South of the Sahel comes the open range of the tropical savanna, one of the defining landscapes of Africa and, of what I have seen of the vast continent, my favorite. Add to an endless plain of grassland a lone acacia tree and a sunset. Or add a giraffe or one of the ‘Big Five’ – a lion, a leopard, an elephant, a rhino, or a buffalo – and you have the perfect advertisement for a photo safari in the savanna of East and southern Africa. In some countries, for a lot of money, you can shoot these animals with live bullets instead of the camera. And the attentive reader will have noticed that despite being the world’s biggest and most vicious animal predator, the Nile crocodile has been left out of the Big Five. Or maybe it was because of that. The term of the Big Five was introduced for big-game hunting, not by the Africans hunting for food, but by the British hunting for sport and trophies. Today it makes the thrill of the tourists to count how many of them they see on their safari. And there is a touch of hunting adventure attached to it. I know a Swiss who has come on safari to Kenya five times, but has still not seen the leopard.
The most famous of the tropical savannas is, of course, the one of the Serengeti and the Masai Mara with its Great Migration of the wildebeests. In the nineties, I visited the two parks as one big ecosystem, crossing in one uninterrupted safari from the Masai Mara in Kenya into the Serengeti in Tanzania and back. Sand River Gate between the two parks was a special border post, introduced for tourists. Now, don’t believe that odd border stories are confined to West Africa. Thirty years later, Sand River Gate is closed. If you want to combine the two parks, you have two options: You can fly out of the park on your side of the border, go through customs and have your passport stamped in Nairobi or Arusha and fly back into the park on the other side. Or, as I did last before the Corona virus hit us, you can leave the park by road and cross the border at Isibania, on the border between the two countries, between the parks and Lake Victoria to the West. In both options, your journey is broken into two. Instead of touring one big ecosystem you are visiting two parks, in two different countries. But Kenya doesn’t want the competition of Tanzanian tour operators in the Mara and Tanzania doesn’t want Kenyan tour operators in the Serengeti. So much for economic cooperation across borders in East Africa. And the African Continental Free Trade Area. And the African currency. And the African passport. – Fortunately, the wildebeests, gazelles and zebras that cross the border between Tanzania and Kenya every year in their Great Migration remain unburdened by the imaginary line on a map and the machinations of the human brain around it.
Typically, the indigenous peoples in this part of Africa, today, don’t hunt. They are nomadic pastoralists, and their subsistence is their livestock; cattle, goats, sheep. Maybe camels. Or they are sedentary farmers, and their subsistence is their agricultural produce and some cows, goats, sheep, and maybe pigs, certainly chicken. Here, humans live in unity with their animal environment. Of course, the Masai will kill the lion when it kills his cattle, and of course, the farmer will try to kill the elephant when it devours his crop. Normally, the Masai will win, whereas the farmer will lose. But they do not hunt and eat the giraffes, monkeys, hippos, zebras and all the different types of antelopes. Nor crocodiles. Even when it comes to the domesticated animals, the meat of which they normally eat, there are exceptions. The donkey, the zebra’s cousin and man’s ‘beast of burden’, is spared: “Since time immemorial we used donkeys as a means of transport and would never imagine eating a donkey. In fact, if a donkey died, it would be buried decently, with some cash for helping our women and the community”, says a man in western Kenya – in protest of the five donkey slaughterhouses licensed by the government in 2016 for the export of donkey meat and skins to China. At first, I would not have bet on the slaughterhouses being closed, because Kenya is deeply indebted to China. But then four years later it happened. Not necessarily for culinary and spiritual reasons, but donkey theft within Kenya and – across the borders – from the neighboring countries had reached a scale that threatened the donkey population and started affecting the economy of the whole region. The bet is now how long the closure will last. Still, upholding traditional culinary taboos has a history in Kenya. In the eighties in Nairobi, the ‘Carnivore’ opened as an all-you-can-eat game meat grill restaurant, offering giraffe, zebra, gazelle, wildebeest, and other game, even crocodile. In 2004, the government banned the sale of game meat and, today, the Carnivore is just an all-you-can-eat grill restaurant. And moving with the times, they now also have a vegetarian menu. Not yet vegan.
The tropical rainforest of West and Central Africa with its exotic fauna and flora is the other of the defining landscapes. Add to your stereotype image of a rainforest some multicolored butterflies, as large as both your open hands interlocked with your thumbs, a grass-green snake, a monkey, and an okapi, and you are in the perfect photobook on the jungle of the Congo. It is the Congo, because in the rainforest along the coast of West Africa, there are no okapis. My introduction to the African rainforest was in the early eighties in Zaïre, the Congo. Things were different then. On the Ubangi River in the rainforest in the very North of the country on the border to the Central African Republic, President Mobutu was building the ‘Versailles of the Jungle’ over Gbadolite, his ancestral village. I once got to represent the ambassador for a conference there. I don’t remember what the conference was about, but I was thrilled to meet the president in his home town, to attend a conference at such a high level as ambassadors and to visit the jungle! – And I was disappointed: Rainforest? Cleared for perpendicular roads, the airport, cultural and shopping centers, schools. And for the pomp and pretention of a five-star hotel, and notably, the palace of President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. In the official translation this means: ‘The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’. In the jungle of the Congo, the people are Bantu and in the little I know of Bantu languages, ‘kuku’ means chicken, but appearing in a name like this it will refer to a cock. Local activities in Gbadolite? None. Local people? Not to be seen. At least, we were invited to the palace for a reception. It goes without saying that the cuisine was French.
