“Excuse me, there’s some food in my bugs!”

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Speaking of people eating insects … as we were … I do have this fun story from the Ituri Forest.

One day something funny happened. I was traveling in the most remote part of Central Africa, several days walk from any place you could possibly drive a car, visiting uncharted villages mainly occupied by people who had moved into the deep forest because they were in trouble with the “law” in some way (usually for perfectly good reasons in this lawless country). I was traveling with a Lese Villager and his sister, who was hired as our cook, and three Efe Pygmy men. We visited a village that was not exactly uncharted, but which officially did not exist. Years earlier everyone who lived in this part of the forest was forced by the government to move to the “road” (now a slippery foot path you could sort of drive a very good 4-wheel drive truck on if you were prepared to dig yourself out now and then). This village was “abandoned” at that time as people moved to the road, but in fact it had been unoccupied for only short intervals of time over the last few decades.

The people who lived in this village were very familiar with the idea of an anthropologist, and were aware that we had a research facility a few days walk to the east. Others, while they had heard of us, either had never met any of the outsiders or didn’t care much either way about us.

When we initially embarked on our long trek to the village, we carried enough food to get there, but not much more. I was assured by my fellow travelers that the streets of the village would be paved with food, as it were, and that we would not have to carry much with us, and if we brought just a little cash and some tobacco and salt, we could easily trade for plenty of spare rice to get ourselves back to the road fatter than we had left. Since it was technically the tail end of one of the two seasons of widespread reduced food availability, I didn’t much like that idea but I didn’t have a choice. It was simply impossible to carry enough food to make the trip there and back. So we gambled with the odds against us.

And, of course, we lost. We arrived at the village with a kilo of rice and little else, and there we found there was not much food. Even though the rice harvest was just starting, so people weren’t exactly starving, there was nothing close to an abundance. We knew that we could eat while we stayed in the village … there was enough for that … but clearly we’d have to make the trip home without provisions. We’d have to live off the land for the three day walk home … which would probaby be a four day walk since we’d be starving and you go slower when you are starving. (Another story for another time. It was not a good week to be a monkey along our route!)

The village was traditional and I was a guest, so I was treated accordingly, and had to act accordingly. This meant we travelers needed to divide up into appropriate traditional roles and mete ourselves out among the villagers per spec, and thereafter more or less spend our time that way. The Efe men went to hang around with the Efe that were living in the village and they were also able to sit with the village women when they were outside processing food; Our cook went to work and hung with the village women in the mafika … an open air kitchen building with a roof and food stores, cooking gear, etc. … during the heat of the day. And, as the adult male, I was expected to hang around with the other adult males in the baraza … the open air ramada-like roofed-over sitting area in the middle of the village. As men, we would have important things to do in this baraza. Planning things and stuff.

So, I sat there and did my Ethnoarchaeology, hanging out with the other men, observing things and writing it all down, while the women prepared our first meal together, which would include all of the rice we had brought and whatever the village had to offer.

And what did the village have to offer? There were three things besides our rice. Someone had killed an antelope that morning so there was a bit of meat. The meat was cooked in palm oil traded about noon that day with some Budu merchants who had come by to exchange forest products for oil. (The oil was traded for a forest fruit known as “eme” which is not really food but rather medicine.) Then there was sombe. Sombe is wonderful. It is the very young leaves of the casava (manioc, manihot) plant pounded and cooked with palm oil. The process is much more complex than I’ve indicated. It is the main thing to eat that I miss from the region, and impossible to get outside the forest unless you have connections and live in Belgium.

And the third thing was bugs. To be specific, palm larvae. These are grubs of some critter, and you get them from inside a palm tree, which were eaten frequently this time of year. They are fried up in a bit of palm oil which gives both flavor and color, and some salt is added. They are not very flavorful but they are quite nutritious.

When the food was all prepared, the women came over one or two at a time and gave a plate of food to each man. A woman or women associated with a particular man or men as mother, wife, sister, or daughter had prepared each plate and had brought it to the baraza, so of course, our traveling cook, Maria, brought me my plate.

When she handed me the plate, our cook also gave me a knowing look, because she knew that I was not enamored with the traditional roles of her culture and was somewhat uncomfortable getting served along with the other men in the baraza. I returned the look as I glanced down at the plate, and on the plate was some rice, some antelope, some sombe, and about a dozen palm grubs. But there was a small problem. While all the food types were neatly separated into their own zones on my plate, some of the sombe had moved across the plate and joined the palm grubs. A splotch of green leafy food rested among the larvae of the palms.

Maria was five steps away when I called out.


She stopped and turned. I pointed at my plate.

“Maria, there is some food in my bugs!”

She was close enough to see exactly what I referred to.

It turns out that some jokes translate and some do not. It is all a matter of available symbolic reference and context. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pointed at a plantain or banana peel laying on the ground (these are a main crop for the region) and said to someone “Hey, don’t slip on that!” Every time I did that I amused myself but the person whom I had warned had no clue that this was funny to me, no image of Woody Allen and a giant banana peel came to their mind. The joke was always a dud.

