In Ghana, I was warned, all snakes are poisonous. All ninety-two species. If you are bitten, you have to grab the snake and take it along to the hospital so they can give you the correct antivenin. Assuming they have antivenin. And assuming there’s a hospital.
When I first arrived in Accra I heard so many stories, mostly from expats who liked to boast about snakes in the same way New Yorkers enjoy alarming visitors with tales of subway muggings. Look at us, we know how to survive here. You’re just a neophyte. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Ghanaians are not particularly mesmerized by serpentine fears. They take the creatures in their stride. There are, after all, so many ways to die in West Africa – the part of the world once known as the ‘white man’s grave.’ Snakes are only one of a multitude. You take precautions, but you don’t stay locked in your room.
I had come to Ghana for the two-year fieldwork sojourn which was de rigeur for anthropologists. In my second week in the country I traveled with my three-year-old son to Cape Coast to visit the University of Ghana’s campus there. We stayed with Peter and Mercy Morton-Williams on a hill overlooking a beach of fine white sand and, beyond that, the blue-green Bight of Benin. Two frangipani trees bloomed by the Morton-Williams’ front door; their house and garden were overwhelmed with the sleepy sweet scent. Enervated by the aroma all you wanted to do was spend long afternoons on the verandah sipping ice cold gin and tonics and nibbling fresh lobster. Forget about visits to the library, graduate seminars and other forms of academic tedium. Of course it didn’t work out that way. For one thing there weren’t any ice cubes. The electricity was off.
The entire town of Cape Coast was in disarray when we arrived because that morning a green mamba had inserted itself into a critical synapse of local power station. The snake had vaporized in a shower of sparks and smoke. It took days for electricity to be restored. I was informed that the venom of green mambas contains a neurotoxin and that death is instantaneous. You’re gone by the time you hit the ground.
‘How do they know the kind of snake?’ my son wondered. ‘If it’s all smoke?’ My own question exactly.
Only in Vermont have I ever held live snakes in my hands, watched their forked tongues flicker, run fingers along their muscular bodies, felt the strength beneath the cool, smooth scales. Around our barn, in piles of hay and forgotten fire wood, and down by the pond, garter snakes hunt for frogs and vermin.
The first time I brought a snake into the house to show my grandchildren they reached for it spell bound. Could they touch it? Please, Grandma! Could they hold it just for a minute? Could they take it home?
Once I kept a garter snake in a jar on the deck while I searched for a book that would let me identify it. I took too long. Suffering from the heat the snake raced furiously around the glass, pushing against the container, desperate to get out. Then it reared up, shivered and died. Snap! Just like that. I hadn’t understood its distress. It was an utterly pointless death and it haunts me still.
Fortunately, in Ghana I’ve had no hands-on encounters with snakes. But there have been near misses. A few years ago a neighbor killed a snake trying to crawl up a drain pipe into my bathroom. He told me not to worry, the snake wasn’t poisonous – thus contradicting the dictums I’d received decades earlier. The idea of a snake in the bathroom was unnerving; it resurrected memories of news stories about rattlesnakes surfacing in toilets in urban California. This is not something you want to think about at three in the morning when the lights don’t work and you’re running to the loo to attend to a bout of tourista.
Another time, bicycling along a footpath, I discovered myself in a speed contest with an eighteen-inch serpent of unknown denomination. It raced along across the tops of thick grasses, corkscrewing rapidly two feet above the ground, keeping right up with me until I acknowledged defeat, turned around in a hurry and went home.
In the 1990’s, Jamilla, who lived in my house and who was a kind of adopted daughter, Jamilla killed a spitting cobra inside my mud house. It was just a little snake, she said, and she’d killed it with a broom. A broom in Ghana is a short affair, just the brush part. It doesn’t come equipped with a handle. There’s no distance involved if you attack a cobra with a Ghanaian broom.
‘Why didn’t you just run outside and stay there? Until it left the house?’
‘Why would it leave?’ Jamilla wanted to know. She was right, of course; the house was shady and cool and protected from the elements. Some snakes only need to eat once or twice a year. They search out a pleasant location, bed down and stay there until they get hungry again. A pleasant location like my house.
‘But what if it spat in your eyes and you went blind?’
Jamilla looked at me as if I were the stubborn child and she the mother. For Ghanaians courage is a practical matter. If there’s a problem, they take care of it. If it’s a snake, they kill it. There aren’t any ‘professional removers’ to call on. This is self-help with a vengeance and it applies to more than snakes. Once, standing on the well-kept stone veranda of the White Fathers’ parish office, I watched dozens of people chasing along behind a racing dog. They were shouting and waving sticks. The good Catholic fathers, all of them Dutch or French, took one look, jumped inside their office and dragged me along with them. They slammed the door shut, locked it, then looked around quickly counting heads. Are we all here?
I asked what was going on. Was the chase some kind of ritual I hadn’t heard about? An ethnographic secret from which I’d been barred?
The priests told me the dog was rabid.
But what were the people doing?
The people were trying to catch up with the dog and kill it.
