Saturday, August 20, 2011

"You get medicine"

above: "Snake Charmer" : I came across this man a number of times in my travels. He was very eccentric and most folks gave him space not only because of his personality but especially because he carried many poisonous snakes with him. This photo shows him at the Kenema Cacao Show where he amused folks with his antics. To the right in the background is a fellow Peace C orps volunteer who mocked this man, reasoning that he was able to do this because the snakes had been defanged - or so he thought. The volunteer approached the man and "played" with the snakes. One week or so after these pictures were taken however, this snake charmer was bitten by one of his snakes and died. In these photo can be seen two very poisonous snakes - a Gaboon Viper and also a Green Mamba.

My first year of teaching was a challenge - I was a mediocre teacher but I tried to make it all interesting. I did not always succeed at this. Teaching Maths (they called it Maths) was the least interesting - I think - for my students. General Science, when directed to the local flora and fauna seemed to hold students interest more than when I only taught from the syllabus. The syllabus advised teaching the flora and fauna of the United Kingdom - and was something that I found puzzling. Although our students did want to learn about others and how they lived, concentrating on the UK and excluding their own surroundings just seemed odd. So I taught what was in the syllabus, and added sections on local stuff. This forced me, of course, to get out there and learn "local stuff." In biology I began teaching about the area snakes and these were many and scary. In the area behind our house there were black "spitting" cobras, and from time to time, since this was on the school compound, I'd get calls from the students to come and "get rid" of one that was causing problems. The students knew better than to allow these snakes around them. I had started a collection of pickled snakes in our biology class - and when they passed the word around, I soon became the area depository for every road kill specimen imaginable. Usually within minutes of a road pancake creation, some neighbor would carefully carry the unrecognizable specimen on the end of a machete or a long stick, and present it to me. Other times, when a mamba, or Gaboon viper was chopped to bits in someone's dooryard - the bits would be carried to me for my collection. Needless to say, the mutilated specimens were of limited value. Somehow, over time however I was able to "pickle" specimens of almost all the area snakes - and although our students did do studies of the snakes - they probably learned very little. In our collection we had cobras, mambas, vipers, non-poisonous grass snakes - but perhaps rightfully for them all snakes were poisonous. However as news of my "collection"spread - rumors that I had or was making "medicine" uncomfortably spread as well. This fostered a whole new torrent of area folks, bringing me many times unrecognizable specimens and asking me to make medicine for them, this despite my emphatic denials. And one event sealed my fate in this regard. It was mid-day on the school compound, and just before lunch, that I was summoned to an area behind one of the classroooms where the students saw a snake. Knowing immediately when I saw the rather small snake that it was a non-poisonous green grass snake, I preceded to pick it up with the hope of moving it out of the area and thus reduce all the commotion. One of the school caretakers, Foday Siaka, watched me closely as I carefully picked up the snake, and as he did, the snake defensively abraded my hand with his innocent teeth (it had no fangs). Frightened, that the snake had done me in, Foday's eyes widened as he waited for my demise. And he watched, and he watched...and when I carried the snake to a remote area of the compound, he followed me, repeatedly asking me if I had medicine (that prevented the snake bite from killing me). For the obvious reasons all area upcountry folks were leery of all snakes. For them there was no such thing as a snake that couldn't kill you. Foday thus waited and waited, watched me closely - and when I went back to class, taught the rest of day, and still was OK - he asked me again if I had medicine. With my best effort I explained that this 'bite' was nothing and that the snake had been one of the local ones that was non-poisonous he just had no response - and as he walked off he mumbled, "you have medicine," and that was that. From then on word spread...and the unwanted notoriety brought me escalating numbers of snake specimens and in the same breath - requests for "medicine." And the more I denied it - the more word spread. Mind you, it was not that folks were foolish. People kept their distance as best they could from snakes - and I understood this much more clearly when my cross road neighbor Pa Conteh was killed by a snake while bushing his farm. Here was a man who had six children. His wife Mamie was a strong and hard working women who often joked with me as I passed by. Pa Conteh, on the morning in question, had headed off to his swamp (most Mende did not like working in the cold swamp water)to prepare it for planting rice. There while brushing the edge with his machete, a snake bit him on his arm (several times). He must have known the danger - and apparently tried to run to a nearby village where he laid in a hammock and died. Word spread rapidly about his death. I reasoned that maybe my somewhat cavalier attitude needed to be reassessed. Maybe despite my efforts to teach our students about their local environment that somethings were best left unsaid. And with time - my brief snake notoriety thankfully faded.

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