this is simply because one does not need to decide when or where until it is time to do so. There is a constant negotiation happening between members of a particular group as to when to move, and which camp to move to. If there is a big enough difference between different families in a camp, they can easily move to two different locations for a while, or one group can stay and others leave. But these differences never lead to the men going one place while the women go elsewhere, even though the biggest conflict is usually between men and women. The point is, their movement is not random, but well considered and systematic, yet in at the scale of days or weeks in advance, not very predictable at any level of detail.

Yet, at the same time, the Efe are the opposite of nomadic. Consider their Lese village farmer neighbors. They live in permanent villages. But, over time, the Lese use up garden space and firewood in the vicinity of their village. Also, a mini-epidemic of disease in a given village will cause people to not want to live there any more. So, over the course of a person’s life, say a person who lives to 70 years old, one might move seven or eight times from one village to another just in service to the agricultural cycle.

But wait, there’s more. Among the villagers, men and women, when they are married, move to one parent’s village or another for a while, then try to start their own village, and that sometimes does not work out, so they move again. So, around the age of marriage, a person may move three or four times in two or three years. A young man might spend two or three years working at a plantation far from their village, or spend some time in the army. A woman and her children might move to near a chief’s village if her husband is caught doing something wrong and forced into indentured service for a few months. Every now and then the government comes along and moves any village that is too far out in the forest closer to the road so it is easier to tax them. Then later, the government disappears (remember, this is a remote area) and everyone moves back. If grandma gets really sick part of the family might move far away to a mission hospital, because the family is required to supply food and labor to support grandma’s stay in what amounts to a hospice. And so on and so forth.

Betweeen all of these factors, Lese farmers might move 20 times in their life.

Let’s view “nomadism” among the Efe hunter gatherers and the Lese villagers from a slightly different perspective. Let’s ask the question: How many different places have you slept a total of 100 nights or more? That eliminates short forays, fishing trips, very short marriages, etc. Or, putting it a slightly different way, let’s look at the list of places one lives ranked by how many nights one has slept there in a lifetime. Nomads, given our usual conception of them, should have a very long list with a small number of nights at each place, while settled people should have a list with a short number of localities each associated with hundreds or thousands of nights, even if there is a tail of several places with a small number of nights each down hear the bottom of the list.

If we look at the “nomadic” hunter gatherers of the Ituri Forest, the Efe, their list will have five or six places that account for 80% or more of their nights, if we adjust for the frequently destroyed camps in or near the gardens. The Lese farmers, on the other hand, will have over a dozen localities with a several hundred nights in each. By that reckoning, the Lese are more nomadic over a lifetime, even if the Efe are constantly moving.

Minnesotans who go away for college and whose families have a cabin (maybe a series of cabins over time) up north and who spend part of their lives moving opportunistically from apartment to apartment in South Minneapolis are pretty nomadic too. I myself moved once before the age of 16, then about every six months for the next 15 years, chasing relationships, jobs, schools, and doing field work.

Finally, let’s look at nomadism in one more way. If you move every several years, occasionally more often such as around the time of marriage, then at any given time the landscape you know is the landscape you live in, and the memories of details of the landscape of your childhood or other times gone by both fades and becomes obsolete. But if you move constantly, but over the same exact landscape all the time like the Efe do, then your knowledge of every bit of the landscape is detailed an intense and constantly updated and renewed. The Efe know every root that ever tripped them and every rocky pile that ever harbored a small forest animal procurable for dinner and every mature fruit tree and every patch of tasty forest yams in the place they live. The other part of my research, looking at Efe diet, came to this conclusion: There is a fair amount of food in the rain forest, but the only way to find any of it is to know in advance where it is located. Otherwise, the costs in time and energy to discover it excede its caloric value.

The Efe are not nomadic. They are, rather, constant inspectors of their rather large home, centered on their traditionally used trail, consisting of a half dozen venues to sleep and live.


More stuff about the Congo

A while back I wrote a Novella, as a fundraising effort for the Secular Student Alliance, set in the eastern Congo. A cleaned up version of it is available here: Sungudogo

You can read the harrowing real life story of a season of field research in the same region, in a series of blog posts, by clicking HERE (then click through to the next blog post, and the next, and the next, until you’ve read them all!).

And, THIS LINK will get you to a selection of other stories set in the region.

Jack’s research was written up here:

Ethnoarchaeology Among the Efe Pygmies, Zaire: Spatial Organization of Campsites, by J. W. Fisher, Jr. and H. C. Strickland. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 78:473–484.

What a Difference a Century Can Make

At the beginning of the 20th century, a traveler in Central Africa made mention of some strange people that he had come across. He was traveling among regular, run-of-the-mill natives…probably Bantu-speaking people living in scattered villages and farming for their food. But along the way, strange people came out of the forest. These strange people had sloping foreheads; they were short of stature, bow-legged and otherwise misshapen. They also clearly were, in the eyes of the traveler, of subhuman intelligence. The traveler described these people as a separate, subhuman race that lived in the forest. As I read this, I began to think that perhaps he was speaking of so-called “Pygmies” who live in this region, and as I began to think that, I started to get mad at this writer because so-called “Pygmies” do not look or act as he described. Continue reading What a Difference a Century Can Make

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.

“We Live In Little Houses Made of Beans”

We were discussing insects. What about eating insects?

When it comes up that I’ve lived in the Central African Rain Forest, certain questions often come up, and one of them is: “Did you eat bugs?”

