Monkey Meat – A Religious Rite?
Posted by shadmia on November 25, 2007
Mamie Manneh, 39, is in a lot of trouble. The Liberian-born New York City resident is in federal court fighting charges that accuse her of the illegal importation of bushmeat from Africa. The case dates to early 2006, when federal inspectors at JFK Airport examined a shipment of 12 cardboard boxes from Guinea. They were addressed to Manneh and, according to a flight manifest, contained African dresses and smoked fish with a value of $780. While inspecting the shipment the inspectors came upon some interesting items which had not been declared.
Stashed underneath the smoked fish, the inspectors found what West Africans refer to as bushmeat: “skulls, limbs and torsos of non-human primate species” including green monkeys and hamadryas baboons, plus the hoof and leg of a small antelope, according to court papers. The meat had been smoked.
Shortly afterwards Mamie received a visit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents. They showed up at her house and she explained to them that she ran a smoked fish importing business. She denied knowing anything about bushmeat from Africa and said she had not eaten any since being in the United States. But after she consented to a search, the agents came across a tiny, hairy arm hidden in her garage. “Monkey,” she explained, claiming the arm was sent to her out of the blue “as a gift from God in heaven.”
Federal prosecutors hit Manneh with smuggling charges that accused her of violating import procedures. Although the importation of bushmeat is not specifically banned, Manneh is accused of falsely labeling her delivery and failing to obtain proper permits, charges that could bring a maximum prison sentence of five years. They suggested she was a menace to man and beast alike. The complaint cited evidence that the illegal importation of bushmeat encourages the slaughter of protected wild animals.
More ominously, the complaint warned of “the potential health risks to humans linking bushmeat to diseases like Lassa fever, Ebola, HIV, SARS and monkeypox.”
The case has attracted attention from an array of interested parties. Wildlife conservationists see trade in bushmeat as a grave threat to dwindling species; epidemiologists view it as a dangerous vector of disease. Many African immigrants, who eat bushmeat cubed and cooked in a stew of onions, garlic, tomatoes and chili pepper, see it as a referendum on a cultural practice.
The case took on a new dimension in February, when Ms. Manneh’s lawyer, Jan Rostal of Federal Defenders of New York, filed a motion to dismiss the indictment, arguing that the meat provides “spiritual sustenance” similar to the bitter herbs served at a Passover Seder.
“Unfortunately for the government,” she wrote, the bushmeat case “represents the sort of clash of cultural and religious values inherent in the ‘melting pot’ that is America.”
Manneh testified last year that before arriving in the United States more than 25 years ago, monkey meat was critical to her religious upbringing. At age 7, “I was baptized and they used that for the baptizing ceremony,” she told a judge. Baptisms, Easter, Christmas, weddings—all are occasions for eating monkey, Manneh’s supporters said in a sworn statement filed with the court.Manneh has managed to recruit some notable allies. Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy picked up the case in April, offering two lawyers to assist Ms. Rostal, who works out of the public federal defenders office. Manneh’s attorneys plan on calling the Harvard professor, Mr. Olupona, to testify to the religious significance of eating bushmeat, according to court papers. Manneh’s church also submitted an affidavit explaining:
“This is something our forefathers did, it is something we learned as children, and it is a part of our treasured relationship with God as African Christians.”
African expatriates like Edward Lama Wonkeryor, a lecturer at Temple University, have long turned to bushmeat as a home comfort: During his earliest trips from Liberia to this country, in the 1970s, his mother would wrap parcels of bushmeat — monkey, bush hog or lion, smoked so it would keep — and slip them into his suitcase. He would save them for events like weddings and christenings, or when he wanted to feel smarter.
“If I were going to take the Graduate Record Examination or the Law School Admissions Test, definitely I would” eat bushmeat beforehand, said Dr. Wonkeryor, who wrote a letter in Ms. Manneh’s defense. “I am really surprised that they are making a big issue out of this.”
In the meantime Mamie Manneh is sitting in prison over something complete unrelated to this case: For assaulting a woman outside a Staten Island movie theater. Manneh drove her car towards her husband and a woman she suspected was her husband’s girlfriend; the husband got out of the way, but Manneh managed to hit the woman.