On what we call wild meat

A sign for Chez INO in rural Gabon

Chère Madame,

I don’t think you’ll read this, because how would you find it? I don’t have your name or your WhatsApp number to send you the link, if you even have WhatsApp. I can’t write in French. You can’t read in English. You’ll never see this, even if you wanted to. Nonetheless I have what you offered me in mind. Your crocodile stew, your porcupine stew, your caiman stew. Your fish stew didn’t interest me—both because we have that where I’m from, and I wasn’t interested in eating anything you offered.

When I showed interest, you walked me through all the bushmeat you’d cooked. You lifted the lid of each pot, explaining its contents. You even let me take a picture of the crocodile stew. That was my secret goal, to capture the spines and scales attached to chunks of meat crowded and buoyant above the broth.

There were ceramic bowls and metal cutlery behind you, a quality of table setting to match the level of what you offered customers for lunch or dinner. To them these stews weren’t strange but delicious. Maybe they would have been delicious to me as well if I’d tried. But I already knew I was going to get beans from the man next door. When I did, you didn’t seem to mind. But would you mind if you knew how I really think about the word for what’s in your pots, bushmeat?

Maybe you already know. But in case you don’t, can I tell you? I think you ought to know simply because it concerns you. But I also want to hash it out with you because there’s a lot of meaning attached to the word that is problematic. I want to sort some of this out. Ideally you’d share your thoughts with me, we’d have a conversation. But you’re not here.

crocodile stew in Bifoun, Gabon
Your crocodile stew

Different words

I call the wild animals you eat in Gabon “bushmeat,” and the wild animals people eat in my country “game meat,” or “wild meat.” You might ask “what’s the difference?” Well, how many bowls of your crocodile stew would buy your attention as I have a big ramble about how hard this question was to answer? I would want to compensate you somehow, maybe it’s white guilt, maybe it’s lack of self trust that I can get to the point without wasting your time. Or both.

On the face of it, all these words refer to meat from wild animals that are hunted and consumed for a range of reasons. In both of our countries, not all hunting involves eating the meat, let’s set aside things like trophy hunting and poaching for skins or tusks for the moment.

In Canada, wild meat is commonly for personal consumption: an ordinary or special meal, a gift for family, friends or community. The small minority is sold on to markets or restaurants, because this is illegal in most of the country. In some places it’s legal to donate it, for example to a food bank.

Some of the people who kill and eat it do it out of need. It’s a preference for others, even a delicacy, and maybe they’re far removed from hunting the animal. Many would also say that why they eat wild meat doesn’t slot neatly into either categories. Others choose not to eat wild meat at all.

The hunt itself is for different reasons. Maybe the animals were killed in a cull because they’re considered by us to be pests or too numerous. The hunt is a large part of the appeal for some people—it’s thrilling and challenging, important to culture and identity. The meat might be the primary goal, or a complementary one. And of all these motivations, there’s overlap and blurred boundaries.

roadkill racoon on a road in sunny rural ontario
A racoon turned into roadkill in rural Ontario, Canada

Okay, so, correct me if I’m wrong: How I see it is in Gabon there’s also this same wide range of motivations, but each of them is dialled up or down in importance reflecting different circumstances.

For one thing, your country is covered in forests where livestock can’t easily live because there’s insufficient pasture. Cows don’t do well in the jungle. So your country imports some meat and has some fishing near the coast, but a lot of people—whether they love it or not—need wild meat. Your country’s high GDP is also very misleading; wealth derived from your forests, uranium and oil doesn’t easily land in your wallet if you’re not somehow involved with Francafrique. It’s not many Gabonese people can just get in a car, drive to a supermarket and choose from a wide variety of proteins.

Because of these realities, this aspect of your lives, the meat you eat, is so important and complicated and of interest to different types of foreign and domestic powers that reports about it are quite long.

But none of this answers why it’s called bushmeat in Gabon and in Africa, and wild meat where I’m from, besides dictionaries saying so:

Merriam Webster: “meat obtained by hunting wild animals, especially in Africa and Asia”

Oxford Dictionaries: “the meat of African wild animals as food”

CDC: “ The term “bushmeat” refers to raw or minimally processed meat that comes from wild animals in certain regions of the world including Africa and may pose a communicable disease”

“Who cares,” you might say, “we also call it bushmeat, viande de brousse, it’s from the French don’t you know?” To this I’d say “I’m not here to tell you what to call it. It’s just that I actually think people like me use the word bushmeat at best somewhat naively and at worst pejoratively, with disgust, judgement and revulsion. I think a lot of us don’t know we’re doing this. But I’m not sure. Maybe there are real differences that justify the different terms. I need to talk it over with you and with myself. I don’t want to be overly cynical, like how I feel when I read the bushmeat page on Urban Dictionary”:

“…an African term referring to meat of questionable (often primate) origin that people eat, despite the risk of disease or inherent danger in capturing, because they are desperate.”

