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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Janice Golding

Janice Golding

Born in Cape Town, Janice works in natural resource management and conservation policy. Her job focuses on countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In 2003, on a scholarship from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew she decided to take a doctorate at Oxford University, which she is now completing. Her first book, on endangered plants (Southern African Plant Red Data Lists, 2002), was done in collaboration with the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Her research has been published and cited in several top-ranking US and European scientific journals. Inspired by wine and energetic debate, this is Janice’s first piece of non-scientific writing.


 Monkey Stew on the 8th day in Berberati
“If food is manna from heaven, then hunger can raise devils from the dead”.

My first encounter with monkey stew deep in the jungles of Berberati, brought me face to face with personal demons whose existence I'd never even suspected. Not too long ago, I found myself in a forest concession area in the Central African Republic. I was part of team of consultant-analysts deployed to survey a 200 km stretch just south of the Mambere River in Berberati. Our mission was to identify timber trees, calculate their economic potential and map the forest environment for The Client. It was a standard job.

The five of us flew over the Congo River, into Bangui. In sky-high spirits, we drove a straight ten hours to the work site. Throughout that road journey, we laughed about having to severely reduce our speed on the worst parts of the road. We marvelled at bugs that collided with the windscreen (the fat ones made the biggest splashes) and we frowned at the film of red dust that covered just about everything. Except for endearingly rotten jokes (The 'there was an American, a Chinese, and… a Nigerian' variety), the general mode of communication was grunting, snoring, burping and farting. Sure, they were middle-aged South African men... but, our differences were even more fundamental. Let me paint a picture.

They were staunchly religious, made sinister by the military service of their youth, and then polished up by dubious PhDs in the late 1980s. Brandishing sturdy calves and heroic beer-bellies spilling over the waistband of rugby shorts, it became their life’s mission to foster relationships with trees (to raise environmentalism to a spiritual level!). They went about it by saving nature from the fists of the human race and translating this contradictory love into dollars – a fitting 21stcentury professionalism. To them, I was very much the external insider, the one strategically positioned to sustain the group dynamic. The youngest, and I believe the most easy-going, I revelled in the realisation that I held an important role. Me and my group of adorable, overgrown boy scouts eventually arrived at the forest edge, tired and soul-drenchingly happy.

The Berberati jungle is dark and dense, like a living, breathing organism. I swear, sometimes you will hear it hiss, exhaling humidity and bowing to the heat. The trees easily top 80 metres, blocking out sunlight, trapping in high temperatures. The forest is a carnivorous beast, and we are its victims. Leaf litter on the forest floor slithers with imaginary evil: 'What the hell was that? Did it really move?' Fatigue and sticky sweat that runs from every pore can trick the eyes. There are no footpaths or animal tracks in this place. The only way through the swollen, intensely tropical atmosphere is to swing the machete with serious intent. Dots of floral pinks and mauves add a magical quality to the forest. The flowers are sometimes large and dramatic, and they dazzle with their surreal beauty. Turning skywards, the heart soars. Glimpses of magenta plumage of birds flick through the leaves. Now and again, we spot another giant wa-wa, a majestic rare tree species that goes by the Latin name of Entandophragma. Merchants in the timber industry love it to death. Found nowhere else in the world, it is the undisputed lion of Afro-tropical rainforests. Its grain quality is breathtakingly intricate, justifying its place as the most expensive African timber in every Western commodity market. We count wa-wa adults and seedlings, and later on, try to work out mathematical models that can tell us how much can be harvested without threatening the natural balance in the ecosystem.

The song of African Grey Parrots is ever-present - a sure sign of their abundance in the forest. Jannie, the group’s tallest and skinniest, recalls the previous summer when we heard many during a job in the Knysna-Monkey Valley Forest in South Africa. Shaking our heads fervently, we agree that Western conservationists who insist the African Grey Parrot’s near-extinction actually know nothing about what is really going down on the ground. “Typical”, grimaces someone. It is a solemn, treasured moment of holy communion in shared understanding. Our group experiences many moments like this.

