One woman’s nightmare is another man’s dinner.

For your sake and mine, this is going to be a really short post about a really big thing. And that thing is a Cane Rat.

I’m not afraid of much, but I am jump-on-the-table terrified of mice and their unspeakable older cousin, the R-word. Nevertheless, when I heard that Heifer had a project in Ndobo village, outside Douala, empowering poor communities there to raise, breed and eat Cane Rats—a delicacy greatly savored by Cameroonians– I knew I had to go, no matter what the psychic damage.

Not photo-shopped, I was really there!

And go I did. I met with the sweet folks making up the project group GIC Debrouillards (“Overcoming Group”) in the middle of a very poor, boisterous neighborhood. The members have a communal farm 3 km. from town where they grow cassava, corn and vegetables, but their real strength is the 64 rats they received from Heifer, which have now multiplied to (god forbid) hundreds of 30-pound meatballs that they have sold for $30-$50 apiece…or eaten.

Okay, the photos suck but that’s because I couldn’t bring myself to look through the lens…

Heifer helped the farmers build the giant $110 steel cages that are about the size of a big Ikea bookshelf and can fit in the back of a house. The folks were also schooled in raising cotton grass and given seeds to grow feed; and given animal husbandry techniques to keep the rats healthy and strong (I didn’t think you had to encourage that).

Ahh, a nice relaxing photo of cotton grass!

The rats can get pregnant when 8 months old, will have a 5-month gestation period, then give birth to 4-8 babies.  Those little cuties (not) weigh 300 grams at birth but in one to two years, they’ll weigh 6-8 kilograms and can be sold for a bundle on any street corner, particularly during the holidays when people treat themselves to a nice big rat.

Sweet family man is sending his girls to school with money from his rats.

No, I did NOT taste Cane Rat roasted, grilled, fried or boiled in stew– but I can’t help but love what these critters have done for the Struggling Group. One man uses his rats to pay for his grandkids to go to the hospital when they get malaria (and everybody gets malaria). One man is using his to pay off his $1,000 hospital bill for cancer treatment. Another is sending his 9 children to secondary school– three of whom he adopted when their parents died.

Beautiful Ndobo girl carrying firewood.

I’d like to say that in Ndobo I learned that rats aren’t all bad. But actually, I merely learned that in Cameroon, any animal protein is good. In this country, the average animal protein consumption is just 30 kilos a year, (including almost 10 kilos milk)… and that’s not even 66% of the minimum consumption for health.

So if this program can get good food in people’s bellies, I will give a rat’s ass …… and happily.

Categories: Animals, Cameroon, Food, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

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45 thoughts on “One woman’s nightmare is another man’s dinner.

  1. Mike

    Interesting story.

    • Thanks, Mike — only a man would say that! (but I’m glad you did!!)

      • Mike

        I love Africa, lived and worked there a number of times, people have to do what they have to do. i may have eaten rat without knowing it. Wild meat they call it.
        Good pictures.

  2. well, i for one, am very glad you did go. i learned several new things from this post – thank you 😉

    • Ditto from my reply above — one of my other best friends just yelled at me for scaring her to death when she wasn’t ready for it!) BUT .. it was interesting, wasn’t it??

  3. Another fascinating story! I learn so much from you…

    • I am so glad you feel that way, as this was one time when I literally had to force myself to go to the project, and the people in the village were all totally amused at me, as I was too scared to look in the cages, and then of course, one spunky rat charged me and I did the whole scream/jump/grab thing… they almost died laughing.

  4. I love this. Finally, a use for rats. And I’m assuming these rats aren’t the Bubonic Plague variety.

    • Renee — you are an amazing woman. Totally unflappable. The cane rats are probably related to nutria, those big fat creatures that grow in Florida…. but I’m assuming/hoping they don’t have the plague. You know, you just gave me something brand new to worry about!!

  5. same rat as in india

  6. Oh, Lordy! I’m afraid I had several close encounters with rats (the size of small cats) when we lived in Vietnam–the worst on top of our bathroom door in the middle of the night. I was less in love with Hanoi from then on. FREAKED me out!

    • You are a total hero in my book (and Sarah as well) … I literally would have LEFT THE COUNTRY if I had a bathroom rat!!! Thanks for writing, Kathryn … I’m late on getting through your beautiful blogs about your parents but I’m saving them for dessert (when I get back from Romania!)