Every one has seen those National Geographic specials where some natives somewhere are eating insects, and of course, Westerners who think they generally don’t eat insects are fascinated with the idea. However, Westerners eat a lot more insects than they think. You should really consider any processed food you eat that started out as a plant crop to be part insect. If what you are eating is made of any corn product, rice, wheat, etc. or pretty much anything else, consider how the foodstuff got from field to factory to your face. At no point did someone sit down and do what you do with the veggies you buy at the grocery store: take the time to clean them off and if you run into a bug, get rid of it. And, even when you do that to your own produce, you are not seeing some of the invertebrates that are just too small and too well hidden to see.

We had a more extreme than usual buggy food situation arise in the Ituri Forest one year. Our practice was to grow some food, and occasionally purchase food from a local market when one existed, but to mostly stay away from the food the local people grew, because we didn’t want to be draining away their resources. So, we would go to town every several weeks and purchase a number of long-term staples, including 20 kilo sacks of rice, beans, or other dry foods, a few gallons of palm oil, and to splurge, twenty boxes of pasta and dozens of tiny little cans of tomato paste which we would turn into feeble Italian food. The tomato paste cans always exploded on opening, so one had to learn to aim them into the pot first. But I digress.

Once you brought that food back there was no changing plans. If something bad happened to the sack of rice, there would be no rice for six weeks. We kept the food in a special food storage hut, and our cook, a locally hired woman who worked a few hours a day for us, would take very good care of it. All sorts of things can go wrong from leaks in the roof to vermin to mold or rot.

And one day something went wrong with the beans.

At first we noticed little black spots floating around in the cooked beans. A little later we noticed that among the beans, while cleaning them, there were these little tiny things that would fly away. Then we noticed that some of the beans had little holes bored into them. Eventually, we put two and two together and figured out that we had some sort of infestation. Some small beetle creature had taken up residence in our beans. Their larva would bore a hole into a bean and live there for a while, presumably eating each bean from the inside out. I’m pretty sure both the larvae and adults were doing the boring, but I can’t be sure. The way we handled this was to spread the beans out in the sun, and over time a bunch of the beetles would fly away. Then we’d wash off the beans as per usual and some of the beetles left behind, beetle corpses (of which there was an increasingly large number) and grubs would be washed away. But as each day passed, the number of beetles that would end up in the cooked beans went up and up and up, and the efficacy of getting rid of the beetles was obviated by their ubiquity. So we stopped laying the beans out in the sun. At that point we stopped eating “cooked beans” and started eating “cooked beetles and beans” or, for short “B&B”.

And eventually we discovered that this was not all that uncommon. If you want beans in that habitat, you’re gonna get beetles too. Its just that this particular batch of Beetles and Beans was farther along than usual. Eventually we had to speed up the rate at which we consumed the beans so that there would be some left for us to eat! And, as I recall, the next batch of beans had hardly any beetles in it.

Well, I’m sorry to report that you do something like this every day when you eat stuff made out of pretty much any plant, but probably to a lesser degree. When products are made in factories in the US, some sort of test is applied to the powder or juice or whatever the corn or beans or wheat is turned into, to see how much invertebrate (mainly insect) matter is in there. I assume that batches with “too much” are mixed with batches of “not much” to make batches of corn meal, wheat flour, etc. that have under the regulated maximum amount of insect matter. Right?

In any event, there is nothing wrong with eating most insects, especially those that eat the foods we eat. Chances are they are low in toxins, and they are loaded with amino acids and other protein related molecules! Here as well as the Ituri, people eat insects all the time in this manner.

But of course, that is not what people are really asking me. They want to know if I’ve ever eaten insects as part of the cuisine. On purpose.

Yes, of course I have…

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?

Is it appropriate to use the term "Pygmy" when speaking of…Pygmies?

Left: Efe (Pygmy) man. Right: White guy.
Some of the people who live in the rain forest of Central Africa are known widely as “Pgymies.” That word…Pygmy…is considered problematic for a few different reasons. It refers to a person’s physical appearance, because it means “small.” The word is sometimes used in biology to refer to the smaller species among a group of closely related species, as in “Pygmy Hippopotamus” or “Pygmy Chimp.” In English and probably some other languages, the term is used in a derogatory way to refer to someone who is perceived as not very smart, as in “Pygmy mind.” Sometimes the word is simply used, as it is, as a non-specific derogatory word. Someone might be called a “Pygmy” because by someone who does not like them. Also, more of a distracting complexity than negative meaning, the term “Pygmy” is often misused to refer to a much larger number of different people around the world who happen to be dark skinned and short. We see the term used for the Andaman Islands, in Papaua New Guinea and Australia, for example. These a are some of the reasons the term is considered problematic. Continue reading Is it appropriate to use the term "Pygmy" when speaking of…Pygmies?

Which works better, Acupuncture or Changa?

Acupuncture is the ancient East Asian practice of poking people with needles in specific places and in specific ways in order to produce any one of a very wide range of results that could generally be classified as medicinal or health related. I don’t know much about it, but Wikipedia tells us:
Continue reading Which works better, Acupuncture or Changa?

Wildlife of Southern Africa

Wildlife of Southern Africa , by Martin Withers and David Hosking, is new (August 2011) and good. If you are planning a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana or anywhere nearby, or if you live there and like to go to the bush sometimes, consider it.

This is a pocket guide, it is small, has good photographs, is inexpensive, and accurate.

Continue reading Wildlife of Southern Africa