As we strolled up to my friend’s backyard, it was a familiar suburban scene.
The man of the house was proudly grilling in anticipation of sharing a fun family meal with a few honored guests.
But the barbecue was no Weber grill and the meat was not hamburger — it was more like a gamy antelope splayed out on an open fire behind my friend’s mud hut.
My friend, Moussa Yao, greeted us with a wide grin. “Voilà! Biche royal!”
My brothers, Tom and John, shot a look at me that said, “Are you kidding me?”
In a feat of comic timing, just as the realization of what was on the menu for the evening began to sink in, a regional nurse roared up on the back of a bright red motorcycle wearing a Domino’s delivery shirt. He had what looked like either a heater, or a cooler, strapped to the back of the motorcycle.
“It’s definitely been more than 30 minutes!" said John immediately. "That pizza’s free!”
The joke was lost on most of the crowd, and not just because it was said in English. The reality of what was in the cooler brought us immediately back to where we were and what was really for dinner. The cooler was full of polio vaccines to be distributed to the village children the next morning, and bushmeat was definitely still on the menu for dinner.
We were in the small village of Abedeni in the Ivory Coast in February 2000 and we were far, far away from any pizza. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the village, in the twilight of my time there, when Tom, John, and sister-in-law, Jamie, were finally able to squeeze in a trip to visit me.
After two years of customarily being given the choicest cuts of bushmeat, taking a small bite, and routinely burying it on my plate, I was used to saying “merci beaucoup” and moving on. Needless to say, my brothers, and Jamie — a vegetarian — were not.
In a village of subsistence farmers where meals were heavy on grains — like rice and pounded up yams — covered in oily sauces, real protein was hard to come by. Peanuts, and every variation on peanut sauce imaginable, were helpful in terms of protein, but not as good as meat.
Bushmeat ranging from the antelope-like “biche” to the bush-rat, known as “agouti,” was prized. Hunters would go out at all hours of the night with what looked like American Revolutionary-era rifles to score the meat.
Tradition of hunting feats
It was a time honored tradition and tales of entire villages feasting on whole elephants in the good old days — long before the Ivory Coast’s population of wild elephants whittled down to about 50 nationwide – were often told by old friends of mine.
The closest I’d ever come to a legendary catch like that was when early on in my tenure I was wandering around another Peace Corps volunteer’s village that bordered the Comoe River, which runs through the Ivory Coast.
We were walking through a courtyard when we smelled something great and were offered piece of meat. In my early quest to remain cool and open-minded I said, “Sure.”
It was the most succulent, salty piece of meat I had ever tasted. I immediately asked, what is that? The response was “Hippopotame.” I said, “What?!” The response was, “Oui, oui, hippopotame!” as the man pointed to a huge pile of gray flesh. Hippopotamus is one of the most dangerous mammals in Africa and it took an entire group of men to get the animal out of the river after it had been killed.
The fact that the country is even called the Ivory Coast, and yet there are virtually no elephants left in the country, shows the wreckage of years of poaching.
Yet people continue to devour bushmeat at every opportunity — from the backyard fire pit to Abidjan’s finest restaurants. A party is not a party, and a funeral (which is often somewhat of a party) is not a funeral in the Ivory Coast unless bushmeat is served.
Trunk full of bushmeat
After sweating through several days in the village —John had a mini-thermometer on his backpack and continually noted that it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun — my brothers and Jamie were ready to hit the road and visit some of Ivory Coast’s scenic beaches.
Since they were short on time, I had hired a driver from Abidjan to squire us back and forth from the village to the beach and Abidjan – we were about 200 miles from the coast.
As we were packing up the car, my brother noticed a large rice sack stuffed to the gills in the trunk. I told him to ignore it and to jam his stuff in there, too.
As we cruised along the main road to Abidjan, my brothers were quick to note the young boys and men standing on the side of the road holding enormous bush-rats by the tail as an advertisement that they were for sale. It was expected that people traveling in the countryside would return to the city with bushmeat in tow. More “biche royal” jokes ensued and we moved along.
Finally, after traveling on the hot tar road for several hours we were within striking distance of the coast and our driver mentioned that he need to make a pit stop at his home in Abidjan before heading to the beach.
We reached his house and he quickly unloaded the huge rice sack from the truck. He returned to the car and said his wife was delighted that they would be eating bushmeat for several days.
Petra Cahill is an MSNBC.com News Editor. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Ivory Coast from 1998-2000.