Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Monkey Soup

In 1974 my friend and I were crossing from west to east Africa by road; or should I say dirt track? We had thought from the map that the way leading to the river and crossing from Central African Republic into what was then Zaire was a bridge! But the only way across was dugout canoe. That meant the only transport would have to come from the south and return. Nothing came for days. We camped by the river and then near the village chief’s hut. Huts made of mud and foliage that grew in the dense forest all around us.

The morning our cans of sardines, bread and tomatoes ran out, everyone started shouting and running away from the river down the track. We couldn’t figure out what was going on. Fearing that the river might be the problem, we ran with them passed the huts on either side of the dirt track. We noticed people were picking up sticks and stones and other objects. We knew many of the people by now so we didn’t fear them. But what could be happening? After running passed the village huts, and further into the forest, people stood about shouting up into the trees, while other climbed them.

Turned out a troop of monkeys were swinging through the trees and the villagers were intent on catching at least one for dinner. This is now known as bush meat. I didn’t know back then but this is the main reason for the reduction of animals in Africa, not overseas Hemingway-style hunters.

Once we saw what was happening we retreated back toward the river. Near the chief’s hut a fire was started and two men brought a large dead monkey with a spike through it and turned it over the fire to burn off its hair. We went on to sit at our favorite spot by the river.

That evening a large old metal pot with a soup-like mixture was brought to the chief’s hut. Many people arrived with their containers, everything from the husks of plants to clay bowls, but mainly old one-quart oil cans. We all got a ladle of soup in our containers. We sat and crouched to relish our monkey soup. Everyone had at least a couple of small pieces of meat swishing around in the mixture. It didn’t taste too bad, mainly very bland. I mentioned this to my friend. A light went off in his head. He went over to his backpack and took out our saltshaker. We put some in our bowls and it tasted great. Everyone’s eye’s lit up and he went from person to person shaking salt into each container with appreciative, ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ as people mixed in the salt and re-tasted it. What there was of it, I remember the monkey meat tasting a little like goat, which is a bit like dry lamb. The saltshaker was virtually deified that evening as it stood there on a rock near the hut.

The next day a little one-ton 1930s truck chugged into the village for a short stay before heading south. We agreed on a small price to take us as far as they were going. We stood in the back waving to the villagers as we jostled off down the road.

Tony B.

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