  7. Diane Gunvalson

    LOVE this post – love the humor and how it is done with respect for the culture. And love the name they gave their group. Debrouiller does mean to struggle, but with the connotation of a successful struggle, of pulling yourself out of a bad situation – which Heifer is helping them do, with rats :-).

    • Oh, thanks for that translation Diane … and I really appreciate your kind words about the post. It is sometimes hard to take yourself out of your own dumb paranoia and cultural taboos but these people were so together and hard-working … I was really HAPPY to write about their project and I hope I did it with the respect they so richly deserve. I just loved the man with his family of girls he was sending to school with his rat proceeds, and since he had been sick and incurred a lot of medical costs I felt he was really brave. Glad you saw the beauty behind the little beasts in the story!!!

  8. Yikes! This post was … a little hard to stomach. 🙂 But I’m happy for all that these rats do for the community.

  9. Anne Orndahl

    Yikes!!! That came rat makes it’s
    Atlanta cousins look like Minnie Mouse. Thanks for teaching us more about Cameroon, and life in the Far North, Betty!

    • Anne — I knew I should have named that dude! He’s a big old Heifer rat … no pun intended. And since I’ve seen more than my share of NYC rats, I have no sense of humor about those guys. I’m just a total scaredy-cat about ’em all!

  10. They are kinda cute! Not like the critters around here. Ndobo village rats almost look gerbil/squirrelish or something. Still a rat, though. Just glad I don’t have to eat them!

    • Wow, Country Man’s Wife — I know you have lots of experience with rodents on a farm — that’s just part of the territory. But I didn’t find them cute (when I could bring myself to glance at them) … and the idea of eating them was just — impossible to imagine. When you’re hungry, though, I suspect all “equivocation” goes out the window. And far be it from me to judge cuisine since I’m a total wimp about … shellfish. Thanks for the comment !!

  11. Martha Radatz

    Go Rats!
    But, please tell me this phrase of yours: “can fit in the back of a house”—refers to cages that are outside, not inside…

    • No, they are not inside, Martha — but everything is kind of inside/outside in houses in Douala since it’s so warm there. BUT … close enough for discomfort, or total paranoia if you’re like me!

  12. Here I sit, goose bumps and all, after reading your experience in Cameroon with the rats.
    New Jersey has a wonderful sculpture garden called “Grounds for Sculpture,” and on the premises is a terrific restaurant called “Rats.” BUT this title comes from the classic book, “Wind in the Willows.” And no rat meat appears on the menu.

  13. I don’t think that would fly in New Jersey .. but I also bet there will be a cable TV reality show about this in the VERY near future!! Thanks, Ronnie!!

  14. I have to agree with you about rats (although the only time I really screamed was when I had a field mouse run over my head at night) – but I think that it’s a fitting use for a rat – dinner!!!

  15. Good point, Laural … wish I had thought of that!! (why were you in a place where a field mouse COULD run over your head at night?? )

  16. They look a lot cuter than American rats…:)

  17. Anonymous

    Hi Betty!

    I thought gigantic snails were slightly ‘Ewww’, even though I’ve eaten them in fancy French restaurants. I’d even be willing to slather on the slime in the name of vanity. After all, it is the business I’m in! But rats? Mmmm, I don’t think so! How strong are cultural norms that things can evoke such strong reactions!

    Many years ago, for a couple of months, I lived in the sunroom of an old Rana palace in Kathmandu. There was an ENORMOUS rat (Templeton on steroids)who would saunter in and lounge in the sink like a cat, savoring the fatty, local soap. You could hear him savoring it! I simply removed the meal and stopped his nightly visits. I can’t believe I could even sleep through that. I was much more adventuresome and tolerant in my youth.

    You know, since they’re being eaten anyway, why should all that glossy fur go to waste? Couldn’t there be a secondary market for mittens or something? Surely not there, where it is so hot but, somewhere? Or cat toys? I’m all for using up everything! Don’t tell Peta!

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences in this blog…I just love your ‘ouvre’ Betty. There is a certain honest and rosy hope to the filter through which you see the world. I am sure it is in no small part due to the tremendous work that Heifer is doing in the places most of us would never otherwise see. It is incredibly inspiring.