We’d travelled light, saving space for survey equipment like measuring tapes, satellite technology, energy generators, petrol - and booze (that universal life-saver for mind-numbing ordeals in nature). Food was logically our lowest priority for the rucksack. Our supply of drinking water was the ubiquitous liana, a sort of woody climber that spirals around the tallest trees in the forest canopy. We would severe the stems, and bubbles of cold, earth-tasting water would gush out at high pressure into our parched throats. Baths were out of the question; we lost our last opportunity some three, four days earlier when we stumbled upon a Baka village. The villagers' huts reminded me of doll’s houses, so low and tiny. There were no subsistence farms or domesticated animals around the village. It seemed that the forest was for them - as it was for us - the sole source of sustenance. Surprised by our arrival, they'd scattered, screaming, into their huts and the surrounding forest. Like intrusive anthropologists surrendering to ‘un-cooperative indigenes’, we left ashamed and dejected, unwashed and without food.

As our assignment wore on, the drudgery of our work began to wear us down. At some point, the dreaded time matrix sucks you in. Counting the days eventually became crucial for sanity. Time passed slowly. In addition to trees, we began to count steps, days, hours, meals... it was all the same...

Then the eighth day arrived with a bang. Literally.

Sickened by insipid suppers by firelight, the metallic taste of tinned baked beans and sardines lingered long after the plates were cleared. Jack Daniels whiskey to quench thirst and tiredness, and Camel cigarettes for dessert was no longer satisfying. Re-fuelling the body became an effort. We wanted to move beyond monotony. Gradually, we gave into the craving for comforting, home-cooked nourishment. In the manner of sinners who erect defences to keep the howling dogs of temptation at bay.

On that eighth day, four of our group of five left just before dusk. I remain by the fire stoking the coals, waiting for their return. The night sounds of insects are loud and exaggerated. After what seems like hours - Kabah! - I hear the report of a rifle shot deep in the jungle. I creep into the safe haven of my tent, scared - and livid - at the discovery that a rifle was part of our survey kit. My sense that I am losing control of the bonds keeping our group together adds to my horror. Soon, they come trooping back after the hunt. Proud men bearing fresh kill.

She is a young female vervet monkey, not exactly my first choice for meat. There is the fact of her humanoid face, fingers, her long limbs.... reminded me of rabbit dissections during my Zoology 101 university days, a biologist’s cold fascination kicks in. With my Maglite torch, I check for dilation of the vervet’s pupils. She is truly dead. I peer and prod. Clear oesophageal and rectal passages. The wound through the cranium, behind the ear, is imperceptible – a neat gunshot by an impressive night marksman. Our uncooked food was a fine specimen of an animal. I’m drawn to the idea of skinning it to keep the fur as a memento but I reconsider when I imagine the shame of being arrested by Customs.

A toothless Baka woman, whom they had met along the way, prepares the monkey stew for us with tiny onions and tomatoes, and a variety of unidentifiable forest leaves. Soon the pot is exuding a rich, ceremonial aroma. That baleful humanoid face is disposed of, with the gore and entrails. A thick broth bubbles in the pot, as appetising as any beef stew you can order anywhere between Cape Town and Casablanca. Cheeks bulging with saliva, we struggle to contain our urge for the pleasure sensation. We quiver as the meal is served - at least, some of us quiver - because into that climax of emotion comes the grunt: “I’ve decided not to eat”. Psychological impotence could not have come at a worse time. Two of our group opt out of the monkey meal and stayed with the lean fare of the past few nights. The most desperate retort I can muster is a feeble, “Shit”. Automatically, our happy group is split into good and evil, into non-monkey eaters and monkey eaters.

