[Photo: Don’t jump! It’s not necessary. Durban, South Africa]
30 April 2017
The other day I found a small (6-8” in bare feet) grey snake, dead and eviscerated, on our back step. I gingerly picked it up with a stick and showed it to our gardner, Chimwemwe, who pronounced it a baby mamba. He cautioned me that “Its thorns still have poison”. He lifted a heavy metal lid and dropped it into the sewer. I thought, if there is a baby, then there is a mother. And a father. And likely more babies. And I walk into the back yard at night in the dark in flipflops to dump the vegetable scraps into the compost pile at the rear of the property. Hmm, this demands a flashlight. Our friend Peter, who grew up in Zimbabwe, encountered a cobra in the bathroom as a child and always takes a torch when he gets up at night. Linda later told me that she had seen a long, pretty, slender brown animal on the back step with the snake in its mouth. Eureka, the mongoose I identified in the front porch planter two weeks ago!
I’ve noticed several people here, myself included, who want the notoriety of having seen a mamba or a boomslang or a puff adder. From a distance. One friend was too intimate for comfort with a black mamba hiking up Mulanje; another saw one ascending a tree on the slopes of the same mountain massif. But we were told by our guide, Samson, whose father was a hut-keeper on the mountain and who has hiked it for years, that there are no venomous snakes up there. I suppose having encountered a venomous snake and lived to tell the tale makes one feel less like a coward, even if it was actually a garter snake. I have visions of large black mambas (They have been measured at 14.8 feet in length.) stalking me. They actually are very shy and run, no, slither away when they feel the vibrations of your approaching footfall, generally allowing you no closer than 40 meters. They cannot, it turns out, run faster than a horse. They are thought to be the fastest moving snakes, except in sand, with a top speed for a short distance of less than 10mph. You can outrun them were they to give pursuit. So it adds a certain frisson to think there is a black mamba (or several!) hunting here. [They are a pale gray, brown, or khaki—the inside of their mouth is black.] I think about tourniquets, being rushed to the ER, antivenin injections,—alas, too late or, alas, we only have it for puff adder venom—blurring of vision, gradual paralysis, cardiac arrest, and death. Nine months here, hiking all over the place and I’ve not yet seen one; doubtful I’ll be stalked by one in my yard. It is comforting to know that we have a hungry mongoose in the ‘hood, however. I guess we have one because [THERE ARE SNAKES HERE!].
We needed to pay the next term’s secondary school tuition for Joseph, our former housekeeper/guard’s only son. Four days ago we left home at 7AM on our bikes, headed some kilometers out the Chikwawa Road, and turned off it onto a dirt track through a market and village huts, descending so sharply we needed to walk. I was anxious at the slope and distance, having to return for clinic meeting by 9AM. St. Kelmon Private Secondary School is located in a series of small brick buildings connected by stairways, climbing up a steep and crowded hillside, reminiscent of the passageways on Mykonos in the Cyclades. The Principal met us in his office, a modest-sized room filled with large desks where he sat alone. The school is not electrified and there are no computers or learning labs, no sports fields, likely no pencils or paper except that which the students bring. There are currently 320 students in 4 classrooms. Wanting to learn. We poked our heads into each, very dark spaces with 70-90 students, often three to a desk, and one teacher in front. The students were pleased by our interruption and a loud chorus of “Muli bwanji” (How are you?) arose. We responded, “Ndili bwino, nonse. Kaya inu?” (We are well, everyone. And you?) Lots of “Zikomo kwambili” (Thank you very much) and “Tiwonana” (See you later) and we were done disrupting their instructor’s diligent pedagogy.
Joseph is in Form 2 (10th grade equivalent); we learned that he ranks number 4 out of 70 students. His rude behaviors have ceased. We’ll get him through secondary school and then see about university. Linda pointed out how the odds were so stacked against him, coming from this little impoverished village, being educated in a dark room filled with other students. Not even a desk per child. A far cry from Saints (St. Andrews International Secondary School) where I lead the Blantyre Child Study Group meetings. It is comparable to any excellent private school in UK or the US, in terms of curriculum, faculty, facilities, grounds, athletics, achievement, etc. Still, we’re doing our bit.
We just heard that our lunch at Peter and Caroline’s has been cancelled; illness has struck. So, along with the disappointment of not going to a party, there is the pleasure of having more free time. Shall we go to Huntingdon Lodge near Thyolo (say, “Cholo”) for afternoon tea at the very colonial house set in the midst of the Satemwa Tea Estates. It is allegedly gorgeous and we’ve never been. Staying overnight is prohibitively expensive but we can do High Tea. Or sit around home and write, catching up on some of the many loose ends? Hike up Mount Sochie? Sit on the front porch with a book, my binoculars, and a bird book and alternately read and identify tropical birds? Draw up plans to expand the services of the Pediatric Mental Health Clinic?
Yesterday we went to a street fair in the old town. One of the booths was occupied by a 5th year psychiatry registrar (resident) and his wife. The latter has learned to bake and they were selling tasty cakes and cupcakes. Yes, raising money with a bake sale. They are going to have to move from their house since the Ministry of Health, which is supposed to be paying their housing costs, has not done so for the past 1 ½ years and they are being evicted. This is a pretty widespread phenomenon and landlords in this tight housing market are refusing to accept renters using government vouchers. It disgusts me; they are such good people and he is a wonderful psychiatrist. Somebody is pocketing that money, I suspect, since it has been set aside and earmarked. We bought 5 cupcakes and two brownies
We then strolled about, sharing an Indian kabob sandwich. Linda saw a “Superstore” sign and we entered, finding a dizzying array of merchandise. Hammers and box-end wrenches, solar panels and solar flashlights, cutlery, clothing, pottery, etc. We bought 4 more plates, having wearied of asking our guests to bring their own plates to supper at our house if we were more than 4. One display of plates, bizarrely, had mountains, spruce, and a large moose in the center, recalling Maine, so we had to buy two, as tacky as they were. We also found a grill for our little hibachi and a meat grinder. We both love seasoned sausages; mine will have the fat trimmed off, Linda abhors waste and likes —my god, Jack Sprat! Although she is very trim. Anyway, I’ve put sausage casings on my long list of supplies to return with me from the US.
Mambas—oh, they are supposed to have a coffin-shaped head, just to add to the terror—and sausages aside, this is a sweet and lovely place to spend a sunny, cool (high 60’s-low 70’s), Autumn afternoon.