From her baptism in Liberia to Christmas years later in her adopted New York City, Mamie Manneh never lost the longing to celebrate religious rituals by eating monkey meat.
Now, the tribal customs of Manneh and other West African immigrants have become the focus of an unusual criminal case charging her with meat smuggling, and touching on issues of religious freedom, infectious diseases and wildlife preservation.
The case “appears to be the first of its kind relating to that uniquely African product,” defense attorney Jan Rostal wrote in a pending motion to dismiss. “Unfortunately, it represents the sort of clash of cultural and religious values inherent in the melting pot that is America.”
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.
According to the agents, she initially denied ordering any bushmeat from Africa or ever eating it while 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 and suggested she was a menace to man and beast alike.
A criminal 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.”
Defense attorney Rostal has countered by accusing the government of picking on a poorly educated immigrant.
Her client’s only offense, she said, was her inability to grasp Western attitudes and highly technical regulations regarding bushmeat.
Manneh, 39, testified last year that before arriving in the United States more than 25 years ago, monkey meat was critical to her religious upbringing.
Manneh is already serving a two-year sentence in state prison for trying to run over a woman she suspected of sleeping with her husband, Zangar Jefferson. If convicted of the federal charges she faces up to five more years in prison and deportation.
Baptisms, Easter, Christmas, weddings—all are occasions for eating monkey, Manneh’s supporters said in a sworn statement filed with the court.
The statement was vague about how the meat is obtained, but explains that it always arrives dried and smoked. Once blessed by a pastor, “we usually prepare it by cooking it for several hours into a stew,” they said.
For them, the exotic import is more than just food.
“We eat bushmeat,” they said, “for our souls.”