This piece is an excerpt from Where Have All the Animals Gone?: My Travels with Karl Ammann by Dale Peterson (Bauhan Publishing).
One day Joseph showed up at the Rafia, a no-star hotel in Lomié, western Cameroon, wearing a blue-and-black striped nylon soccer shirt, and soon the three of us--Karl, Joseph, and I--had climbed into the car and, with Pierre at the wheel, set off to find Joseph's old hunting camp.
Franceville, he called it.
We followed a road that gradually disintegrated until it became a violent red furrow blasted through the forest. After a while we stopped, and Pierre tucked the car into a discreet little spot just off the road and then prepared for a snooze. Karl, Joseph, and I walked for an hour or two along an old track that had grown fallow. It was brushed over now with vines and bushes and a few trees chest and head high, and on either side was the broken forest, recently logged and open to the sky with a heavy sea of secondary undergrowth. We heard a perpetual rattle of insects in the bushes, the chirping of a few birds in the trees, and, on occasion, the racheting of a hornbill.
We finally reached Franceville, which was just about nothing, nearly gone, completely disintegrated. Just a few hundred feet farther down the track, however, we found a fresh new hunting village: a few huts, two of them mud-and-stick, the others of palm frond and bark over poles. A few chickens wandered around, pecking in the dirt, and one shabby dog was lazing around, nose resting flat in the dirt.
The new hunting camp was called Djodibe and the dog named Plaisir-so we were told by Mbongo George, one of the three hunters who had built and now occupied the place. The others were Mbongo's brother Desiré and a colleague named Dieudonne, who were both elsewhere at the moment. There were also some wives and children living in Djodibe, who all concentrated on keeping themselves hidden, while fleetingly shooting out curious gazes now and then from inside one or another of the shadowy huts.
Mbongo George was a young man-in his thirties-wearing shorts, flipflops, and a red sport shirt. He had a broad and handsome face, a calm smile and steady gaze, and a very pleasant manner that I found relaxing. He also had the disconcerting fidget of wavering his legs open and shut as he talked. He spoke of gorilla hunting and gorilla eating freely, in a casual, matter-of-fact way, and our conversation involved a lot of questioning and answering that would be translated from Africanized French to English and Americanized French and back again in reverse.
Mbongo told us that bushmeat traders are now supposed to have licenses, which allow them to trade in A and B species, with apes and elephants and the like illegal. Between country and town are road barriers supposedly manned by Eaux et Forets officers. The licensing system identifies the quantity and species a trader can buy--not above 60 pieces of meat per week. If you have more, they will confiscate. The traders used to pay bribes, but now it's more complicated. If you don't have a license, they just take all your meat. If you have one and show it to one of the Eaux et Forets officers, he says, "I can't eat your license," which is a circuitous way of saying, "Give me a cut of your meat."
Gorillas are fragile, compared to chimps, Mbongo said. If you shoot a gorilla out of the tree, he will fall down heavily. The fall kills him. If you shoot a chimp out of a tree, he still manages to run off. And if a young gorilla happens to get his or her hand caught in a snare, which can happen, the gorilla family will hang around for a day, and then they'll leave, and you can kill the gorilla with a spear. Gorilla meat is special, he went on. "It's a good meat to eat, but the women don't eat it." Why not? The woman eschew gorilla or chimp meat because they think those animals are too close to human. At the same time, the men like it because it gives them strength and power.
Mbongo is a member of the Zime tribe, from the bigger group of Kozime, and he went on tell us some of the beliefs and customs his people maintain regarding the mystical power of gorillas. Sometimes they will take the bone of a gorilla and tie it to a newborn baby. It's a way of making sure the baby will grow up strong. To cure a backache, you burn the bones of a chimp and pulverize the burned results-then add oil, make a paste, and rub the paste into someone's back. If a young girl gets pregnant, you tie a chimpanzee's pelvic bone to her hips, and she will have no problem with labor, even if she's very small. If it's dry season and you want rain, you can walk around with a chimpanzee skull, and it will rain.
Does chimpanzee or gorilla meat taste better than, say, duiker (forest antelope)? I wondered. Mbongo's answer turned economic: If you kill a gorilla, the director of the local secondary school will pay 35,000 francs for the meat.
Best part to eat? The hands and feet. True for both gorillas and chimps.
A part they don't eat? They leave a male's testicles.
Cooking a gorilla? To cook a gorilla, you first butcher it into pieces, singe off the hair. Put the meat into a pot of boiling water and oil, and cook for two hours. Add salt and spices. That's the muscle flesh. As for the head, you can put the whole thing, including brain and eyes, in its own pot of boiling water and oil, and the flesh falls off and becomes part of the stew. The skull you might save and later use for fetish (symbolic medicine and magic) purposes.
The spices? Wild spices include wild pepper. They also sometimes put vegetables in the stew: bitter herbs, cassava leaves, cocoyam leaves, and masepoh (rather like basil or sage, sweet and pungent), and anchea (local vegetable about the size and shape of a tomato, but orangish or purplish in color).