We were talking about insects, and eating insects, and this reminded me of something funny. I was traveling in the most remote part of Central Africa, several days walk from any place you could possibly drive a car, visiting uncharted villages mainly occupied by people who had moved into the deep forest because they were in trouble with the “law” in some way (usually for perfectly good reasons in this lawless country). I was traveling with a Lese Villager and his sister, who was hired as our cook, and three Efe Pygmy men. We visited a village that was not exactly uncharted, but which officially did not exist. Years earlier everyone who lived in this part of the forest was forced by the government to move to the “road” (now a slippery foot path you could sort of drive a very good 4-wheel drive truck on if you were prepared to dig yourself out now and then). This village was “abandoned” at that time as people moved to the road, but in fact it had been unoccupied for only short intervals of time over the last few decades.
The people who lived in this village were very familiar with the idea of an anthropologist, and were aware that we had a research facility a few days walk to the east. Others, while they had heard of us, either had never met any of the outsiders or didn’t care much either way about us.
When we initially embarked on our long trek to the village, we carried enough food to get there, but not much more. I was assured by my fellow travelers that the streets of the village would be paved with food, as it were, and that we would not have to carry much with us, and if we brought just a little cash and some tobacco and salt, we could easily trade for plenty of spare rice to get ourselves back to the road fatter than we had left. Since it was technically the tail end of one of the two seasons of widespread reduced food availability, I didn’t much like that idea but I didn’t have a choice. It was simply impossible to carry enough food to make the trip there and back. So we gambled with the odds against us.
And, of course, we lost. We arrived at the village with a kilo of rice and little else, and we found that there was not much food there. Even though the rice harvest was just starting, so people weren’t exactly starving, there was nothing close to an abundance. We knew that we could eat while we stayed in the village … there was enough for that … but clearly we’d have to make the trip home without provisions. We’d have to live off the land for the three day walk home … which would probaby be a four day walk since we’d be starving and you go slower when you are starving. (Another story for another time. It was not a good week to be a monkey along our route!)
The village was traditional and I was a guest, so I was treated accordingly, and had to act accordingly. This meant we travelers needed to divide up into appropriate traditional roles and mete ourselves out among the villagers per spec, and thereafter more or less spend our time that way. The Efe men went to hang around with the Efe that were living in the village and they were also able to sit with the village women when they were outside processing food; Our cook went to work and hung with the village women in the mafika … an open air kitchen building with a roof and food stores, cooking gear, etc. … during the heat of the day. And, as the adult male, I was expected to hang around with the other adult males in the baraza … the open air ramada-like roofed-over sitting area in the middle of the village. As men, we would have important things to do in this baraza. Planning things and stuff.
So, I sat there and did my Ethnoarchaeology, hanging out with the other men, observing things and writing it all down, while the women prepared our first meal together, which would include all of the rice we had brought and whatever the village had to offer.
And what did the village have to offer? There were three things besides our rice. Someone had killed an antelope that morning so there was a bit of meat. The meat was cooked in palm oil traded about noon that day with some Budu merchants who had come by to exchange forest products for oil. (The oil was traded for a forest fruit known as “eme” which is not really food but rather medicine.) Then there was sombe. Sombe is wonderful. It is the very young leaves of the casava (manioc, manihot) plant pounded and cooked with palm oil. The process is much more complex than I’ve indicated. It is the main thing to eat that I miss from the region, and until recently was impossible to get outside the forest unless you have connections and live in Belgium.
And the third thing was bugs. To be specific, palm larvae. These are grubs of some critter, and you get them from inside a palm tree, which were eaten frequently this time of year. They are fried up in a bit of palm oil which gives both flavor and color, and some salt is added. They are not very flavorful but they are quite nutritious.
When the food was all prepared, the women came over one or two at a time and gave a plate of food to each man. A woman or women associated with a particular man or men as mother, wife, sister, or daughter had prepared each plate and had brought it to the baraza, so of course, our traveling cook, Maria, brought me my plate.
When she handed me the plate, our cook also gave me a knowing look, because she knew that I was not enamored with the traditional roles of her culture and was somewhat uncomfortable getting served along with the other men in the baraza. I returned the look as I glanced down at the plate, and on the plate was some rice, some antelope, some sombe, and about a dozen palm grubs. But there was a small problem. While all the food types were neatly separated into their own zones on my plate, some of the sombe had moved across the plate and joined the palm grubs. A splotch of green leafy food rested among the larvae of the palms.
Maria was five steps away when I called out.
She stopped and turned. I pointed at my plate.
“Maria, there is some food in my bugs!”
She was close enough to see exactly what I referred to.
It turns out that some jokes translate and some do not. It is all a matter of available symbolic reference and context. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pointed at a plantain or banana peel laying on the ground (these are a main crop for the region) and said to someone “Hey, don’t slip on that!” Every time I did that I amused myself but the person whom I had warned had no clue that this was funny to me, no image of Woody Allen and a giant banana peel came to their mind. The joke was always a dud.
But this time it clicked. Maria laughed heartily and, pointing at me and barely able to talk, explained the joke to the men in the Baraza. They all laughed as well. Maria told the joke to the women back at the mafika, and I could hear their laughter mixed with phrases like “Those white people… they are so funny sometimes” and that sort of thing. The joke spread across the Ituri Forest and it was also retold among anthropologists. In fact, one famous anthropologist giving the keynote address at a major event celebrating Mary Leakey’s birthday told the joke as part of his remarks. Mary Leakey LOL’ed.
Maria, there’s some food in my bugs!!!! Still cracks me up.