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Hippo Meat

Naranda Patel was the one Indian student in the first class of Electrical Engineering Students at ZIT now Copperbelt University in Kitwe. He had heard that I was interested in all new and African things. He casually asked one day, “If I had tried hippo meat?” I said, "No, but I would like to if I could." He said that, "Hippo meat was available at the local meat market in downtown Luanshya.” He cautioned that it was not put out for display but held behind the counter for select group of customers. One had to ask for it and it could be bought.” This exciting fact, he shared somewhat conspiratorially. He further cautioned me, "That it must be cooked very little as it is tough if it was over cooked.” I showed real interest and asked, “What does it tasted like.” He said, “It is very tender and tasted very good like beef.” I took him at his word and relayed the account to the family and to the Gibbings family. All of us seemed very positive, so we made an agreement that I would buy some and we would cook it and invite the Gibbings over for the meal. On December 3, 1970 I went to the butcher shop across from Amin’s General Store and bought a four-kilo piece of frozen hippo meat. I could not tell the cut of the meat. It was just a chunk sawed off a very much larger block of solid meat from some indeterminate part of the hippo. I brought my treasure home to the family. Elsa cooked it as a roast in the oven until it was pink and rare. We took it out of the oven and tried to slice it. It would be an understatement to say that it was found to be very tough. We quickly put it in a pot and simmered it for another six hours then cut it up in small pieces and curried it and simmered it again for a couple of hours. We lived in continuing hope. The Gibbings, who lived in a large colonial home across from Figoff's’ home and close to the apartments at number two Shala road were due at eight for dinner. Bill was a physics lecturer and Rose was the registrar of Luanshya campus of ZIT. Bill had been laid-off from Rolls Royce before coming to Africa. They had just got married and each brought girls from a previous marriage to live on Shala Road. They arrived all dressed up in their finest and full of expectation of this fine meal. Elsa put the hippo that was now a curry on a bed of rice and hoped for the best. We all sat with a drink and then served dinner. A red Portuguese Mateus wine was served. We all took some rice, hippo and condiments. I took a bite and started to chew, as did the others. The taste was of gamy beef, but the texture of the meat was still rubbery. As I chewed in silence, I watched the others each watching each other and chewing in a very deliberate but determined manner. The small piece of meat in my mouth seemed to be getting bigger with chewing. I chew on and the meat changed texture to that of a soft sponge. I had chewed until only a matrix of connected connective tissue remained. This loose open sponge seemed impervious to the eight hours of cooking and all the chewing I could provide. I thought to myself, “Did I just get a tough bit or are all the others having the same problem as to what to do with the sponge-like material in their mouths.” One looked at all the others at the table, confirmed my suspicions as Rose, Bill and Elsa were still chewing. In as a discreet manner as possible, and under the closest scrutiny of all the others, I spit out my ball of connective tissue. I calmly commented on the excellent flavour of the meat. Each of the others followed my lead and removed the ball of sponge like material from their mouths. We joked that Naranda Patel and his friends had taken us on an adventure. We laughed and gamely tried the next piece. It was the same, less than charming, procedure for each small piece of meat. I put a bowl on the table for the purpose of collecting the balls of connective tissue and we chewed on. We finished the meal with fresh lemon pie that Rose had provided.

During the next day, I casually commented to Naranda Patel that we had tried the hippo meat and that its tenderness was hard to describe. We commented that our European tastes preferred meat with a little firmer texture. Confidentially we did not ever buy hippo again. And we later learnt that it was gathered by a team of hippo culler. It was estimated that there were over a thousand hippos to each five linear kilometres of all the major rivers. Every night the hippos would come out of the cooling water and feed several kilometres from the water’s edge. When this activity was near villages and towns it caused many incidents of both humans and hippos believing that the same greenery that the humans had grown belonged to them. Hippos are a bit like having a four thousand-kilogram, meter and a half high, wild pig trotting about in your garden. Both hippo and man suffered. Each of these Government culling units was equipped with a portable freezing unit. The hippos were shot at night, out of the water, as it was difficult to recover dead hippos out of the water with their relatives defending the bodies. The hippos were butchered and frozen on the spot and then the Government culling team would move to a different place on the river. The last thing of interest was that the meat was mostly meant as pet food! Rose and Bill Gibbings can still laugh with us about the hippo curry that we could not describe the tenderness.


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