C.W. Gusewell


My tummy refuses to go ape over ape

When traveling in some of the less touristic parts of the world, the issue of diet can sometimes test the imagination.

Fifty years ago, in a hunting camp in Tanzania, supper was a tasty – if rather sinewy – flank steak off a zebra.

For my 58th birthday, celebrated on a river in Siberia, my Russian companions traded vodka to some hunters for a hunk of moose.

Another time the menu was roadkill.

At a scruffy settlement in the Sahara, south of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, I was sharing tea one afternoon with a Berber man in his mud hut when a scrawny chicken, pecking on the sandy road outside, was struck by a speeding vehicle.

My host leapt up from his cushion, darted outside, snatched up the fallen bird and invited me to join him for lunch.

That was a desperately poor village, where I was told there had been no rain for three years – the sort of place where something edible, even if a little bruised, couldn’t be wasted.

But those culinary adventures pale alongside something I saw the other day in a brief dispatch out of the West African republic of Guinea, where, according to the report, there has been an outbreak of the incurable viral disease ebola, an ailment that kills 90 percent of the victims it infects.

As nasty as ebola is, the means of its spread is even more revolting. Humans can carry and transmit the virus, but the principal reservoirs of the ailment are specific creatures – notably bats and primates.

One year our family lived for a summer in Senegal, a former French colony on Africa’s Atlantic coast. A great number of fruit bats, flying mammals as big as hawks, roosted and fed in the jungle trees around our lodging.

In Guinea, and perhaps in Senegal as well, bat flesh – boiled for soup or cooked over a fire – is considered tasty fare. In an effort to halt ebola’s spread, Guinea has banned bat soup from the menu. Another problem, however, is said to be the practice of native hunters killing and eating parts of infected apes.

Besides our months in Senegal, work has taken me to Africa nine times. I find much about the people resourceful and inspiring. But if I’m ever in West Africa again and some nice villager offers hospitality, I’m going to pay damned close attention to what’s brought to the table.

I don’t want to give offense, but I intend to say, “I’ll pass on the soup, thank you. And I’m afraid I’m a bit too full for ape.”