Garbanzo Beans for Breakfast
Changes in the human diet spurred changes in human society, both nutritionally and socially. When Homo sapiens learned how to harvest wild grains, he began the process of learning to cultivate those grains—the very first farmer. Once we could plant crops in rows and have ready access to food, once that reliability was secured, humans could relax a little. We could stay in one place, making us safer from predation, helping us to begin building what we now know as civilization.
But earlier than that, about two million years ago, when early hominids began eating meat regularly, we suddenly saw a rapid increase in growth and development. Our bodies received the energy they needed to stitch together thicker, stronger muscles. Calcium shot into our bones, and our skeletons began to shift and expand, growing taller and more narrow, for better balance. The dense vitamin value of meat—those b-12s and zinc and iron—went straight to our heads, feeding the evolution of our massive brains in both size and ability. Modern humans use nearly a quarter of their resting energy to feed our brains. Chimpanzees use 10 percent. Gorillas use eight. Meat was the most nutritionally-dense, energy-rich food available to people over the course of our development, and meat has therefore caused much of that development and that is what makes people say we are “meant” to eat meat.
Hunter-gatherer societies still exist in the world. Here in the United States, we may sometimes forget that there are places on the planet without Wal-Mart or interstate highways or suburban subdivisions, but they are there. Biological anthropologists spend most of their time in the field studying these people, mostly in rainforests and Pacific islands, in order to better understand how our ancestors might have lived. Modern human hunter-gatherers move, on average, eight miles a day in search of food. No McDonald’s drive-thrus. No Chinese take-out. No home delivery of groceries. If they want meat, they need more than a phone to get it.
It is this distinction that led to the consensus, among biological anthropologists, that it is not only the amount of meat consumed that causes obesity and other diseases in developed countries—but that the amount so drastically overcompensates for amount of work done to get it.
To say there is no public transportation in rural Ghana would be an understatement. For the most part, there is no transportation. The roads, what few there are, are rarely paved, which is usually a blessing. When pavement exists, it is so degraded—whole chunks of asphalt missing, large triangles split and moved slightly by traffic, creating dangerous rock outcrops in the middle of the road—that accidents often occur. So for the most part, the staff and students at St. Joseph’s only get around town. Water is available on the campus, and the yellow, man-drawn cart at which cell phone minutes are sold usually parks right outside the gate, knowing his wealthiest customers live just inside. Getting anything else—food, books, paper, pens, beer, clothes—means walking two miles into downtown Bechem.
This is not a difficult walk, unless you count one-hundred-plus temperatures as difficult. It’s flat, the dirt road not unlike the hard-packed mountain trails I’ve spent most of my life climbing for fun. And walking from St. Joseph’s clear across Bechem, all the way to the cocoa plantation on the far east side of town, is only a total of eight miles one-way. But this is where the grocery store is, where the tailor who makes all the town’s clothes works, where the only printer in town is, where the only public phone in town, the only bar in town is. There is no bank, no post office. Imagine how many times a day you go “into town” and back. Imagine what you take with you each way. Imagine doing it on foot. The idea of eating a steak when you get home starts to look a little different.
On the sides of roads all throughout Africa, market stands spring up in the most unlikely places. We’d just be driving along what looked like a forest to me, a heavy near-jungle of low-slung greenery, looping vine-branches, and scrappy underbrush, when we’d speed past a plywood table, two poles and a piece of cloth draped over them, a few scattered people selling bananas, papaya, meat, cell phone minutes.
These roadside stands are one of the only places to buy meat in Bechem, and that meat usually takes one of two forms: either giant snails or bushmeat. Giant snails are pretty self-explanatory, and though they were never made available to me for try, I guarantee I would not have eaten one. Still in the shell, they loomed the size of my spread hand, dirty tan-brown with black, slimy snail heads emerging from one end, piled high on a flat woven basket that a young man balances on his head.
Bushmeat. The mystery of the phrase lingers on. I’ve had glimpses of the animal, far below the status of the Mensah family’s table, and therefore never even a remote possibility for me to eat there. They would have been insulted if I’d asked if they’d ever eaten it. The roadside stands would sometimes have these wooden racks set up, two-pole legs on either end with a third pole balanced across them, from which hung dozens of obscure brown animals. They looked, in my distant glances of them, like large squirrels, big bushy reddish tails that tied them to the pole. But the rest of the carcass had already been skinned, so the pink-white fleshy body underneath was all that remained, making identification more difficult. I asked multiple people multiple times what kind of animal bushmeat came from, and I only ever got one answer: a shrug. It’s just bushmeat.