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Wild food, uncivil society

Cameroon, 2010

The menu at the Christina Hotel, an unpretentious establishment on the outskirts of Bertoua, was reasonably extensive by the standards of provincial Cameroon. There was a choice of steak au poivre, poulet basque, singe, vipère or porc-épic – steak, chicken, monkey, snake or porcupine – but there was nothing to say how the bushmeat was cooked or what it was served with.  Perhaps that’s why my companions, Paolo Cerutti and Didier Essiene, decided we should eat elsewhere.

We headed for a small restaurant a little way up the hill from the hotel. A sign outside announced: Mal au ventre on ne serts pas ici – we don’t serve stomach ache here.  We sat down at a rickety table covered with a plastic cloth that was frayed and greasy with age. There was no written menu; instead, the owner, a lumbering woman in a dress that billowed like a tent, told us what was on offer: grilled chicken or roast viper accompanied by boiled cassava or boiled plantain.

Twenty minutes later, our thirst now quenched by strong beer, a young waitress with a slinky figure slapped our food on the table.  The lighting was so poor we could hardly see what we were eating and I soon abandoned the cutlery and set about the roast viper with my fingers.  The flesh, arranged along the cartilaginous backbone like chops in a rack of lamb, was fine in texture and similar to chicken in taste.  If viper were ever served in a Michelin-stared restaurant it would be accompanied by a subtle sauce, perhaps a tarragon-infused jus, rather than a spicy slop of tomatoes, onions, garlic and chilli, but this suited the setting: a robust sauce for a rough country. The only disappointment was the cold plantains, which were fibrous and tasteless. Sautéed potatoes and a green salad would have been the perfect accompaniment, along with a glass of cold Chablis, but it was a fine meal all the same.

Paolo finishing his porcupine stew

Paolo finishing his porcupine stew

The fact that I hadn’t eaten since we left the capital, Yaoundé, some 330 km to the west, undoubtedly added to my enjoyment of the meal.  We had stopped at midday in a village surrounded by high forest, but when I saw what was on offer in the market I was overcome by a bout of squeamishness.

“You should eat,” insisted Paolo, a tall, handsome Italian whose figure belied his enormous appetite.  “We will have a long afternoon in the forest.”  I was here to write about the problems facing small-scale timber producers, who find it impossible to go about their business without paying bribes to corrupt government officials. Paolo and Didier, a Cameroonian of great charm, had spent years researching the subject.

“I can’t face porcupine at the moment,” I said.

“Why not? It’s delicious,” said Paolo in a tone that suggested I was being unreasonable. “Have you never tried it?”

I had, on a previous visit to Cameroon.  It wasn’t so much the taste I objected to – the meat is gamey, if tough – as the look of the beast.  During the morning we had passed many recently slain porcupines, strung up for sale from branches and wooden sticks beside the road.  This is an animal that looks as though it has been cobbled together from the dregs of several unrelated gene pools. The body is barrel-shaped and pug-like; the face is square, blunt and hairy; the eyes piggy and ill-tempered.  And the whole charmless combination comes equipped with a ferocious clump of quills which look as though they have been carelessly stuck on the animal’s hindquarters, for want of anywhere better to put them.

I spent a good deal of time in Cameroon contemplating food, especially wild food, which is on offer almost everywhere you travel in the densely forested south.  Porcupine, monkey, antelope, pangolin, snake, grasscutter: you will see these on sale beside the main roads.  Venture further into the forests and you might come across villages where gorilla, chimpanzee and other protected species are killed for the pot. The primates we passed on the way to Bertoua were small monkeys, suspended by their neck and tail from horizontal poles, which made them look like the victims of torture.

Viper for dinner - by far the best meal I had on our trip

Viper for dinner – by far the best meal I had on our trip (photo: Paolo Cerutti)

“What does monkey taste of?” I asked.

“A bit like dog,” said Paolo.  “But I never eat monkey.  It’s too much of a health risk.”  It is almost certain that HIV/AIDS first entered the human population after hunters had eaten undercooked primates.

“I won’t eat monkeys either. They look too like us,” said Didier.  He added that he was happy to eat wild cats.  “They taste very good.  In any case, you need to eat wild cat to prevent sorcerers from attacking you.”

When the owner of the restaurant returned to our table I asked whether there was any danger of roast snake being served with the venom.  She shook her head.  After a hunter catches a snake, she explained, he chops off its head and buries it.  Preparing and cooking a snake is easy.  You slit its belly open, pull out the innards and lob it in the oven.  She said she’d try to get us another viper for the next evening.

