Oh dear God we are going to die, part II

### Finally in Serengeti, but frantically catching up on camera traps and haven’t had internet for *days* – so here’s a reposting from 2010. ####

I have been convinced of this fact many times during my short stay in the Serengeti.  Whether it was upon being startled awake in my tent by the sound of nearby lion roars, or attempting to cross the yawning abyss of the Ngare Nanyuki river in my 1980’s era Landrover, my brain fights a constant turbulent battle against my sympathetic nervous system.  Intellectually I know we are not going to die.  In the Serengeti at least, lions do not break into tents, even though they seem to me kind of like twinkies: a plastic yellow shell with soft human marshmallow stuffing.  And the Ngare Nanyuki, even though I cannot see the ground below me as we drive forward, has been crossed many times before.  Norbert laughs at me sometimes, “Ali,” he says, “Do you really think we are going to die?  To die is hard work.”

Today though, as I sit frozen, staring at the smooth cement in front of the bathroom door, my brain knows that one wrong move, and someone actually could die.  The texts and calls roll in.  “GET OUT. GET OUT of the house!” Writes Laura.  “Close the door with a pole and break the window so it can escape.” Writes Anna.  I talk to Megan on the phone.  “I don’t want to leave,” I say, “because then I don’t know if it has really left.”  She agrees.  It is either a spitting cobra or a black mamba, perhaps one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and it is hiding in our house.

I liked snakes when I was a kid.  I still do, actually.  I think I have my mom to thank for my strange affection towards these scaly, slithering creatures.  Unlike many moms, she had no fear of them, often rescuing them from the middle of the road where they had ill-advisedly decided to sun.  We had a 6-foot long garter snake in our backyard for many years, and tried to catch him and tame him on many occasions with minimal success. Even the rattlesnakes I’ve almost stepped on just curl up into themselves and give a halfhearted warning and watch me leave. I like snakes.

The snake in our house is easily 6 feet long, a deep charcoal gray.  I am convinced it is a black mamba.  I was updating some lion photos on the computer, singing along to Josh Ritter, with my back to front door.  George and Norbert were coming home soon, and leftovers were warming on the stove.  The strange swishing noise took some time to sink in.  It wasn’t a coming car, and it wasn’t the wind.  It wasn’t any part of the normal animal chorus that plays outside our house.  Finally, I stand and turn to investigate and catch the thick gray shimmer of a snake undulating across our cold cement floor.  There is no visceral shudder that shakes me, just the cold, knife-like stabbing fear. If a black mamba bites you, you will be dead in hours.  I am no more than 10 feet away from one of the most dangerous animals that I will ever encounter.  I hold my breath and watch it slither into the bathroom, and then I make the calls to those who have been here for many more years than I.  I close all the other doors in the house, and then climb up onto the table, off the ground, and watch the smooth, empty cement in front of our bathroom door.  I am still waiting.  30 minutes.  45 minutes.  60 minutes.  George and Norbert promise they are coming, that they will bring our next-door neighbor Juma Pili to help.  Yet over an hour later, they still do not show up, do not call. 30 minutes.  45 minutes.  60 minutes.  It is now 3pm.  The malaria retrovirals are making me dizzy and I want to curl up in bed, but I’m not sure where this snake is.  Eventually the men show, armed with kerosene and a long pincher-pole.  They splash kerosene into the crannies of our bathroom, where plumbing worked once, decades ago, where the snake is almost certainly curled up and asleep.  Eventually it will tire of the smell and leave.  So they say.

So life goes back to normal, more or less.  George starts to wash vegetables in the kitchen, I return to staring at the computer screen.  Craig calls to talk about permits.  “Oh, the snake,” he says.  “It’s probably just a spitting cobra – not that poisonous, really.  If you catch it in the face, just wash it out.  You’ll go blind for about 12 hours, but nothing permanent.  Least of your worries.  Now, can you please send the data for…” he goes on to talk about permits and data analysis.  I am only half listening, and with the corner of my eyes I am watching the cold, smooth cement outside our bathroom door, smelling the antiseptic aroma of kerosene.

Least of my worries?  I can think of a million things that I am less worried about than the spitting cobra hiding beneath our bathtub.  But okay, I am not going to die today.  Which is good, because I have way too much work to do.

### Epilogue: Two days later I got a cryptic call from Norbert, our car fundi. At this point my Swahili was rather poor, and his English was marginal. But it turns out it was a spitting cobra. It spat on him (this took a while to decipher), but only on his hands. We called the vets for advice and assistance, and all was, in the end, okay. Though the snake not the least of my worries, and certainly not the least of Norbert’s. ###



About ali swanson

I'm an ecologist studying how large carnivores coexist. I spend way too much of my time trying to stop hyenas and elephants from munching my camera traps!

One response to “Oh dear God we are going to die, part II”

  1. Ettina says :

    That reminds me of my Zambian nanny and her fear of snakes. I remember once we came across a garter snake. She freaked and stomped on it, injuring it. I assured her that it was harmless, and insisted on picking it up to take it to our garden (so it could eat insects for us). She reluctantly agreed. Then, when my parents returned, she took them somberly aside to check that my information was correct and garter snakes really were harmless.

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