The Snout I Was Given and other lessons from the field
Updated: Jul 7, 2019
I had already lived in #Nigeria for 2 years – I thought I had it down. I had learned firsthand some pretty important lessons. Some were relatively simple. Look through the garden egg before biting right through it, for most contain sizable worms. Don’t run from a swarm of black flies, they are attracted to movement. Always ignore sweat bees. Although they may be slow and tempting to swat, they exude a smell that attracts more sweat bees.
Some lessons were much harder to learn. Don’t ever forget to list dog as an animal you will not eat, even though it is not on your endangered species list. A polite decline of the #duiker lung at dinner is likely to result in day old lung and tea for breakfast the next morning. Other important lessons came from the stomach. Don’t eat cold meat. Never rush a shawarma man. Don’t eat meat that has “plenty plenty peppe”, as it is commonly used to cover up the taste of spoiling meat.
Some lessons seemed inevitable. When pronounced incorrectly, Ebe, the local name for Garri made from cassava, also means a woman’s breast. Bathe at off times, and not in popular bathing areas. But make sure they are not unpopular for good reason, for example, downstream from the #carcass cleaning area. If you do see an intestine float by you in the river, find a new bathing spot, or stick to the bucket bath. When in a pinch, and used strategically, one Nalgene full of water is suitable for a bath.
And possibly the most important lessons involved kai kai, the locally distilled palm wine offered to guests. Only take one shot of kai kai to show your appreciation. You will almost surely be drinking kai kai again at the next house, and then the next, and you will be more than appreciative by the end of the day. Never gift someone kai kai, if you can help it. This will turn into one more occasion in which you are expected to drink kai kai. Always travel with kai kai though. When you are stopped unexpectedly and asked to show your belongings, one sip of it by the #oyibo (white [wo]man) can get you out of most hairy situations. Finally, whenever possible, dance. “Dancing diplomacy” as I have learned to call it, turns you, the scary weird oyibo, into a friendly person who people want to talk to.
Despite all of this well-earned knowledge, I was more hesitant and nervous than ever to enter an enclave village in the middle of the forest. I had spent the past years skirting around the edges, visiting communities that may be, but were not necessarily, hunting within the national park. Now, I was trekking straight up the middle. I had been warned about the potentially inhospitable nature of the community, who lived under the constant threat of displacement (or promise of relocation?) under the formation of the national park. But, those folks who entered previously and left hurriedly with stories of tears, may have had very different agendas? Or perhaps they were not acutely aware of the importance of dancing diplomacy? I was soon to find out. Now, lost to the middle of nowhere, it was a 30 km trek into this village from the nearest road. A few things seemed to be sure, I should not expect to be welcomed with open arms, and the facilities would be, well, limited.
The #Oban Hills lift the forest above the horizon so that it emerges all around you. Driving down the Oban corridor to the foot of the trail, I could see, for the first time, the immensity of the forest. Adding to my sense of the surreal, several kilometers into the trek, I caught sight of a man crossing a stream with a rock on his head, and was told that it was to keep him from getting swept away. And then it hit me. Everything going in and out of this village has to be carried on someone’s head.
After a day of trekking, I approached the village tired, muddy, and with blistered feet. I advanced with a familiar sense of caution. I had grown bold in recent months, and the last time I remembered feeling this wary was over a year ago, when I first entered a hunting shed. So I slowed down, and hung back, allowing my guides to take the lead.
As we emerged from the forest, my mind drifted to the last #hunting shed I had been in, where I happened upon four #hunters with whom I would share the shed for the night. I had heard them through the forest as we approached, but it wasn’t until I entered the small clearing that I realized exactly what all the clamor was all about
- they were singing in unison along with Celine Dion blasting from a cell phone. They sang happily while they went about their butchering and prepping of meat. They seemed less disturbed by my presence than normal, until the phone ran out of battery. The hilarity of the scene was soon taken over by an uneasy silence. The four men, looking distressed, chatted for a moment in their local language before turning their attention to me, also distressed from being the target of the four hunters gaze. I waited, nervous and impatient, for my guide to relay their shared message. “Auntie, they say that now you should sing”. And that is how, in the heart of the Nigerian forest, I sat together with #bushmeat hunters singing “Neaaaaaayah, faaaaaaaah, wheeeeereva you are...”. Smiling, and laughing to myself (to which I had grown pretty accustomed), I entered the village tucked away in the middle of the forest.
I don’t know if it was my goofy smile, or complete misconceptions about what I was walking into, but I was greeted right away, with unexpected enthusiasm by an excited and chatty group of women. “Auntie, you get powa!”, “You go trek all dis way to see us!?”, “Come come, we go baf.” Seemingly moments later, there I was, naked in a stream, bathing with 15 giggling women; my reservations about this place washing away with all the dirt from the trail. I gazed around at the expansive forest, still hesitant about the type of reaction I would get from the hunters I had come to interview.
Almost everything about this village was unexpected. First, the chief’s son gave me his room, and it had the nicest foam mattress I had ever slept on. I needed to use the bathroom, so I asked him where I could go to “ease” myself. He escorted me to what seemed like a mirage after a long day’s journey: the first pit latrine I had ever seen in a village, and sitting on top of it was a sparkling white porcelain toilet. That evening, I sat on the stoop of the house dazed, hungry, still concerned about the hunters, wondering what I would find to eat, and imagining people carrying that mattress and toilet 30 km on their heads to get them here. Eventually the neighbors came up to me with a tray of food. I opened the lid and let out a sigh of relief that was quickly replaced with nervous apprehension. There it was sitting in bowl of broth, an indication that the hunters would be welcoming and open with me – the snout of a bush pig. Unfortunately, how to eat a snout, was a lesson I had not yet learned.