*                                                                       *

On an earlier visit to Cameroon I spent some time in the villages around Lomié, a small town in East Region a little way north of the border with the Republic of Congo.  There are still large areas of high tropical forest here on which the local people, both Bantu and pygmy, depend for their survival.  They cut timber for sale and to build their homes; they harvest grasses and vines to make thatching, rope and baskets; they snare and shoot wild game; they collect wild fruit, wild vegetables, medicinal plants and aphrodisiacs.  But the outside world has begun to intrude.  While trucks laden with logs and sawn timber head down the red-dirt roads in one direction, towards the capital and the port of Douala, from the other come clothes from China, electrical goods, corrugated iron roofing and alcohol.  There is often no escape from the latter, even in the early hours of the day.

One morning we headed for the village of Kongo, a scattering of hamlets not far from Lomié. “Il faut saluer le chef,” said Patrice, my guide on that occasion.  In every village we visited, we began by greeting the chief and explaining why we had come, just as foreign ambassadors are obliged to present themselves at the Court of St James when they take up their posts in London.

Chief Cyprien Magellan Douam came out of his house to greet us with a crooked grin.  A red baseball cap was jauntily perched on one side of his head, as though seeking to draw attention away from the squinty eye on the other.  He was unsteady on his legs.  “I drank four bottles of Guinness for breakfast,” he said by way of explanation.  “That’s how I’m treating my stomach ulcer.”

He invited us into the main room of his house, where we sat on fake leather sofas of great antiquity. A pair of eagle claws was suspended from the ceiling and two large python skins were tacked onto one wall.  Otherwise, the room was completely bare.  The chief immediately began to reminisce, unbidden, about life in Kongo.

“In the old days, people could die in this village without ever living in a proper house,” he said.  “Now, everyone has a proper house.”  In 1973, when he was a teenager, the population of Kongo was no more than 60.  Now it was over 950, thanks in no small part to the chief’s own prodigious efforts.  “Since I was born, I’ve had 11 wives, and I have 22 children still living,” he said proudly.  As for grandchildren, they were too numerous to count.  When we left his house, after an hour or so of rambling monologue, he walked us through the tin-roofed shanty of huts where his wives and children lived.  He said he would have liked to accompany us on our tour, but he had fallen out with the people we had come to see.

Didier buying bushmeat on the roadside

Didier, far left, buying bushmeat on the roadside (Photo: Paolo Cerutti)

During the course of the morning we visited some new houses, a small shop and a grinding mill, all of which had been paid for with the profits from a forest managed by the local community.  At one point, we were followed by a young man who was so drunk that he could scarcely stand up.  He screamed insults, largely directed at me, and demanded, among other things, that we drive him to a distant town and, once there, buy him some medicine.  From time to time, somebody would tell him to mind his manners, but nobody seemed to find his behaviour odd.  When we finished our interviews Patrice suggested that I could thank those who had helped us – perhaps five or six people – by buying them a drink.

Somebody went in search of a key and the padlock was removed from the windowless building in the centre of the village.  This was the local bar.  People we hadn’t seen before began to appear: men in drab clothes, women with large behinds and shuddering bosoms, many magnificently dressed in colourful robes and headdresses.  There was no nonsense about drinking from glasses.  Everyone lifted the big glass bottles to their lips, tilted their heads backs and poured the beer – a brand called Castel, in this case – down their throats as though they had been doing this all their lives.  Before we left, I was presented with a bill for 42 beers.

On my last trip, with Paolo and Didier, I came across little in the way of drunkenness until our final day in the field.  This may be because we spent much of our time in areas where there was a large Muslim population.  By the time we arrived in Akeoman, it was raining heavily.  This, in theory, was a good thing: it meant the loggers I was hoping to interview would be in their homes, rather than at work in the forest.

Henri was probably in his late 40s.  Tall, ill-shaven, shoeless and raggedly dressed, he talked expansively, arms waving like out-of-control semaphores, about his good fortune as the rain beat down on the tin roof of his dilapidated home.  In places, the mud had fallen away from the walls to reveal bare wattle.  The roof leaked.  Henri sat on a wooden bed covered with old blankets that hadn’t been washed for months, perhaps years.  We sat on small stools, of the sort used when milking goats, and asked him about his business as a logger.  He was delighted to have some foreigners in his house and had no intention of answering our questions.

“You people who drive on the left-hand side of the road,” he said in rough, guttural French, waving towards me, “you cannot tell me that you live in a paradise like this.  No, you cannot.  When God walked across the Earth he put one foot down here and made this place a paradise.  I go out there” – he motioned behind his shack – “and I can cut down a tree.  Yes, and I can sell the timber, and within a short time, another tree has taken its place.  That is what nature gives us.  I go out there, and I can dig up a tuber, or shoot a monkey and eat it for dinner.  You see, here we have everything.  Do not tell me that you English live in a paradise like this!”

