From her baptism in Liberia to Christmas years later in her adopted New York City, Mamie Manneh never lost the longing to celebrate religious rituals by eating monkey meat.
Now, the tribal customs of Manneh and other West African immigrants have become the focus of an unusual criminal case over alleged illegal meat smuggling, and touching on issues of religious freedom, infectious diseases and wildlife preservation.
The case “appears to be the first of its kind relating to that uniquely African product,” defense attorney Jan Rostal wrote in a pending motion to dismiss. “Unfortunately, it represents the sort of clash of cultural and religious values inherent in the melting pot that is America.”
At the center of the case in federal court is a modest woman with nine children and a history of domestic discord.
Bushmeat shipped to NYC airport
The case dates to early 2006, when federal inspectors at JFK Airport examined a shipment of 12 cardboard boxes from Guinea.
They were addressed to Manneh and, according to a flight manifest, contained African dresses and smoked fish with a value of $780.
Instead, stashed underneath the smoked fish, the inspectors found what West Africans refer to as bushmeat: “skulls, limbs and torsos of non-human primate species” plus the hoof and leg of a small antelope, according to court papers.
Three days later, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents were at Manneh’s door, where she told them she ran a smoked fish importing business.
According to the agents, she initially denied ordering any bushmeat from Africa or ever eating it while in the United States.
But after she consented to a search, the agents came across a tiny, hairy arm hidden in her garage.
“Monkey,” she explained, claiming the arm was sent to her out of the blue “as a gift from God in heaven.”
Federal prosecutors hit Manneh with smuggling charges that accused her of violating import procedures and suggested she was a menace to man and beast alike.
A criminal complaint cited evidence that the illegal importation of bushmeat encourages the slaughter of protected wild animals.
More ominously, the complaint warned of “the potential health risks to humans linking bushmeat to diseases like Lassa fever, Ebola, HIV, SARS and monkeypox.”
Critics say NYC is picking on woman
Defense attorney Rostal has countered by accusing the government of picking on a poorly educated immigrant.
Her client’s only offense, she said, was her inability to grasp Western attitudes and highly technical regulations regarding bushmeat.
Defense papers also argue that the U.S. demand for the meat involved in the Manneh case — from Africa’s green monkey population — is “too small to have any significance for conservation.”
Manneh, 39, testified last year that before arriving in the United States more than 25 years ago, monkey meat was critical to her religious upbringing.
At age 7, “I was baptized and they used that for the baptizing ceremony,” she told a judge.
Manneh is already serving a two-year sentence in state prison for trying to run over a woman she suspected of sleeping with her husband, Zanger Jefferson. If convicted of the federal charges she faces up to five more years in prison and deportation.
“The government’s taking a woman away from her children,” complained Jefferson, who’s struggling to raise the children alone. “It’s very depressing, especially with the holidays right around the corner.”
The prosecution also has dampened spirits at the church in Staten Island where Manneh and other African immigrants once packed the pews to practice a religion blending Christianity and tribal customs.
Woman: Deeply misunderstood ritual
One of the few worshippers left, Leona Artis, says the congregation’s appetite for monkey meat is deeply misunderstood.
“Where some people have turkey, we’ll have monkey meat,” Artis said. “I’ve been eating it all my life. It’s delicious.”
Baptisms, Easter, Christmas, weddings — all are occasions for eating monkey, Manneh’s supporters said in a sworn statement filed with the court.
The statement was vague about how the meat is obtained, but explains that it always arrives dried and smoked. Once blessed by a pastor, “we usually prepare it by cooking it for several hours into a stew,” they said.
For them, the exotic import is more than just food.
“We eat bushmeat,” they said, “for our souls.”