“Meat this is sold illegally on the black market. Primarily Chimpanzees and Gorillas.”

Urban Dictionary even includes a tutorial of how to sound hip while condescending what sounds like the plight of a poor person in the Global South:

“I was walking through the street in India when this old man tried selling me some Bush meat.”

two monkeys perched on a man waiting to get food from him in city park, Nairobi
Feeding monkeys at City Park, Nairobi, Kenya. In our (Western) culture, the word bushmeat automatically brings monkeys to mind

What we share

Our countries are both lush with abundant forests, where many of the wild animals we hunt to eat live. So the different words don’t represent different hunting environments.

The name for what is killed doesn’t hinge on what weapon killed it. Hunters in both our countries use a range of hunting equipment based on choice, strategy and circumstance. I don’t know about you but sometimes we also, intentionally or not, kill wild animals with our cars. That’s called roadkill. Some of our people eat that too.

Next I wondered if the naming difference reflect the type of animals. I suspect you’d be able to tell me quite a bit about what kinds you eat in Gabon and which are the tastiest, but I’m pretty ignorant of what’s eaten even in my own country, so I had to look up both online.

The first thing I learned is that many animals we call game in Canada are actually farmed—“farmed game” versus “wild game.” So, bushmeat and farmed game are different. The latter is actually grown on a farm and slaughtered and inspected in a controlled or licensed facility.

But in Canada we also eat truly wild animals whose meat doesn’t necessarily pass through inspection or controlled facilities. Hunting is a significant part of Canada’s history; our country’s colonization ran alongside the fur trade that ran some species nearly to extinction. Today, we hunt and eat larger ungulates (e.g. deer, elk, moose), small mammals (e.g. rabbits) and birds (e.g. ducks, pheasants, partridges, turkeys). Even an urbanite like me knows someone who hunts and eats these.

But perhaps unsurprisingly, the list is longer than that. Take what’s available in Newfoundland, one of our eastern provinces, in restaurants with licenses to serve bushmeat…sorry,” wild meat”:

“…restaurants are free to offer the meat of wild bears, beaver, rabbits, pigeons and such delicacies as racoons and crows…”

Wild about eating game | Maclean’s

Pigeons?? Crow?? Rabid racoons?!! Weird…or is it? Newfoundland’s regulations also poke a hole in the argument that bushmeat defines meat that hasn’t been killed and inspected in a facility. As far as I know, this meat goes from hunter to chef to table. In fact, it’s becoming trendy. Closer to my home, in western Canada, this is the reaction of gourmet diners learning what they’re eating:

“But when the answer came—wild venison, wild duck, grouse, more bear, and a splash of beaver tail—some jaws dropped, but no forks. Some gasped, some laughed, but either way they carried on happily.”

Wild about eating game | Maclean’s

a deer partially hidden in the yellow grass beside a sign in the southern interior of BC
Canadian bushmeat

How different is Gabon’s wild menu? Well, I saw your stews, with caiman and crocodile and porcupine and fish. While cycling through, I also saw what was for sale along the national highway: lots of porcupines, duikers (bush antelopes), bucks, some monkeys, the occasional reptile and bird. I didn’t ask around for more context because I don’t speak French, and honestly I didn’t really know what I wanted to ask, and why. “So…you eat this?”

But I think some surveys I found online might give slightly less biased answers.

In one 2010 study, a list of the 18 most commonly found species in your different types of bushmeat markets was topped by the brush-tailed porcupine, followed by the three types of duikers and a monkey, the putty-nosed guenon. The list is rounded out by more duikers, two types of cats (genet and civet), the chevrotain (“mouse deer”), two types of pangolins, a hog, two types of larger ungulates, the dwarf crocodile, and the cane rat.

Other surveys over the years have found fairly similar distributions: about half the animals sold as bushmeat were ungulates, and the other half is variably split between primates and rodents. “Where are those studies from?” Well, Makoukou, Dibouka and Baniati, Dibouka, Kouagna and Ntisiete—names that mean nothing to me, but that maybe mean a lot to you. Maybe you’re from one of these places.

As I’m sure you know, these studies have their limitations. While they seem to represent a large part of what’s eaten, they don’t represent everything that’s eaten, either in remote rural homes or in your capital city. That said, I think there’s too much overlap to justify using game or bushmeat solely on the basis of types of animals eaten. Take the shared popularity of ungulates.

And I don’t know about you (a phrase I could repeat at the beginning of every paragraph in this article) but it seems like what people in your country find tastiest are meats that wouldn’t even seem strange from our perspective: hog, porcupine, antelope. These are also the types of animals that make up the majority of bushmeat (by biomass) collected in your part of the world.

a brush tailed porcupine for sale along the road in Gabon
A brush-tailed porcupine for sale along the road

Speaking to the differences in the wild meats we hunt—us beavers, you monkeys, etc—many of the animals you eat and we don’t, or vice versa only live in one of our two countries. Evidence of absence (in our bellies) isn’t necessarily evidence of absence.

