Kinda like chicken…

So, what does rat taste like? (Thanks Andy Grieshop for this question!)

Kinda like chicken, actually… only, a little sweeter, with maybe a vaguely sour after-taste.

Why the HELL do you know that? (Thanks everyone else for that question!)

The day I got back from Kumasi turned into a bit of a crazy day, is how.

Mina and I woke up at about 4 in the morning to get a bus to Tamale. It’s about a 6 hour trip, and after only two arguments (one with the cab driver who tried to overcharge us, which happens pretty much every time you get into a cab, and another with the guy who puts your luggage on the bus – he tried to charge us 9 cedis to put the two bags and a bike on the bus. Bags are 1 cedi, so 7 for the bike?? Serious!) We got into Tamale around noon – good timing! At a rest stop a few hours outside of town, I bought a paw-paw (papaya) for the host-family, thinking it would be a nice treat. Turns out there’s a paw-paw plantation down the road. In all likelihood, that paw-paw made its way from Tamale, to that market stall, and immediately back to Tamale.

A few hours after I had arrived, a few of the boys and young-men informed me that they were off to hunt bush-rat. They were pointing at the sky when they told me it was time to go. In the distance, a thick plume of black smoke was rising – the distance made it seem static, just a smear across the sky. The boys were each carrying a thick, heavy stick, with a knob on one end. I recognized it as the stick for a hoe, with the blade removed. They demonstrated how you hunt a rat, by hucking the thing with all your might in a spinning arc at the ground.

It took us about half an hour to get close enough to the fields to see what was going on. The bush fires were intentionally set, with just a few blades of grass ignited and tossed into the dry brush. Within a minute, a roaring flame would begin devouring all the tall grass, huge tendrils of fire shooting up into the sky, expelling sparks and the sound of the conflagration, like the crackle of Rice Crispies but audible even from a long distance. I could see people laughing and chatting – the whole thing seemed like sport, and everyone had big smiles on their face the whole time. People were waving their clubs, and occasionally there would be flurries of activity and people hitting the ground over patches of bare, burnt ground. There was no question, though, that this was hunting for food. This was evidenced whenever a burrow was found. I won’t go into details, but it was methodical, dispassionate, and simple.

I tried my best to hold my own, grabbing a long stick that someone cut for me, holding it above my head and setting my face into what the mice would surely find to be a menacing scowl. The method was straight forward. The fire needs to flush the rats in your direction, so you stand down-wind of wherever the fire is set. You stand there, with a few people on each side, everyone holding their stick poised to strike, eyes darting around for the first sign of a scurrying rat. You stand about 10 or 15 feet back, only jumping forward when the flash of brown is spotted – any closer and the rat won’t come out of the bush. They prefer their chances with the fire.

So you’re standing there, waiting. When the fire is still small and a ways away, people are relaxed. Chatting. Everything is quiet and still. But slowly, the roar of the fire grows. You start to see the occasional tendril of fire just above the elephant grass in front of you – it rises above your head, maybe 6 or 7 feet high. The tension builds. People grow quiet, focused.

The sound is the first thing you notice. It gets LOUD. Imagine the sound of cracking a branch between a rock and your foot, repeated a hundred times a second. The bush starts to come alive, with bugs and grasshoppers jumping between the grasses – you see movement everywhere, but still, no mice.

The smoke starts to get thick, making it a little harder to breathe, and the first ash begins to fall around you. The flames aren’t so far away now, maybe thirty feet back from the edge of the bush, and they are HUGE. These flames shoot 10, 15, even 20 feet in the air at times, and the already dry and hot day grows hotter, that feeling of opening an oven, hot air blowing against your face, drying the sweat off your brow and emptying your mouth of saliva.

The flames grow closer. You’re looking upwards at them now, putting a hand in front of your face to shield you from the heat, still trying to stay focused on the ground, still looking for that darting movement. The ash is swirling all around you. People to the left and right start to fall back, baby steps, away from the heat. The sound of the fire blocks out everything else.

To your right, a flash of movement as someone lunges forward and whacks the ground with a stick. Everyone around them, four or eight people, all quickly gather and start pounding the ground, until at last someone makes a flying leap, landing triumphantly in the dust. Their knife comes out, and something gets put in their pocket.

Soon, the flames are just too much, and everyone starts backing away. The fire reaches the bush edge, and, just when you get set to turn and start running, dies. Within moments, the fire is reduced to smoldering grasses and flames a few inches high. People jump over these flames, onto the freshly scorched ground, and start combing the ground for the exposed burrows.

