Wild Bounty: Foraging in the African Bush

Sometimes, during magazine projects, I find myself brainstorming for subjects to write about. I’m always trying to find something significant to say, about a fantastic experience or place. After a while, when my brain slows down and I stop trying so hard, it occurs to me – the subject material is already there, overflowing in my memory bank. There is so much material, in fact, I hardly have time to stop and grasp at each memory. Such is the case with my time in Africa. During those 5 years, every day life was an adventure in itself. Often times, it is difficult to distinguish one unique experience from another. One such example that stands out to me, is my almost daily utilization of wild plants.

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(Above: Delicious, unidentified, wild fruity treats. Someday- ill find out what all of these are)

Now, here in the mountain west, I sometimes intentionally go out with my family and forage for wild berries in a recreational setting. In these scenarios, our intended purpose is to have fun, and there is no vital need to the harvest. In contrast, in Africa, foraging for food and medicinal plants became a routine part of my time in the bush that was a necessity to my health and well-being.

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(Pictured: Wild coffee cherries, Chinko basin, Central African Republic)

I once worked out of a remote camp along a river called the Mbari, for a number of weeks with a dozen local African men under my care. We were building a safari camp, as well as a ferry to cross the river. The days were long and full of hard work. It was up to me to make sure the men were healthy, and had enough to eat and drink. Our diet consisted of rice and gozo (the surplus food of choice in the Central African Republic, consisting of dried manioc root, crushed into a powder, and then cooked into a dough-like mixture), and a couple of baboons, roasted over a fire (thanks to a local hunter). During one particular stretch of work, our rice and gozo began to run out, and we awaited a resupply of rations from the main camp. But horrible rain kept the resupply truck bogged down, and we found ourselves marooned in our small outpost. I grew nervous as our rice finally ran out, and then the gozo. One day without these staple foods was difficult, but manageable. By the second day, baboon meat would not suffice our hunger. Finally, on the third day, with no sign of the truck, I discussed an emergency plan with my men, and we all decided to stop working and immediately start foraging for wild food.

We were in a particularly forested area, and though the food choices were slim, we luckily found wild yams growing in abundance. Their unique vines could be easily spotted wrapped around the large forest trees. One simply needed to trace the vine down to where it went into the soil, and then start digging. That night, our bellies were full on good, hearty starch, and our morale was renewed once again. The next day, the resupply truck arrived.

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(Pictured: Wild yam growing in the Chinko basin, CAR)

Another time, I was three days into a backpacking trip with one of my favorite African companions, Gambou, in a vast region made up of high, rocky plateaus with very little water. We had been walking in the heat of the day for half-a-dozen miles, when the thirst began to hit me. My mouth and throat were so dry, it felt like my tongue was choking me, and my voice became hoarse. I complained to my companion about my thirst, but he only ignored me and continued on. A few hundred yards away, Gambou approached a tree that had numerous white vines growing all across its branches. Without saying a word, he sliced a 3 foot section of the vine off, and then held it to his mouth quickly. Immediately after being severed, clear liquid flowed from the vine and into Gambou’s mouth. Water!

I had never noticed the vine before then, but now, I could see it everywhere. I slashed wildly at all the vines around me, guzzling water from each one, until I was soaking wet and satiated. From then on, I rarely worried about being thirsty in most areas I found myself exploring.

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One of the strangest experiences of foraging I can recall, occurred during my famed “Tatara Expedition” I recount in my memoir. I was almost a month into the road cutting mission- sleeping under the stars that entire time, speaking nearly zero English for weeks, and being completely self-reliant- when a nagging pain began to bother me. When I urinated, it felt like sharp needles exiting, and I flinched every time. And when I slept, an uncomfortable pain in my urinary tract kept me awake. The ever-observant African men took notice.

One day, during lunch break, a group of the men disappeared in a nearby forest. When they returned a half an hour later, they brought with them a bowl full of brown plant roots.

“This is called ibilis,” one of the men said, “It will help with the pain in your urine.”

“Boil it, and then drink. After you drink it, you will find your urine to be cloudy and white,” another man explained, “But afterwards, your pain will be cured.”

I waited for the men to boil the root, and then pour me a cup. I stared at the liquid suspiciously. I was nervous about what kind of reaction the strange plant would have on my body. What if I had a negative reaction? What if the men grabbed the wrong root, and this one was poisonous?

I had no reason to doubt the men, based on my past experiences trusting in their foraging knowledge. Finally, I guzzled the cup without a second thought. The liquid was bitter and awful tasting, and I nearly gagged. Later, I found my urine to be extremely cloudy and white colored- just as the men predicted. And the next day, not surprisingly,  my urinary pain was completely, and magically cured.

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(Pictured: Tiny clusters of wild seeds dried and used as peppers to season meals)

These are only a couple of examples of how foraging for wild plants became a part of my daily life and routine during my time spent in the African bush. There are other examples of how wild plants helped add just a bit of luxury to my experience. For example, we raided wild African killer bee hives often, which gave us a sweet delicacy to our diet. Mixed in a water jug with a little yeast and boiled water, we even indulged in wild honey-wine. A red cluster of seeds found growing on small trees in the forest could be dried and crushed into a pepper, used to season our meals. In a rarer tree found in the open savanna, grew small nuts sprouting from the tips of its branches which could be crushed and mixed into a thick cooking oil. Another small herb was used as a mild anesthetic for tooth aches when sucked on. And this list of wild treats goes on…

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(A tree nut used by my African companions as a cooking oil when crushed into a thick paste.)

Lastly, perhaps my fondest wild harvest found in the central African wilderness of the Chinko river basin, is the wild coffee bushes that grow in abundance there. I often picked the fresh red cherries and sucked on their raw fruit, before biting into the bitter seed. I also dried the cherries on a bed of sand, under the hot sun, and then picked off the shells before sun roasting them, and then using a handful to brew wild coffee.

Such foraging habits became so routine that I almost forget their uniqueness until I stumble upon the memory now in the civilized world. Like many of these experiences, the ones I miss the most from my time in Africa involve the simplicity of life there. How profound it was, to simply head into the forests to fetch food and medicine, where I could find most things I needed.

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