This speech was delivered with confident aggression, which is very much the manner of discourse in this part of Cameroon, even when sober. I decided I could not let it pass.

“I live in a paradise too,” I said.  “But it’s a different sort of paradise.  It is true that I cannot go out of my house and cut down a tree, or collect wild food, or shoot a monkey.  But I can buy all these things.  And that is why I work.  That is why I make a living.”

He slapped his hands together and shook his head.  “Eeeeeh,” he said sadly, “c’est pas normal, ça! Ce n’est pas normal!

*                                                               *

Mention tropical forests to westerners and they tend to go misty eyed at the very thought of their beauty, their biological diversity and the role they play in regulating our climate.  And it is true that the forests of the Congo Basin, the Amazon and Indonesia are of great ecological significance.  But tropical forests can be hellish places to visit and live in.  After this particular trip I ended up in hospital with West Nile fever.  In earlier times I was twice struck down by dengue fever, and once by Japanese encephalitis, both of which are spread by mosquitoes, after spending time in Indonesia.  Besides the health risks tropical forests pose, there are other reasons why I find them less appealing than, say, the rolling hills and savanna country in the north of Cameroon.  In Central Africa’s tropical forests the eyes soon tire of bright green foliage, bright red soil and bright blue sky.  And the more pristine the forest, the less you see, for there are no long vistas.

One day, when I was in Yaoundé, recently returned from a trip to North- West Province, I mentioned to a Rwandan scientist who ran an international research centre how much I had enjoyed my time there.  It wasn’t just the hilly landscape, with its patchwork of woodlands and fields, its coffee gardens and orchards and the pleasant climate that had lifted my heart, but the people.  They were charming, humorous, quietly spoken and mostly sober.

“Yes,” she said, not remotely surprised, “people from the Anglophone provinces are much nicer than the people from the Francophone areas.  They’re less aggressive, more fun to be with.”  She thought this had something to do with the country’s colonial history.

Porcupine and antelope for sale on the road back to Yaounde

Porcupine and antelope for sale

After the First World War, Germany was deprived of its colonial possessions and Cameroon was divided between the British and the French.  The British took two provinces near the Nigerian border; the French took the rest, including the heavily forested provinces in the south.  In the former, people speak Pidgin English, or English, as well as their tribal languages; in the latter they speak French, as well as their tribal languages.  In the former, the British ruled through the paramount chiefs and did nothing to change the nature of land ownership; they encouraged the missions to set up schools and hospitals. The French, in contrast, fashioned a heavily centralised state and nationalised – in other words, appropriated – all forest land.

Now, over 50 years after Independence, the Pidgin-speaking provinces lack political power, which is concentrated in the French-speaking heartlands, but their people struck me as being more independent minded, more willing to work together to better their lives, and less constrained by a sense of entitlement than those elsewhere.  But I also I think the difference between them is a reflection, to some degree, of climate and topography.

Of course, Henri is right. Tropical forests provide everything you need for survival: fibre, fruit, fish, game, water, timber to cook with and build.  And Henri is perfectly capable of getting all he needs by himself, or perhaps with the help of his family.  In these densely forested areas, there is no need to establish cooperative ventures with other families, other clans, other communities, and this is one of reason why forest communities are so different from those who live in areas where the environment and climate are drier, more varied and less predictable.  Under these conditions, survival is often a trickier business, requiring ingenuity and cooperation.  It is in the interests of individuals to work together, for example to harvest and store scarce water.  As a result these societies tend to be more complex, more sophisticated, and more consensual in their dealings with one another.

*                                                                               *

On our last night in Bertoua we returned to the restaurant near the hotel, salivating at the prospect of roast viper.  We were out of luck, but the grilled chicken, which came with pommes frites rather than cold cassava, and chilli-hot tomato sauce were excellent.  On the way back to Yaoundé Didier brought two enormous bunches of plantains, a small antelope and a porcupine, which he slung in the back of the pick-up. Shortly afterwards we stopped for fuel.  A young man with a bicycle was blocking our way to the pumps and made no efforts to move.  Our driver wound down his window.

“What are you, a zombie?” he shouted in French.  “Were you born without a brain in your head?”

The cyclist slowly turned to look at the driver, who fired off another volley of abuse.  Eventually, he moved to one side to let us pass. He wore an expression of compete indifference.

“I can’t believe the way people talk to each other here,” I said to Didier.  “If that happened in England, there’d be a fight.”

“But Charlie, you don’t understand our culture.  With us, insults are a sign of friendship.  It’s a way of making contact with people you don’t know.”

Incidentally, the viper we ate at Bertoua was not a protected or endangered species.