A FAMOUS GROUSE
EATING people is, of course, quite wrong. Even in Estcourt, that remote and untamed outpost in KwaZulu-Natal that was this week declared the anthropophagy capital of the world, it is considered taboo.
Who then could fault the local ANC leadership for warning that no good could ever come of it?
This “extreme crime” was committed by cruel people for their own “cheap survival”, Ukhahlamba regional spokesman Sipho Hlomuka was quoted as saying.
“We condemn any idea that there could be [a] supernatural solution to any challenges facing an individual by eating body parts of a human. This has been uncovered as untrue and a fallacy.”
Such thinking is to be commended by beleaguered humanists in this demon-haunted world. Events in KZN must be seen in the context of recent reports of church congregants having insecticide sprayed in their faces and being fed petrol, live snakes and, in the case of Seventh Day Adventists, corn flakes in a bid to achieve salvation.
But, all the same, it does not bode well for our reputation that this grisly business, which we needn’t rehash here, comes at a time when StatsSA is reporting that more than half the country live below the poverty line and one in seven in extreme food poverty.
We must however resist the temptation to link the two. It is only in extreme cases that we fall upon one another to avoid starvation. Until then, grass and other plant matter will have to do.
There is a well-thumbed copy of JP Donleavy’s The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival and Manners (New York, 1975) in the library at the Mahogany Ridge and the book claims that this is an “everyday matter that must be reckoned with when taking one’s seat on an aircraft,” especially when flying over “remote uninhabited areas such as some polar region”.
Even in the extreme unlikelihood, Donleavy suggests, social etiquette must prevail. “In the matter of racial and colour repugnancies and prejudices,” he writes, “these should never become criteria when asking for another helping.”
Also to be avoided, although here the temptation is just as great, is perhaps reading too much into literary works on Africa such as Evelyn Waugh’s landmark Black Mischief (London, 1932).
That novel concerns the Oxford-educated Emperor Seth’s attempts to modernise Azania, his fictional island homeland off the east coast of Africa. To assist him in this endeavour, he recruits one Basil Seal, a shiftless college friend and heir to an English political dynasty.
Things go about as wrong as, let’s just say, a corrupt president recruiting a close, shiftless friend to run the national airline.
Before long, Seth is deposed in a coup d’état and dies while in hiding. At his funeral feast, Basil discovers, to his horror, that he has been eating the stewed remains of his girlfriend, Prudence. He returns to England where he becomes “serious”, which disturbs his layabout friends in London.
In this regard, the persistent rumours surrounding the gustatory habits of such tyrants as Uganda’s Idi Amin, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedél Bokassa seem to suggest that Seth’s Azania is still very much with us.
It could also be argued that there is a colonial aspect to this distasteful business.
There was a time, until fairly late into the 19th century, that the eating of the cabin boy in a dire emergency was an accepted part of the “custom of the sea” as British and other European merchant ships made their way to the far corners of the globe.
English sailors even sang about it. The lyrics of Little Boy Billee, a “humorous fo’c’s’le song of obscure origin” according to Stan Hugill’sShanties of the Seven Seas (London, 1994), detail how two sailors from Bristol, Gorgin’ Jack and Guzzlin’ Jimmy, try to eat the eponymous cabin boy while becalmed on a life boat.
In the end, it doesn’t go well for Jack and Jimmy, but Billee does become an admiral.
No such luck for Richard Parker, the unfortunate mutineer in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. On a busted boat with no food and water, Parker draws the short straw and is promptly killed and eaten by his crewmates.
In a case of life perhaps imitating art, the 17-year-old cabin boy who was killed and eaten by three ship-wrecked British sailors in 1884 was also named Richard Parker.
A year later, the survivors were convicted of murdering Parker. A precedent was set throughout the common law world: necessity is not a defence when it comes to killing and eating people.
This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.