Last night there was a medium-sized snake up the Palm Nut tree. The dogs went ballistic. The bird were in a frenzy. Quite so when a slithery thing is in the vicinity of your abode. I was simply curious, albeit with a mild frisson of anxiety when I though of the critter falling out of the palm onto a barking pooch. And it reminded me of the first time I met a snake as a young idealistic expat with no snake experience. The following incident happened in October 1993.
About four weeks ago, just the day after I returned from a shopping trip to Ireland (which was lovely I must say), I met a snake for the very first time but was too stupid to make a big deal of it at the time. I have since learned that you treat snakes with a great deal of respect, and you certainly don’t do what I did. You do, in fact, make a very big deal out of it. In this corner of the world most people treat snakes according to the succinct Buddhist advice: “If you meet the Buddha kill him”. So if you happen to meet a snake on the Uganda Equator I have put together the following plan for immediate implementation.
1. Upon seeing this scary marvel of the wild back away – slowly or fast doesn’t matter but back away, even without reverse lights.
2. Open your mouth and yell loudly. This will ensure that people from both and near and far (after all everyone loves a break from work, especially if it involves an element of danger and fear – and perhaps machismo) will immediately run to your assistance.
3. Keep your eyes open and watch carefully while the brave men you have summoned examine the snake and then rush around madly to find sticks and stones.
4. Take the credit for finding the snake by telling everyone who has arrived to watch how scared you were when you first saw the unfortunate creature.
5. Close your eyes once more as the assembled men fling sticks and stones at the writhing creature making sure you are not targeted in the process.
6. Open your eyes when the victorious cry has gone up and press forward with the rest of the crowd to make sure the snake really is dead.
7. Hang around a bit longer recounting the story of the discovery and kill for all those arriving for the postmortem.
8 For the next few days tell everyone you meet how you made the grisly discovery, show them how big it was the way fishermen always do, and recount in embellished detail how it was killed.
This next point on The Plan is optional and only holds for really big snakes:
9. Organise mini guided tours to the spot where the snake was found and killed while recounting the story again to anyone willing to listen.
This is a good plan – not good for the snake, of course, and it will not be recommended by any wildlife organization – but it is a good plan. I did not do any of the above. What I did was stupid – I did get a lot of conversational mileage out of it since, but it was still stupid. This is how it went.
On a certain Tuesday I went home to make myself a light lunch and was humming happily as I thought of the wonderful lectures I would be able to write with the newly-acquired books (Philosophy 101 was on course after all despite the container heist when all my books were looted in Kenya), periodically relived various moments of the retail therapy, and wondered when I would use the smoked salmon sitting proudly on a prominent shelf in the fridge. The frothy eggs sizzled as they hit the oil in the first stage of being transformed into a tasty omelette, and they continued sizzling long past the stage when said sizzling should have fizzled out. The happy humming stopped while I wondered what kind of marvellous Ugandan eggs made so much noise.
As I looked under the table holding the small two-ring gas cooker looking for the source of a possible gas leak, I came face-to-fang with a huge (not fisherman huge but really huge) brown snake angrily hissing at me for daring to disturb its cool peaceful sleep with egg noises and humming. I calmly turned off the gas and crouched down to get a closer look at it. There it was, coiled in the corner: a quite beautiful snake but it was one annoyed snake and was letting me know it.
“What to do? Yes, of course Dee, dance for it. For what, the snake? Yeah, why not?” Why not indeed? Ten years earlier while walking in a forest in Southern Germany a friend had told me that snakes don’t like noise, or rather don’t like vibrations, and will slither away if they don’t like the approaching ambience. So there was nothing for it but to prance around the kitchen making incredibly loud stomping noises with my feet.
This manoeuvre is not in The Plan for the simple reason that it doesn’t work. What it does is make the snake even more angry and frightened, so frightened that it will start attack proceedings. For a snake this entails aggressive head raising and even louder sizzling while advancing slowly and menacingly towards the dancer. At this point I realised that danger was approaching and made a hastily ungracious escape from the kitchen. When the snake had finally stopped sizzling I crept back into the kitchen just in time to see my new acquaintance slither calmly through a frighteningly large gap, previously unnoticed, between the bottom of the back door and the floor, and into the safety of the jungle of my exotic back garden. I later revised this opinion of tropical landscaping and had the grass cutters in so that similar sizzlers couldn’t find cool refuge so close to my cooking table. I also rolled up some newspapers and taped them to the bottom of the door in case my friend wanted another performance of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Then I ate my lunch with even more appetite because of the unexpected exercise.
As I said, I didn’t know then what I know now, and a week later during a lull in a conversation I mentioned my pre-lunch dance routine to some colleagues. The following conversation should be read aloud quickly and with raised decibels.
“You did what?”
“What size was it?”
“What colour was it?”
“Did it have a flat head?”
“What were its markings like?”
“You really did that? God!”
“You’re mad! You danced at a Puff Adder! Dee, that thing is really dangerous. It could have bitten you because you cornered it.”
“But St Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland,” I protested.
“He what? Who?”
“St Patrick. He drove them all away so we Irish people have no training in snake-related behaviour.”
That excuse just didn’t justify my actions. They all looked at me with strange expressions: this mzungu (white person) is nuts their faces said. She is stupid their raised eyebrows said. But she may well be just a little bit brave their wide eyes said, because we would have followed The Plan.
In the time since then I have surprisingly made the acquaintance of a few more snakes, and while I haven’t quite followed The Plan, I haven’t done any ballet for them either. I now have a few theories about snakes.
1. You only see them if you want to see them. Some colleagues who have been in Africa for a lot longer have seen fewer snakes than I have.
2. Someone up there is making sure that the snake-deprived Irish abroad complete their educational experiences by allowing them to encounter more than their fair share of Eden’s bad guys.
3. Snakes only appear to those who believe in them — this theory works much in the same way as Douglas Adams’s theory about extra-terrestrials in strange flying crafts manifesting themselves to the gullible.
I am, however, quite proud of my actions on that long-ago Tuesday because the snake didn’t die. “I saved a snake life”, I often think to myself smugly. It didn’t get its head bashed in and die in agony all because of some wise advice given freely while stomping through the knee-deep leaves of a damp Bavarian forest floor.