We caught about 8 or 10 rats and one extremely unfortunate sparrow, the six of us (I didn’t even get one – this salaminga did not pull his weight that day). When we got home, we de-haired them, and cooked them, whole. People dove in – it was quite a delicacy! The whole thing was popped into one’s mouth in a few bites. Myself, I just couldn’t do it. I ate the meat off the bones, eating around the skeleton (kinda like a big chicken wing, with a head and a tail), but when it came time to pop the head and bones and organs into my mouth, I excused myself, retreating (once again) to bathe.

So what’s the return on investment? If you burn a field, how many mice do you get?

I wish I had this number, but I don’t think it’s too many. I’d guess optimistically you get 15 or 20 – I’d only be able to see a little bit of the fire at one time, but judging from the action around me, it’s not like mice are just pouring from these bushes (you probably burn ½ or a full acre at a time).

The problem is that these fields that they’re burning are the same fields that people later farm. Any agric students or geo majors will be able to tell you way better than I, but the way someone described it to me is that healthy soil is alive soil. When you light these bush fires, you bake the ground. Walking on the scorched earth afterwards, it crunches under your feet like broken pottery, just baked completely hard. I’d be amazed if anything in that soil survived. It’s known that bush-fires reduce the fertility of your soil, and frankly, Northern Ghanaian soil is not that fertile to begin with. In fact, bush-fires are illegal for this reason, but it’s like the bike-helmet law in Vancouver – a good idea, maybe one that everyone knows is important, but not quite enough to get everyone to put one on (especially when weighed against meat as “sweet” as this).

Worse, the fertility of your soil the year or two after the bush fire is lit goes up, because in burning the detritus you release all those nutrients. A few years later though, all those freed up nutrients are consumed, and there’s no more natural cycles, nothing left alive, to replenish the soil sustainably; it’s just that much harder to form that rational link of cause and effect.

Walking around afterwards, it’s amazing how much land has been scorched, reduced to ash and baked ground. For kilometers, it’s like this. I’m still trying to learn more about why people light the fires, but if it’s just for the rats, to me, it’s just not worth it.

Update: Recently, I heard of a few people being arrested for lighting the bush. An owner of some of the farmland called it in.

Got a question? An idea on how to stop people from lighting bush-fires? Please comment below!

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5 Responses to Kinda like chicken…

  1. Andy G says:

    Nice one, Dan. I won’t bother trying to calculate how many days’ worth of PM you just inhaled, but sometimes you just gotta go for it (actually, all the time!). Thanks for the report, and I’d definitely like to hear what people say the reason for field burning is. I imagine labor savings and the rats are a bonus. Brazil has been starting to stop burning cane fields before harvest and there are pretty obvious environmental benefits, but it requires machinery (and thus investment….). Keep it up!

  2. mikeklassen says:

    Dan Boland!!! What a phenomenal, exciting post to read. I can totally see you writing some thriller novels when you retire. As a fellow rat-eater, I appreciate you shining such a big light on the issue, and describing the rat killing process, which I have yet to participate in. Everything I’ve heard indicates that the primary reason for burning the bush is just to eat rats, and people DO know the environmental impacts of it, but as with any wicked problem in behaviour change, the rational knowledge isn’t enough to make the change. I pushed one of my host brother on this (who was telling me about his day at school learning about soil conservation in agric class) and he tried to weasel his way out of it by saying “but it’s not me starting the fire, I’m just killing the rats. Someone else starts the fire, I just come running with my knife.”

    Keep the posts coming!

  3. Conor says:

    Thanks for these stories, Dan – they are a great window into your experiences for the rest of us. Have you read Mowat’s “Never Cry Wolf”? Your post reminds me of his description of eating only field mice for a period of time, and discovering that he really had to eat the whole thing to get enough nutrients out of it. I seem to remember he gives a few recipes too…

    Looking forward to the next tale of your daring deeds.

  4. Catherine says:

    And I thought my experience of seeing roadside ‘mice on a stick’ vendors in Malawi was memorable. They were surprised when our mini-bus of backpackers declined. I’m impressed you ate some!!

  5. bmagee says:

    Thanks for sharing Dan!

    How much do you think/perceive that it is based off of viewing the burning of currently fallow (or post-harvest) land as being a productive activity? (ie. It allows people to “harvest” rats from the land for immediate food needs & helps prepares fields with no labour costs). Even if it’s as Mike says, and many people know the longer-term consequences, it seems to me that it would be doubly hard to change a behaviour that could be viewed as being both productive and filling the immediate need of food for a family.

    Reminds me a bit of organic or conservation farming in Zambia. Even if farmers knew that applying intensive chemicals and fertilizers would harm their fields and reduce yields over the long-term, they wouldn’t make the switch to organic farming for fear of losing out on that immediate production.

    Then again, there is always a lot of weight given to the “well it’s what we’ve always done, and it’s just something we do” responses.

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