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Gravel in its Intestines?

Cote D'ivoire

“Gravel in their intestines?”
“Yeah, each piece of gravel represents a year of age, so if you find 10 pieces of gravel, the alligator is 10 years old.”
“Uh huh. And how is this proven?”
“I don’t know, that’s just what I heard.”
“Uh huh, okay.”

This week has seemed like a taping of a Jack Hanna special on wild animals as food in Cote d’Ivoire. Every time I turn around, someone is killing or has already killed some species that I would rather not encounter alone.

Running down the dirt and sand road flanked by dense jungle and palm trees, existence of wildlife both dangerous to man and animal is inevitable. I was not prepared, though, when I literally ran into two men emerging from the bush. One was carrying a very long snake in one hand, its head biting a stick in the other hand.

“What’s that?”
“Cobra.”
“Uh huh, okay.” The word did not need translation from French to English. “Are there many here?”
“Oh, perhaps. Not too many.”
“Are you going to eat that?”

The men donned guilty grins and nodded their heads. “Bon appetit.”

Not thirty minutes later, when I had turned around and was heading back to the village, I ran into another man carrying a “small” alligator in one hand and a machete in the other. I had to interrogate him.
“Eiiiieee! What’s that?!?”

He just laughed at my bewilderment because he knew I knew what it was. I started in on my usual series of questions. “Are there many?”
“Yes.”
“Are there bigger ones?”
“Yes, but you need a gun to catch them.”
“Uh huh, okay. You going to eat that?”
“Yes,” he said, clearly amused by my wonderment.

I started back towards the village with a head full of thoughts and ideas on what else I could possibly encounter and what would happen. What if an elephant tramples across the road or an army of scorpions attacks my ankles without warning? I couldn’t help but think back to the snake I found crawling across my thigh in the middle of the night earlier this year. I never did figure out what kind of snake it was, but I laugh to myself imagining if it was a cobra. Of course, my mosquito net is tucked in extra tight now and any unfamiliar noise or movement is automatically illuminated by my headlamp.

Back in the village, after an afternoon of paperwork and reading, I walked across my yard to the latrine. I came across four men slaughtering a cow in my backyard. They couldn’t have been more than 15 or 20 paces from my door and they were gutting and hacking away on this huge animal. I recognized a couple of the men as those who sit under a makeshift shack alongside the road, selling chunks of beef and other parts to passersby. The FDA would have a heyday inspecting sanitary conditions in this slaughterhouse. A bed of grass was the only thing under the carcass and pools of blood formed in every direction. Large tools such as machetes, knives, and sharp hammers were used to break bones, tear ligaments, and carve meat. Buckets of water stood nearby for them to occasionally rinse their hands off or to haphazardly wash a body part. When the stomach was removed and emptied, a large pile of chewed grass was replanted in a heap, the stomach was turned inside out, and, using his bare hands, the elder man picked off the remaining blades of green. I cringed, but held my own, as this made for a great photo opportunity.

“You going to eat that?” I asked, pointing to the stomach lining that was now lying in a large, metal bowl.
“Uh huh,” they replied, grinning and knowing that they were disgusting “la blanche”. “Do you want?”
“Oh no! No, no, no, that’s okay, I’m fine really.”

A few more minutes passed and the carcass began to lose its entirety, becoming small piles of parts rather than a whole. I decided that after the stomach was cleaned, I would retreat to my safe haven, home to glorious canned goods and dried soup mixes, bottles of clean water and the occasional fresh fruit.

But I keep asking myself if I’m doing something wrong here by not partaking in everything the villagers do, such as wash their clothes in stagnant pools of water, walk around barefoot even in the jungle, and eat less-than-sanitary “fresh” meat that is more than likely covered in swarms of flies. Am I being finicky or sensible? Are the ideals of cultural integration and personal health and safety contradictory or complementary? Where do you draw the line without offending?

My neighbor comes around at 7:30pm each night and is always a wealth of information. He’s easy to talk to as he speaks French well. During the day, I keep a small notebook close by to jot down questions or notes to ask Brahima when he comes by. Tonight, it was the alligator.

“So, there are many alligators here?”
“Oh sure, I find them on my land, down by the river. Why?” “I saw a man carrying one today.”
“They bury themselves in holes in the ground. When men go into the bush, they find their holes and cover them with grass and dirt to trap the alligator. By the next day, the alligator is dead and they bring them home.”
“Uh huh.”
“The meat is good! It’s like fish. I like to smoke mine over a fire pit all day. You want?”
“Sure, why not. You can catch them easily?”
“I’ve hired a young guy to help me in the fields, I’ll send him to catch one.”
“Uh huh, okay.”
“When you cut one open, though, you must be VERY careful because the pancreatic fluids are lethal. It’s pure poison. Usually, the family elder cuts the pancreas out and throws it far away in the bush so no one can get near it. And when you cut open the intestines, you’ll find gravel inside. Each piece represents a year of age, so 10 pieces means the alligator is ten years old.”
“Gravel?”
“Yeah.”
“Like a rock?”

He sends a “petit” to go find a piece of gravel to back himself up. Sure enough, the kid produces a sharp-edged piece of gravel the size of a large cherry tomato.
“They EAT these?!?”
“I guess! I don’t know, that’s just what I heard.”
“Uh huh, okay.”

In a country where half the stories you hear are myths and legends passed down from generation to generation, these tangents of tales of sorcery and shamanism are common. In a country where animals can take on hierarchical positions in the society and where villagers wear bracelets containing traditional medicines and herbs to cure disease, it’s no surprise that the number of pieces of gravel you find in the intestines of an alligator would indicate the number of years it has lived. It would be more shocking to hear a logical explanation. It’s these quirks and details that make life here so fascinating and gratifying. There are new fables and traditions to discover and learn about. There are new delicacies to taste, new seasons to experience, and new lives to be touched by. And who knows, perhaps if I stay here long enough, I’ll come across an elephant in the road.

Elizabeth Whisenhunt (Cote D'ivoire)

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