A month ago I was in Uganda where there were weird cannibalism stories that really shook me and, I believe, lots of other people. I got curious about the phenomenon and started doing some research on this almost forgotten reality.
Few people in the Western world know what it is to be desperately hungry. Even I do feel sympathy when I see photographs of the starving children in sub-Saharan African countries- a pity I quickly forget when I tuck into a calorie-laden Sunday lunch. We feel disgust when we watch newsreel full of people in Haiti fighting to get an unfair share of the food brought in by the relief agencies.
In doing so, we forget the primitive and ruthless streak of self-preservation that lies untamed beneath our own, public personas.
I read somewhere that when food deliveries were disrupted during a bad spell of icy weather, our otherwise law-abiding citizens from the modern world raided supermarket shelves in a sudden wave of panic buying. People bought, and hoarded, vast quantities of food that they didn’t need and couldn’t possibly eat.
Most tribes have a taboo against cannibalism. Dog may eat dog, but men and women are discouraged from consuming their next door neighbor.
Nevertheless, when the chips are down, this unwritten law is honored more in the breach than in the observance. I read somewhere that on several, well-documented, occasions shipwrecked sailors have eaten their weaker comrades when they’ve been cast adrift for days without food.
In 1972 a plane, carrying a team of young rugby players, crashed into the barren upper slopes of the Andes. The survivors were without food for eight weeks, before being reached by a rescue team.
They kept alive by eating their least able team mates. Something similar happened during the First World War, when the German underworld sold human flesh which was said to taste like pork, and was often sold from hot-dog stalls.
Our taste in meat varies. We find it strange that the French should eat horse flesh, and the Chinese or our brothers in the Congo make a delicacy of abandoned dogs.
Even odder is the knowledge that many races have cultivated a positive preference for eating human flesh.
This was once very popular in the Caribbean Islands; in fact the word ‘cannibalism’ is derived from canibalis, which it the Spanish term for the Caribbean people. On occasions people have been castrated and raised in cages like hens to improve their flavour and fat content.
One Nigerian chief had his victims injected with palm oil a few days before they were slaughtered, believing that this in vitro marination improved the flavour of the meat.
The Maoris were equally discriminating.
They gave up eating English flesh, which they found too salty, and concentrated instead on the rumps and haunches of their fellow countrymen which were sweeter and more to their taste.
This cuisine still has its devotees in the Orient, according to a 1991 report in Hainan Daily, an official Chinese newspaper.
This revealed that a local restaurant was serving cheap and delicious spicy dumplings made from human remains.
The meat was supplied by the owner’s brother who ran a nearby crematorium. This was judged to be perfectly acceptable by legal experts, for while Chinese law stipulates that it’s illegal to kill, a nineteenth century high court judgment ruled that it is not an offense to eat the flesh of dead corpses.
There are lessons to be learnt from these macabre practices. The first is that the ways of man are bizarre and infinitely varied. We have powers of adaptation that are denied to other animal species.
Given the will, we can endure earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, famines, bitter winters and horrendous floods.
But only the fittest can cope with the demands of these physical calamities and dark nights of the soul.
Nyagapfizi Emmanuel is a Management Information Systems manager