Although Kinshasa is not in the rainforest itself, visiting the local food market had already made clear to me that the Congolese hunt and eat ‘bush meat’: Caterpillars, crickets, bush rats, birds and bats, monkeys, snakes, frogs, and crocodiles were all on offer. Alive, fresh cut or already roasted; for immediate consumption or to take away. My first taste of crocodile meat was from that market. The cook brought home some sixty centimeters of the loin, hind legs and tail of a baby crocodile. Fresh cut. Over the years of my diplomatic career and culinary experience in Africa, I learned that, as from veal to beef, age also improves the aroma of the crocodile meat. And compared to beef which tends with age to get tastier but harder, crocodile gets tastier but fatter.
In Côte d’Ivoire twenty-five years later, I became an honorary member of the Council of Elders of Bringakro, a small village of the Baoulé Kingdom in the forest north of Abidjan. In a ceremony with the whole village, I was named to ‘Kouassi Bringa’, dressed in the traditional gown, and crowned. We drank palm wine and ate ‘agouti’, a kind of bush rat. The Baoulé are the largest of the forest tribes of Côte d’Ivoire. It’s only that the forest is not what it used to be. Apart a small patch in the Taï National Park, the primary rainforest has practically disappeared, and the secondary forest coverage of Côte d’Ivoire is down to less than a third of the country. Clearing for agriculture and logging for tropical woods have eaten the forest away. And Nestlé is investing millions in research to propagate new cacao trees that can persist in secondary forests where the canopy of the trees is too thin to protect the cacao from the sting of the tropical sun. Bringakro is some 50 kilometers south of Yamoussoukro, the home village of Houphouet-Boigny, the first President of Côte d’Ivoire – and top tribal Chief of us Baoulé. He cleared the rainforest and started building the designated capital of Côte d’Ivoire there. In the middle of it stands the ‘Basilica of Our Lady of Peace’, a gigantic Cathedral, larger than Saint Peter’s Dome in Rome and, as most official government buildings of Yamoussoukro, oversized, idle and hollow. On one of my visits to the ghost capital, while saluting the sacred crocodiles that protected the empty presidential palace, I had a flashback: Gbadolite! I googled it. Much of the bigger infrastructure stands in dereliction and decay. Mobutu’s palace was looted when his dictatorship ended, and since then, the jungle is taking back Gbadolite. This may not happen with Yamoussoukro but I do not see the real economic and political functions of the capital moving there from Abidjan.
In the forest of western Côte d’Ivoire, I was once served a very special treat: A tropical forest snail – the size of a beef fillet. You slice it just as one like that and it was better than French Escargot. An Ivorian once told me that they ate all these animals because in their local languages, ‘meat’ had a notional meaning of ‘everything that moves but is not one of us’. With a twinkle in his eye, he added that this also explained the cannibalism of the forest people. In early times of Homo sapiens, when two groups of humans who did not know each other would meet in the forest, they would not see humans but rather ‘something that moves but is not one of us’. Meat. Due to its growing scarcity, at least in the urban centers, bush meat has become an expensive delicatessen. Around Abidjan there are farms that breed forest animals for the restaurants specializing in traditional bush meat dishes. The situation of the forests in the neighboring countries is similar, but Côte d’Ivoire still has a relatively high degree of biodiversity. Close to five thousand plant species and well over a thousand animal species; mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. And make no mistake, the forest people of all West Africa still hunt and eat most of these animals, rare or abundant. And old habits die hard. In the West African diaspora in France, a four kilograms monkey from Cameroon cost 100 Euro in 2010, the year when according to the BBC, more than 200 tons of bush meat entered France through Charles de Gaulle Airport alone. In 2013, a young African was stopped at Gatwick Airport because he had 94 kilogram of dried caterpillars in his luggage.
From France and Britain back to Sub-Sahara Africa. 43 of the 55 African countries are Sub-Saharan. Together they cover two thirds of the continent, twice the surface of the Unites States. And 34 of them are tropical. ‘Tropical’ means that these countries are hot and dry throughout the year with only one scarce rainy season, like in the Sahel. Or they are hot and dry, with two abundant rainy seasons, like in the tropical savannah. Or they are hot and humid and wet with intermittent dry spells, like in the rainforest. And ‘hot’ means hot. We are talking of daytime temperatures between 25° Celsius and – with global warming – 45° Celsius, or more. Africa is defined by its tropics where earth, heat and water make an enhancing mix for all organic life. Thus, the vast biodiversity of Africa. In the Tropic of Cancer, these are the countries of the Sahel and those of West Africa’s Atlantic coast: Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Cameroon. The landlocked Central African Republic, South Sudan and Ethiopia. And Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, in the Horn of Africa. And then come the Equatorial countries of Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa, Uganda and Kenya. South of that, in the Tropic of Capricorn, you have Angola, Zambia, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, and the northern parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, and out in the Indian Ocean, the great big island of Madagascar. Of all these tropical countries, in chronological order, I have lived in Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, Madagascar, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, and again Kenya. I have worked in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic, Djibouti, South Sudan and Somalia. And I have visited Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Angola, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. The trip which would have taken me to Malawi and Mozambique, in 2020, had to be cancelled due to the Corona virus.