Continuing with the theme of eating insects …
The people of the eastern Congo plant African rice around June so that it will grow through the wettest part of the wet season, and then they harvest it in the “dry season” which starts about mid or late November. That is around the same time that a “locust” (actually a katydid of some sort) emerges in the grasslands to the north, in the Central African Republican and the Sudan, to spread across the region. And eat rice.
It is rather annoying to have locust descend on your crops. Some years it is not too bad, some years it is bad enough to noticeably affect the food supply. But every year there is the potential for revenge, even if it is mostly symbolic.
I first learned of the locust when sitting around the fire one dryish dry-season night with some Efe Pygmies and Lese Villagers. As we sat there, amid the usual night cacophony of insect (and other) noises, the occasional moth-like creature flying into the flames, and all that, a newcomer arrived on the scene: The katydids. Something largish and green would fly around a bit in the fire-light, and suddenly veer into the flames and spend a few seconds writhing around before being consumed and falling into the coals.
On about the third or fourth fiery demise, someone reached over to a katydid that was at the edge of the hearth, picked it up, held it for a second and popped it in his mouth. Was that a joke? A quirk, of this particular person? Did he think it was a potato chip or something? Or was it a cultural practice? And if so, was it common and widespread enough to be part of the cuisine? Of course, I watched for a while and then inquired, and learned the whole locust story minus a few details, which I picked up later by examining the appropriate literature.
And yes, the folks in this region eat them and take special enjoyment in doing so as a matter of revenge. They are probably my favorites insect; They have a nutty taste and are just oily enough to seem sauteed. Very nice.
Termites are also self-oiled and the winged alates are captured locally during the full moon, especially in the dry season, when termites do a night-time mating ritual that involves everybody flying towards the moon at once. (The moon is used as a reference point to get everyone to the same buggy orgy at about the same time.) To catch the termites, you make a light (of fire, traditionally, or with Greg’s Flashlight if he has batteries and lets you) behind a basket. The termites fly from the nest towards the light and get caught into the basket.
One day we got word, spread in advance by some government herald, that the “King of the Pygmies” would be passing down our “road” (read “slippery footpath”) to visit his people. The ensuing sociological events are worthy of another, and probably sombre, essay. Let’s just say that when those considered by some to be sub-human suddenly have a “king” and all the other folks have is a “chief” that there will be anxiety and even violence can erupt. In this case mainly torture of Pygmies. But as I say, that is another story.
Hearing that the “King of the Pygmies” was arriving soon engendered significant cynicism especially among the Pygmies who have no interest in Kings. But to be polite, I inquired as to what he might like to have as a gift, in the event that he actually showed up. And, since it was termite season, and for some reason I in fact had some batteries that were charged up, “termites” was the obvious answer.
It was timed rather well: The termites were captured and put in a fine hand-woven basket the very night before the king arrived.
It turns out twenty-some years ago an infant King Mobi was taken by missionaries to Italy, where he was raised by Catholic Nuns on a diet of, well, Italian food. As you know, Efe and other Pygmies are of short stature, but what you may not know (and most people do in fact get this wrong) is that their stature is not equivalent to the short stature of the fabled “They were shorter back then” Western ancestors famous for gaining stature with changes in diet and so on. More to the point, if you feed a Pygmy from infancy copious pasta and brochette, he does not grow tall, but he will grow corpulent, and King Mobi was. That may seem like an insignificant observation, but since all Efe are skinny and buff, being hunter-gatherers and all, it was odd, in fact impressive, to everyone.
We gave the King the termites just about the time I realized he would likely not really want to eat them. As it turns out, he didn’t even want to look at them. He did want me to take many pictures of him and he wanted to know what I had to drink. And he was not speaking of water. Living, as we were, beyond the beer line, I couldn’t help him much with that.
I have to admit, though, I’m sorta with The King on this. I love me those katydids, and palm grubs are good, but termites are not my favorite bug. Unless, of course, they are mixed with peanut butter, which is another local product. Anything goes well with peanut butter!
- Please visit the other posts in this series:
- No Place to Sit Down
- The reason the Efe won’t normally kill an insect …
- “We Live In Little Houses Made of Beans”
- “Excuse me, there’s some food in my bugs!”
- Bug Girl and Greg Laden Speak Skeptically with Desiree Schell
- Day of the locust. Yum!