Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Of bushmeat and breakfast tests

December 28, 2004
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
N 3.74949° E 8.76031 Elevation 122 feet. Temp: 88° F

The Arcadia University expedition to Bioko sped through an intense day of buying, collecting and sorting gear for our journey tomorrow to the island’s southern highlands.

Earlier I had published an estimate that the group of about 30 people would take about a ton of gear by boat and make a beach landing before beginning two weeks of searching for endangered animals. But it’s clear that estimate was too conservative. Today the group’s leaders bought a half ton of rice alone. Then you start counting beans, sugar, coffee and cases of canned sardines and tomato paste. Bags of toilet paper, soap, tea. Satellite telephones and three generators, along with maybe 20 gallons of fuel. There’s an inflatable Zodiac boat (which developed a leak that fortunately was repaired with a tire patch). The group is bringing about 16 tents. Lifejackets for everyone. And each person is carrying their own personal gear, including lunches for two weeks. We are packing heavy.

The plan is to depart at dawn on Wednesday.

Today began on a sad note and then went downhill fast. We checked the Internet and learned that the Iggles lost the game on Monday Night Football – we’re six hours ahead of the East Coast, so the game actually ended around dawn here. And then we got news about the devastation from the tsunami in Asia, and the scale of the disaster is beginning to sink in.

Later, I and Barbara Johnston, the Inquirer’s photographer, went to the central market in Malabo to work on a story about the bushmeat market. This is the place where much of the carcasses of wild animals – including several endangered primates – are sold to be eaten.

I spent some time at the market a few weeks ago when I made a fact-finding mission to Malabo to set up the permits for us to do our work. There weren’t as many animals in the market this time as there were before – we were told the market gets busier toward the weekend.

But it was equally repugnant this time as last.

It’s pretty hard to suspend judgment and consider the consumption of wild animals in a cultural context. Actually, I had to suppress the urge to hurl. The stench, the appearance of poorly preserved animals oozing and attracting flies, it nearly overwhelmed my journalistic sense of detachment. Hats off to Barbara, who really stuck her lens close to the pile of carcasses to capture the image of the market vendors blithely fanning the flies from the food. It took a couple of hours to get the market odor out of my clothes after we left. I hope the story I wrote for Wednesday’s paper on bushmeat passes the “breakfast test” – that’s the term we use for a story that is so gross it makes readers unable to their finish breakfast. I’ll let the editors be the judge of that.

Meanwhile, the Arcadia expedition leaders – Professors Gail W. Hearn and Wayne A. Morra – have so far been unable to get a satellite telephone released from custody. Airport customs agents confiscated the phone when our group arrived on Sunday (several more got through, fortunately, so we are not entirely incommunicado). Officials at ExxonMobil, the leading oil producer in Equatorial Guinea, which is providing logistical support to the expedition, wrote a letters to several ministers seeking the telephone’s release. The head of the National University of Equatorial Guinea also promised to see what he could do. But despite lots of letters and strings pulled, the telephone is still being held hostage. It makes me grateful that I was able to get the Inquirer’s permits in order earlier this month in only five days of schmoozing and letter writing – at the time, it seemed like forever. That gives you an idea of how much patience it takes to work in this country – not just for journalists and academics, but any business that wants to invest in this place.

But as they say with a sigh around the continent, T.A.B. – That’s Africa, Baby.
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