    So inspiring in fact that I am cooking up a plan for Heifer and other charitable orgs/NGO’s. I would very much like to run it buy you when you return. Because you have a background in marketing/advertising, and you’re such a mench, I would value your opinion greatly.

    Please take good care of yourself and safe travels to you!


    • I’m so IN … please tell me what you’re thinking about projects in the future — and I (kinda) like your idea about the fur, although the thought of getting any closer to a rat than I did is simply too horrifying for me to contemplate. I can’t believe your rat-in-the-sink story in Kathmandu … you really WERE an adventurer…. AND thanks for the “honest and rosy hope” comment about my blogs!! What a compliment!

  18. Who’s paying $30-50 for these animals? Are there wealthier people coming in from surrounding neighborhoods? I’m also wondering if the cane rats are alive when people buy them. If so, what prevents someone from buying two and breeding their own? (Am I asking too many questions?)

    “Sweet family man, who is sending his girls to school with rat proceeds.” I bet you’re the first person in the history of language to ever write that sentence. In fact, I’m almost sure of it.

    Maybe the problem is the word: Rats.

    • You just always make me laugh, Charles…. BUT since I really love doing the math behind these projects, I’ll be happy/thrilled to answer your questions! The cane rats are dead when they sell them (at least I assume so, since they’re held by their tails by the side of the road and I don’t think they’d hold that still voluntarily) — but since they are 30-40 KILOS (60 pounds or more), the price of $30 is not really that extreme .. and since they’re kinda fat, they presumably have a lot of meat on their bones. The people don’t eat them routinely, but for festivals and holidays — it’s a big treat. But if somebody wanted to breed them, I’m sure the GIC folks would happily instruct them: it does involve building a rather sturdy cage (these are steel and that’s important when you’re trying to keep a 40 pound rat under control) and growing suitable forage for the animal (they eat a lot and it has to be nutritious) and making sure they don’t inbreed, etc. etc. — so it’s not quite as simple as just buying two and letting them go at it …. BUT I am so happy you appreciate my use of the word “rat” since I can pretty much guarantee this is the first and last time I will ever use that traumatic word in ANY blog again ! (He was a super sweet family man, though — and speaking of that, Happy Father’s Day!!!)

  19. OK Betty, yesterday it was snails and today it’s rats. I think WE should be eating these animals and not wasting land and energy on factory farms. We need to get over our food biases. BTW — I think they’re cute — but then I used to have pet rats ! Really. 🙂

    • I never had them, never will — but I am SO all about anything that works for the people of the country and gets protein in people’s bellies and is sustainable … so yeah, Sybil — rat on!!!

  20. As usual you crack me up Betty!! I think Bronxboy55 is on to something…it’s the word “Rat”. Just call it a “Pig”! I’m glad to be home!!

  21. Are you home, Sherry?? I’m so glad — let’s catch up!! I’m flying back from Romania tomorrow … yay!!!

  22. So a 60+pound rat. That’s more than both the puggles put together. That’s bigger than the ones I saw wearing leather jackets and smoking cigarettes under street lamps in LA. Bigger than any subway rat I’ve seen out here. That’s big!

    You are totally ballsy for overcoming your fear enough to go there and write this post. Excellent work!

  23. Anonymous

    What a brave soldier you are! I share your feelings about r___s; what a wakeup call to the fact that we really are living a pampered and sheltered life. Way to go, Girl!

  24. Great post Betty. I loved your title 🙂
    I too would have a hard time getting my mouth to open and chew if I were served rat for dinner. I can’t even think of it…

    • Darling Rosie, there was even the slightest chance that I would be eating the rats — it was bad enough just to look at them!
      I am so happy you’re back and writing again!! xoxoxo b

      • Well I guess if that’s the food they raise that will be the food they eat… and because you can’t insult your hosts you would’ve had to open your mouth and somehow managed to eat it. Ugh 😦

        Thanks for the welcome back! I don’t know how you manage to keep yourself grounded and able to blog immediately you return home. When I got back from Spain it took me a week before I was able to face the 20th century. While my trip was a personal life-changing experience for me, your trips aren’t Club Med vacations and each one must knock you off your foundation.

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