Some Americans love eating alligator; if these reptilians could thrive in Canadian weather, might we also eat them? Eating raw fish was once seen by some (many?) North Americans as disgusting, but sushi is now not only acceptable, but trendy. Who’s to say for sure that eating cane rats or even monkeys wouldn’t have caught on in Canada before our society developed their current attitudes towards eating them and those that do:

“Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil)”

How to Write about Africa | Binyavanga Wainaina | Granta Magazine

Ahh, monkeys. There’s a lot to unpack there. Maybe another time, if you’ll let me, if you’re not already sore from the horrified looks people like me give you when they see (some of, in certain contexts, sometimes) your fellow citizens eating monkey meat.

Actually, no, before we move on, I just have to say a little something, that I’m frustrated at myself for even pursuing this line of reasoning at all: this searching for acceptance by pointing out what’s the same. My strategy implies that I’ll only believe what’s eaten in your country is acceptable if I reveal that we do it too. Why are we the ultimate judge, is that true in any absolute sense and do we deserve that privilege? No. Good grief.

But that’s writing for you, or talking in a conversation, or anything that moves you from thinking A to realizing B. You have to do the writing and the thinking to get to a vantage point of knowing what all the progress that remains to be undertaken.

handlebars and bar bag of my bicycle leaning against a hedge of ferns along the highway in Gabon
Cycling in Gabon was an immersion in greenery

When we come to you

I thought it was a case of different words being used for the same thing in different parts of the world, like french fries versus chips.

Under this scenario, when reporting for a North American audience about places that use the word “chips,” the media would translate the word into “french fries” so that their readers would understand. But when the media talks about the wild meat that Africans eat, they don’t translate from chips to french fries—calling it by the word that their reader uses where they live. They just stick with bushmeat:

Appetite for Bush Meat Persists Among Africa’s City Dwellers

Will illegal bushmeat bring the next global outbreak?

Bushmeat trade tests Cameroon’s Ebola prevention

Why West Africans keep hunting and eating bush meat despite Ebola concerns

Given that bushmeat is the word that’s used, rarely outside of pretty sensational topics, it follows that most people from my culture know that bushmeat is the word for wild meat in Africa. And yet, people like me who travel to your part of the world do something strange when we get here. We use both game meat and bushmeat, in different contexts.

I speak from personal experience. If it’s wild meat we’re hunting or eating on safari or in special restaurants for that purpose—an aspect of African tourism for some—we call it game. And yet when it’s wild animals being eaten by African people, bushmeat is generally used.

Now, if those indigenous Tanzanians displaced to make room for the famous Serengeti National Park were to be seen eating some sort of antelope that’s also eaten by some tourists in East Africa as part of an ‘exotic’ meal, would we say the Tanzanians were eating game or bushmeat? If we think the answer is game, then what do we call the meat we see a Gabonese person eating, given that it’s common that this meat is their own local antelope? Or what about at the “chop bars” in a town in Ghana named after eating wild antelopes, described in this excellent article?

Where do we transition from calling it game meat to bush meat, and why?

a freshly cut leg of an ungulate sold by the roadside in Gabon
What country on earth doesn’t happily eat flanks of their ungulates?

I’m jumping around, I know. Tanzania is on the other side of your continent. We generalize so much about Africa, its fifty five countries and its 1.2 billion people, which is a big part of the problem. I’m sorry for doing that even now, even if it’s in pursuit of making a point.

I think a lot of us, myself included, excuse our waffling between the two words by assuring ourselves that bushmeat is the word for wild meat eaten specifically in West and Central Africa. That although this isn’t in line with the actual definition—wild meat from anywhere in Africa—we figure that it is nonetheless the norm in colloquial use to imply weird animals on the west coast or from the deep, dark, dangerous forests in the continent’s belly. If this were true, then us safari tourists visiting the East African savannahs would be excused for calling the wild meat they eat during their visit game meat.

But then what do we make of headlines like: “Why poachers persist in hunting bushmeat—even though it’s dangerous,” focusing on hunters in Tanzania?

Or “Kenyans unwittingly eating bushmeat, not beef,” discussing meat from animals including zebra and wildebeest, which could very well be eaten on safari.

Or an excerpt from an article about food security in Zambia: “Presently, the only other alternative for rural Zambians to obtain meat is illegally through poaching of wild animals or purchase of poached meat (herein referred to as bushmeat).”

