Snakes and Spiders, Zambia
My time spent in Africa was an encounter with several types of snakes, mostly poisonous. In Kenya, snakes were rare where we lived in Limuru, because of the altitude, seven thousand two hundred feet. I was happy with that because they were not so rare in Nairobi at five thousand five hundred feet altitude. We would encounter snakes at the game park every once in a while when we visited.
When I was stationed in Lusaka, Zambia, that is where my encounter with snakes was more frequent; at least once a month or more, and half were poisonous cobras! Our neighbor had about six acres that he allowed to grow wild, and any snakes there would multiply. Some would cross over into our property through cracks in the wall, especially during the end of the dry season when they would start to burn their grasses. The fire would chase some of their snakes onto our property, both kinds, poisonous and non-poisonous. Cobras were quite common, but there were also black mambas!
Black mambas were one of three of the most poisonous snakes on the planet, and they were aggressive compared to other snakes which would generally run away if a lager predator came near. Black mambas would attack most of the time, as my one missionary friend found out after he was bitten by one that had gotten into his house!
One of the missionary priests always told the story of when he once presided at a liturgy out in the bush in Malawi. Right in the middle of the celebration, a large rat came running into the church from the back of the building and ran up to the sanctuary and across to the exit at the side door. Not much later a large black mamba came running in after the rat following the same route. All of a sudden the whole congregation jumped up on their chairs until the black mamba exited the same route the rat took. After a few seconds the whole congregation came running out the doors chasing the snake with sticks and rocks with the intent of killing the snake if it was the last thing they would do. And they did! Then the liturgy continued where they had left off as if nothing had happened.
Fortunately there were no black mambas on our property, yet. At least a cobra will give one a warning before striking by standing up as tall as it could and spread its cape. A spitting cobra will then spit its poison into the eyes of the predator hoping to blind it, and then run. If it is not a spitting cobra then they will either strike or run away. Usually two or more predators would be enough to convince the cobra to run.
Once we had a visitor to our property and I was showing him around. At one point in the tall grass I had turned and was ready to continue on until I spotted a cobra standing three feet tall blocking my way. I had never seen any snake that big before, so I quickly stopped and considered my distance from him. I decided to have the visitor move around behind me and alert the workers on the property, who were near by, to come and help. I have never found an African not willing to kill a snake. Once the alarm is sounded, it is amazing how stick and rocks appear out of no where. As I was waiting for the visitor to sound the alarm, I backed off a little from the cobra and noticed that the snake moved closer to the round as though ready to make a run for it. Then I moved a little closer to it again, testing its reaction, and the snake stood back up poised to strike. I was thinking that it was better to let the snake make a run for it out the gate rather than attack me, since I was standing there alone, and a cobra is more prone to attack a single predator. So I backed off and the snake fell to the ground and quickly disappeared. When the workers arrived I only said that the snake fell to the ground and ran away…that way. Off they went in hot pursuit carrying their sticks and rocks, but they were too late.
One year at the peak of the snake season, we had killed at least twelve snakes, with half of them being cobras. Most of them got trapped in our long driveway, which leads away from our property down a long road between two eight feel tall brick walls. The snakes come through the cracks in the walls and get trapped in the gravel drive. “When our guys come back from teaching at the local school they easily spot the snakes and quickly dispatch them.
Once a brother found a snake in our oven. He quickly closed the door and turned on the oven to kill the snake. Fortunately our cook arrived and dispatched the snake for him. He was a great snake killer, probably because he was afraid for his little three year old girl, and wife. But the next time a snake got into the house, it got trapped because of the smooth tile floor. The snake couldn’t get any traction to move, let alone to escape. The alarm was sounded and again out of nowhere sticks appeared, some looked like our broom stick handles! Fortunately this snake was a regular brown garden snake, but very large, six or seven feet. They were not poisonous but they did bite! It went into the dorm and hid under the bed. Since we didn’t know if it was a cobra, we had to be very careful. There were several mattresses piled up on top of one of the beds and we had to carefully look through them one at a time. In between the last two we spotted at first what we thought was the snake, but it was its skin that it had shed some days earlier. I kept the skin to bring home to my nephew as a gift! Eventually we spotted the snake under the bed and the guys quickly dispatched it, making a mess of its blood all over the floor. They proudly held up their prize, the seven foot brown garden snake. I thought how many field mice that snake could have caught from our corn field growing outside, but I could never convince the ecological connection from snake to mice to maize. Besides, it is too difficult to tell the difference between this snake and a real cobra. And that sounded like a very good reason to dispatch first, ask questions later.
In Malawi, one of the brothers who lived at our community there, next to our high school, Chaminade, that we ran in Karonga, was presented with a green mamba that was killed by the guard in a tree near the building. I guess he was expecting to be praised. Instead, the American brother berated him for disturbing the ecology of the area by killing a prime carnivore that kept the mice population in control. Unfortunately, the brother forgot that there were high school children on the campus that would have been exposed to the green mamba, a deadly poisonous snake that climbs trees and can hang down at face level. Imagine an encounter with that critter in the night!
We have banana trees on our property, several hundred trees, and they are ideal for snakes. The whole time I have lived there, I have never encountered any snakes in the banana trees, but I am sure they were there. I have encountered spiders, big spiders. These were large grey tree spiders that have a big white marking on their abdomen, the shape of the marking is hard to describe, bar shaped? We would encounter them in the banana and avocado trees. Their webs are of extra thick treads, almost like sewing thread, a slight yellow in color. Fortunately they are easy to see, but at night, when checking on the water pump located under the avocado tree, one can forget they are there. Usually we leave them alone since they eat the flies, mosquitoes, and bugs that can infect the trees. Once in a while I have to send one of the guys to climb the trees and harvest the avocados, hoping he will take care not to get entangled in their webs. The spiders usually are not aggressive and avoid encounters. However once in a while I will have noticed that all the webs have been cleared out of the trees, probably by the more squeamish brothers in community, especially those who are small and have to climb the trees for me. I don’t say anything. I have learned to go with the African flow.