My feelings are jumbled, like after realising I chose a last supper of root vegetables before crucifixion over the elixir of life. I force-feed myself some positive psychology: more food for us. My fingers dig enthusiastically into the stew... but by a strange alchemy, the monkey stew has soured to my taste buds. I hear myself panting with faked enjoyment. Suddenly the feast tastes, feels, twisted and wrong. Conflicting emotions consume me, like drug-tripping and then freaking out at bright neon galaxies flashing by on the autobahn. The eyes of the dead monkey morph with the condemning eyes of our abstaining colleagues. Damn! Surely, eating monkey meat was supposed to be a rite of passage?! It was supposed to bring you nearer to mankind and help you connect with your evolution! It was supposed to release an epiphany and unlock the light of vision and wisdom! And all of that grand, bejazzed stuff of virgin principles… Instead of connecting with all these bass drumbeats in the heart of the jungle, all I felt was deep shame...As though we were a party of conservationists caught stewing our wards! It was the eighth day of a jungle trek and I was suddenly at a moral t-junction I did even know existed. I did not have a clear, immutable principle that I could readily import - or export - from city to bush. Perhaps if I had been served this exotic dish in some shanty town I would have eaten without compunction... but we had poached this primate, this cousin of man, from the trees, I had looked into her dead eyes... Resolute, I soldiered on with the business of stuffing monkey gruel down my throat. One can’t lose face during these group tests. Yet, I resented this level of self-betrayal. And even more, I resented the non-monkey eaters for their smug superiority, the decisiveness with which they had claimed the moral high-ground. The anticipation of murkier conflict hovered over our camp. I braced myself.

None of us spoke a word that night, as silent reproaches overwhelmed our previous bonhomie. The following morning lapsed into heavy, cloying judgements. We resumed our trek, cutting through the jungle with our heavy kit in the stupefying heat, but it was as though we were a different team from previous days. Such was the strained cloud of pride and one-upmanship that followed us. Not a spare word was uttered, no friendly banter. Somewhere around noon, when the forest's heat and humidity was at its highest, redemption arrived. One of the men who abstained from the monkey stew asked for a rest-stop, complaining of a dizzy spell. Someone called, “Chicken-shit!” Another, I think, called out something to do with a baby or his mother, or hot flushes and mid-forties menopause... the usual horseplay, with an edge that came, no doubt, from the previous night’s events. We stopped in some relief, because, secretly, we were dreadfully tired. Unfortunately, by the time we made a small clearing to sit down in, the freckled, stocky guy with the ginger beard who had called for a break had crumpled in a faint!

As he collapsed, the walls of silence and division also splintered and crashed around us. Suddenly we were fussing over the red-faced, fallen man. His collapse seemed an answer to a prayer for catharsis, triggering an immediate re-instatement of the group’s camaraderie. We fanned him, patted his balding head and put water to his lips. The penance was quite over the top, really. In my role as the group’s organiser, I encouraged a slick presentation of a Madonna’s face. It came with a sniffle and a little coo. Remorse is perhaps a necessity in the games surrounding mutual shame? Heita!

Thirteen more days in the forest crept by uneventfully. Indeed, it was a standard job.

On day twenty-one, we returned to the plush hotel frequented by expats in Bangui, the capital city. The day was delightful and sunny. Colours were bright, the air smelt fresh and life was one hundred percent fabulous. I was reclined on a pink lilo-cushion floating in the swimming pool, sipping a cocktail and flirting dangerously with the world. My head bopped as I hummed along with the Michael Jackson melody being performed by the hotel’s one-man-band-cum-keyboard, “We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones to make a brighter day so lets starts giving…”. My skin glistened like honey. Every now-and-then, I ran my fingers through my mane of hair. With a red carnation behind my ear and wearing a risqué bathing suit, I felt like an almighty goddess after a vicious battle. It was justified performance – reclaiming a familiar identity and sense of principle in a world I knew best.

Guiltily, I thought about my flight to London via Lagos, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, and hoped that I’d be lucky to be seated next to someone gorgeous and charming. I made a mental note of the Prada sling back high-heels and matching handbag at the Duty-free. The smell of wood smoke clung. The view of the Oubangi River, forming the border between the Central African Republic and the DR Congo, shimmered through my sunglasses. In the distance, the fishermen struggling with their meagre catch seemed like a parallel universe. Licking my lip-gloss and parting my thighs slightly, I shifted to a more comfortable position on the lilo. I had already drafted the first version of the report to The Client. The job was over. Mission accomplished. I would never discuss that eighth day in Berberati with the others again.

Unencumbered by things of time and monkeys that bring fundamental human qualities into sharp focus, cities can be irritatingly safe intellectual spaces for principles. After all, it had taken only eight days in the Berberati jungle to draw the red-toothed monkey eater out of the conservationist. What a curious species we are!



'Close' acquaintanceship
(Adapted from a true incident by the author, to provoke debate on ethics and responsibility among conservationists.)
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