The whole zoo animal phenomenon is usually aggravating in that my most mundane activities constitute the talk of the town. When people I hear the word on the street about myself, it pains me to think that there’s nothing more interesting to talk about. Did you hear that Tubabuke shaved his under-nose hair today? No, that’s not what I heard - I heard that he shaved his under-nose hair AND his chin hair!
Though the zoo animal phenomenon has its benefits - apparently me hobbling down the streets and teaching people how to treat their wells is the biggest thing that has ever happened in Sanadougou since Ibrahim’s donkey had the hiccups. I have so many appointments that I have a two-week long waiting list. So when I come to people’s concessions they are very excited, and oftentimes they want to show their appreciation by offering me some sort of food. Not just any old toh, but real delicacies like guava or honey. I feel guilty accepting presents from people who have next to nothing to their name, but refusing a gift is a huge insult and so I have to accept it. I usually repay the generosity by coming back the next day with a box of tea – which in Mali is considered veritable manna from heaven.
Due to the effort that goes into raising livestock or hunting game, the greatest honor one could ever receive in Mali is a gift of meat. It’s difficult to just give someone a piece of meat to put in their pocket, so usually it is already cooked and waiting for me to eat it in their presence. That is not necessarily a good thing, because the meats which people eat here are sometimes exotic, and when bush meat has been cooked it is often very difficult to discern which animal it once was. Dog and cat are not uncommon. Often I am handed a bowl of charred bones that looks like highway wreckage from the Driver’s Ed instructional video Red Asphalt III. It was once a bird, I think… and it would be a dishonor for me to not give it at least a little nibble.
This one time I was offered some meat I inquired of its origins, and the answer was a Bambara noun I did not know. What I did know was that the meat placed before me definitely included a long, oddly familiar-looking rodent tail – it looked a lot like the mouse my cat dragged back home, only much larger… Eventually I realized that I was being offered a roast of sewer rat (this was one of the few gifts I have had to politely decline).
The most interesting thing I’ve been offered so far has been a West African night adder. This particular serpent had been slithering around Sanadougou biting people left in right and was attributed to the death of at least one child and two goats. Since the nocturnal viper would attack his prey at night – and that is usually when I do my well treatment lessons, during this killing spree everyone would tell me to stay in my house. One night the man of the household I was due to teach that night was walking back from the field and spotted the homicidal snake – by a good stroke of luck he happened to have his machete on him. He snuck up behind it and with a few swift strokes it was decapitated.
About 20 minutes later, I walked in the concession and Daoudaou was peeling the skin off of this full meter-long snake that had been terrorizing the village for weeks. By the time we were done with our water treatment lesson, his wife had sliced it up into little morsels and sautéed it in hot pepper sauce. Snake meat is like a double slab of ribs with two rows of chewy, gamey meat on either side of the spinal chord that seems to never end. But the infamy of this kill only made it all the more enticing - it was though I had been invited to dine on filet of Karla Fay Tucker.
Daoudaou was keen to ask me, “Do people eat snake meat in America?”
“Why do you not like snake meat?”
“It’s not that Americans don’t like snake meat, it’s just that snakes in America are very small and there isn’t any meat. If we had West African night adders though, I’m sure we would eat snake meat all the time.”
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