But this time it clicked. Maria laughed heartily and, pointing at me and barely able to talk, explained the joke to the men in the Baraza. They all laughed as well. Maria told the joke to the women back at the mafika, and I could hear their laughter mixed with phrases like “Those white people… they are so funny sometimes” and that sort of thing. The joke spread across the Ituri Forest and it was also retold among anthropologists. In fact, one famous anthropologist giving the keynote address at a major event celebrating Mary Leakey’s birthday told the joke as part of his remarks. Mary Leakey LOL’ed.

Maria, there’s some food in my bugs!!!! Still cracks me up.


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17 thoughts on ““Excuse me, there’s some food in my bugs!”

  1. These stories are seriously awesome.

    I am curious as to why sombe is so hard to get outside of the forest and Belgium? Maybe I’m missing something, but couldn’t it be made in America?

  2. Drivebyposter: I have no idea. The manioc is a tropical plant, and the leaves must be processed right away after picking. After that the product has to be frozen. So, the only way I knew of for people to get it was to get it from a farm in the Congo to a freezer in the Congo, and there were almost no freezers near farms. But there were some. Then, the problem is getting a frozen product from a place where almost all electronic technology is broken to Europe. Thus, it’s rarity.

    But yes, why not make it in Florida? Do they grow manioc in the US anywhere? It is, of course, from the Amazon, originally.

  3. Yuca root is a common food in the Caribbean and Mexico. I have no doubt it is cultivated some in Florida. But I’ve never had the leaves. From what I read, it originated in the New World, and only moved to Africa after Columbus.

  4. I saw a web site where people were feeding bugs to chickens as a way to recycle road kill. What they did was put the road kill in a bucket and suspend it over a chicken yard.

    Flies would lay eggs in the road kill, the eggs would hatch and form maggots, the maggots would eat the road kill and when they got big enough they would crawl out of the bucket to find a place to pupate. They would then fall onto the chicken yard and immediately be eaten by a chicken.

    Earthworms can eat cellulose and convert it into biomass by fermenting it the way that ruminants do. Earth worms are effectively cold-blooded ruminants.

  5. Dr. Laden, I am a new visitor to your blog, and in a short time I have become a big fan. Thank you for the fascinating and most enjoyable stories you recount.

    One question: in several recent posts the Efe are referred to as “Efe Pygmies,” but in some older posts (such as the Great White Missionary – which is both hilarious* and a disturbing reminder of the behavior of some Westerners) we are reminded that the people you lived with and studied are called the Efe, and the term “pygmies” is to be avoided (as possibly pejorative, or perhaps not?)

    What are your recommendations as to the appropriate terminology? (Not trying to be a troll – just curious.)

    A New Fan

    *I especially enjoyed the fact that the Efe knew all along what was going on, regardless of the language barrier, while the Westerners were completely clueless. The Efe gentleman who brought the plantain leaf was a particular favorite. 🙂

  6. I love these stories, too.

    Manioc is sometimes grown in Puerto Rico, which is an “associated free state” of the United States.

  7. we are reminded that the people you lived with and studied are called the Efe, and the term “pygmies” is to be avoided (as possibly pejorative, or perhaps not?)
    What are your recommendations as to the appropriate terminology?

    Good question. I use the word “Pygmy” in these posts because they are stand alone and just “Efe” does not do it. Yet, I left off the statement about the term’s origin. This is inadequate.

    What I probably should do is write a post about people’s names (culture names) with some definitions and whenever I use the word “Efe” just link to that post and leave off “Pygmy”

    The same applies to “San”/”Bushmen”/”Ju’/hoansi”/”Baswara” which are various words for various similar groups of southern African hunter gatherers, except with these folks it is even more complicated.

    A single go-to post would probably be the best idea. Every time I type “Pygmy” I tell myself to go do that. I think the time is near.

    Glad you are enjoying the blog!

  8. why not make [sombe] in Florida?

    Can manioc tolerate any frost at all? It does occasionally freeze in Florida, even in the southernmost parts of the mainland. The Keys are pretty much frost free, but soil there (and on much of the immediate coast of Dade County, which is at the southern end of the east coast mainland) is basically nonexistent, and the southwestern coast is part of a national park (the Everglades). You might be able to grow it around Homestead, but the people who own the farms around there think (probably correctly) there is more money to be had supplying the US with tomatoes in winter. Maybe a few homeowners grow some plants for their own use, but when I lived in Florida I wasn’t aware of any commercial manioc cultivation.

  9. I live near and shop at this place a few times a month. If anyone in the Midwest has frozen cassava leaves, Jim does. I do know they’ve got palm oil and several varieties of piri-piri sauce, but I’ve never looked for cassava leaves. (Their African foods tend more toward South Africa — e.g., their butcher makes fresh boerwors every day.)

    I’ll be up there next week and email you with what I find out. They may be able to ship ingredients to you directly.

  10. I found this recipe from the Burundi Goat Rehabilitation Project. I may have to try it myself.

    There also looks to be a fair number of YouTube videos with recipes for “cassava leaves,” e.g., here.

  11. During a recent PASSWORD AUDIT by my bank, they found that I was using the following password:


    When they asked me why I had such a long password

    I replied
    ”Are you bloomin’ stupid? I was told that my password had to
    be at least 8 characters long and include one capital”

  12. Life for those women must suck. They are treated like servants.

    At any rate, you seemed to like being waited on.

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