Or “Fears for east African bushmeat slaughter

Or this blog about eating “exotic” animals: “ It’s heartless to eat endangered animals. In compiling this list, I chose to feature chefs and restaurants that source meats responsibly. Media sources regularly report on the evils of gorilla and elephant bushmeat, and it’s worth looking up which species are endangered before booking a hunting safari…”

Often what happens is these articles is that the actual text uses bush meat and game meat more interchangeably, after the reader’s grabbed by bushmeat in the title. It’s a word the writer or media outlet knows the reader will have a strong reaction towards.

I do worry that we’re choosing the word not based on its actual definition, but rather on two other factors: Either who we see eating, preparing or hunting the animals, and whether we (tourists, journalists, conservationists, foreigners, we exclude your views) see its consumption as good or bad. That it’s “game” if tourists are eating it, “bushmeat” if (black) Africans are eating it, “game” if we see no moral dilemmas with eating it (the ethics of eating meat at all aside), “bushmeat” if it’s judged as harmful in some way—but by whose rules, metrics, morals and worldview?

Does this feel unfair to you, maybe make you feel icky? Especially when it’s our worldview that exercises so much power over your country, your people?

With an elderly Gabonese man in a suit and tie named Dominic in Gabon
Out of interest, Dominic learned English 34 years ago. Gabon is one of 24 francophone nations in Africa

For the sake of fairness I ought to mention the other theme bushmeat conversations sometimes take. This happens when a tourist or reporter is eating wild meat from someone like you, and wants to play up how adventurous, strange, grotesque or authentic the experience is, how they’re doing it against the odds and in the face of danger and their acquired tastes. In that case, it’s bushmeat.

“Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.”

How to Write about Africa | Binyavanga Wainaina | Granta Magazine

Now, part of me rolls my eyes at my own arguments. “For fucks sakes, this is pedantry. What I really mean by bushmeat are the animals that are maybe seen on safari but are definitely not eaten…monkeys, bats, lizards, the pangolins we weep over, that sort of thing…”

Except I didn’t draw those distinctions when I was in your country. Everything was bushmeat to me—monkeys and antelope, lizards and cats, rodents and bats (oh, yeah, didn’t see any bats). It didn’t matter if I saw them on safari, or that they were from the forest (as if the savannah doesn’t have its own tree cover), it was the context I saw them: the context of you and people like you, the Gabonese, that made me call them all bushmeat.

This was how the days passed. Cycling along the bushmeat highway, labelling labelling labelling, through village after village each carved out of a little patch of forest. The wooden kiosks constructed near the road in front of wooden houses often displayed the wild animals that were for sale. They fascinated me, it was the only chance I had to see the paws and snouts, talons and feathers, fur and claws, hoofs and hair up close. I often stopped and took a look. I was met without suspicion, I was met with patience and nonchalance by your country’s people, if not a little bemusement at my interest.

a forest cat pelt and a roasted porcupine for sale along the road in rural Gabon
The types of sights in Gabon I was more likely to photograph

You know what didn’t fascinate me? Your freezers of frozen chicken and beef in the supermarkets, your Maggi cubes and rice and bread. This I ate, barely wrote about it, didn’t photograph.

Do we have bushmeat?

I’ve already taken too much of your time, there’s so much more to say. I guess what I need to say to you more than anything else is two things:

First that I know absolutely nothing about you except that I saw you, one day, serving stews with what we all call bushmeat in them. Were they killed with a license, cooked with a license, prepared properly, endangered species? I have absolutely no idea. Similarly, I don’t know anything about what Gabon’s wild meat industry and culture means to you, and of the two of us it’s your perspectives that matter more here than mine. I only know you showed me your stews with an open heart.

Second, I know why we’re hesitant to use the word bushmeat in the context of our own hunting and eating.

It’s because game meat and wild meat are words used to describe what something is. But the word bushmeat is different. It has become both a description and judgement combo dinner, blended together so well that it is almost impossible to distinguish its components. Like a stew. The word game or wild meat is taken as the meat of a wild animal. The word bushmeat is the meat of a wild animal…that in our worldview is the result of something dangerous, reckless, harmful, disgusting, strange, wrong, and further that it says a lot about everyone involved.

If you’d asked me whether or not we have bushmeat in my country, I’d have wanted to say no to you that day we met.

But what’s the answer? Do we eat wild animals without processing them? Animals from the forest, like ungulates and mammals and rodents? Wild animals that run the risk of giving us diseases if we don’t clean, handle and cook the meat properly, that we can then pass onto others? Animals that we think are delicious, healthy and fascinating to eat, that we nonetheless think are cute? Do we do this at home in Canada, and when we come to your part of the world?

Yes, we do: Sometimes, in some places, under certain conditions, not without controversy. I’d want to give you all the context specific to my country, individual experiences, nuance. I would want to separate what the meat is from the discussion of people’s opinions and potential consequences of eating it.

Maybe you’d expect the same from me.

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