Wow. Not me. I wouldn’t pursue a rabid dog with nothing but a pole for protection. No matter how many vials of anti-rabies vaccine were sitting in the hospital fridge. Not that medicines in the north of Ghana are always trustworthy, spoiled (by heat) and fake (Chinese) as they can sometimes be.
So what is it about snakes?
In the Western tradition the trouble starts, allegorically, right at the beginning, in Genesis:
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman and between
thy seed and her seed.
It was a snake that lured Eve into trouble. That’s the usual interpretation: Eve and the serpent brought doom to humanity. But there are other ways to read those texts. For example, the last few verses of Genesis 3 depict a testy, short-tempered, insecure God, jealous of his prerogatives, so alarmed by our first parents’ acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil that he banished them from Paradise lest they discover the whereabouts of the Tree of Life and eat its fruit – at which point they would become immortal. Immortal like him. Hmmmm.
Was it really such a disaster to get evicted from Eden? Maybe eating the apple was part of a secret agenda, a shadow plan to turn things upside down so we could get some stories going. There’s certainly nothing to kick off a plot in a place like Paradise, no issues to resolve, no obstacles to overcome, no morose reflections on the meaninglessness of existence. No Camus, no Kierkegaard. No Sartre. Just an endless succession of perfectly happy hours. How long could you put up with that? Really? Maybe God sent the snake on purpose; maybe he was counting on Eve, depending on her to sink her teeth into that apple and put an end to cosmic ennui.
But what did the snake get out of his intervention into human affairs? (Notice that the snake is always male.) In the serpent’s alternate form as the Devil he already had a long-standing shtick with God. Maybe he was hoping for allies in some future confrontation. Or maybe he wasn’t really the bad guy after all; one of his names is Lucifer which means ‘bearer of light.’
Many of us never meet a live snake but they still slither through our dreams, coiling in corners, lurking in closets, loitering under stairs. They writhe inside our psyches. We find ourselves locked into rooms with hundreds of them, stepping carefully, desperate to wake up.
Freud, rather predictably, considered snakes to be the ‘most important symbol of the male organ.’ Right, Sigmund, and maybe you wish it was yours?
Jung embraced a broader understanding, viewing snakes as libido, but more importantly as symbols of healing, rebirth and transformation. The medical profession’s emblem, the caduceus, consists of two serpents twining around a winged staff. As a child I found this symbol extremely troubling, as disturbing as visits to the doctor which too often concluded with hypodermic syringes inserted into arms or buttocks. Serpent’s tooth indeed.
Jung’s books, which I consulted in my teens, contained some disturbing fare about snakes. What was a good Catholic girl to make of illustrations of serpents suspended on crosses? Crucified snakes? Was the serpent divine?
The long list of societies which have considered snakes to be gods extends to every continent. In the north of Ghana many people regard serpents, particularly pythons, as lesser gods with a particular ability to bestow riches. People who desire money can court snakes with offerings of eggs and other delicacies. But the arrangement is deemed to be Faustian, a morally compromising agreement.
Individuals in collusion with snakes are believed to become ‘owned’ by them. They are no longer ‘good’ people. For this reason unexpected, outsized, overweening wealth is regarded with suspicion and those who become rich move away from their home villages to escape envy, poison, and mystical attack.
Ghanaian pythons are constrictors, but according to local people, they are also poisonous. Local knowledge maintains that pythons are more likely to resort to biting when they are young, while at maturity they prefer to depend on the suffocation caused by constriction. Rock Pythons can grow to twenty feet in length and can swallow antelopes, small cows, even crocodiles. Even people.
Wikipedia disputes local wisdom. African Rock Pythons, it insists, are not poisonous. They have no venom.
Who do you believe? Sitting in front of my computer I am all for the latest word from science. But when walking through the bush I’m not so sure.
I decide to phone friends in Ghana. I call Hamidu, my translator, a brilliant self-taught linguist.
Bed-ridden since the age of sixteen Hamidu is the closest thing to a saint I have ever met. He picks up his phone. ‘Hal-lo?’
‘Hamidu, it’s me.’
He laughs with pleasure. ‘Oh, yes.’
I tell him, ‘I’m calling with a question.’
‘Pythons, are they poisonous?’
‘Oh! Yes! Yes, they are!’
Saints don’t lie. But I’m a trained social scientist. I can’t resolve this issue on the strength of one opinion. I phone other people: Christie, Gifty. Baby-Don’t-Go. The verdict is unanimous: pythons are poisonous.
Gifty recalls, ‘Remember what happened to Greg.’
Greg was a Peace Corps volunteer who lived in Gifty’s family house in the late 1960s. He decided to climb to the top of Kaleo Rock, a local inselberg, a four-hundred-foot high plug of granite erupting out of the savannah plain. Rock pythons are fond of such places.
Greg was warned before he started out that he ought to leave an offering for the pythons if he wanted to make a successful climb. He ignored this superstitious advice and easily made it to the top of the rock. He probably even took a few photographs up there. But then, halfway through his descent, a python bit him. His friends rushed him to the hospital in town. Because he was a Peace Corps volunteer, the US Air Force picked him up and flew him non-stop to Frankfurt for treatment, administering non-stop blood transfusions on the way. That, anyway, is how the story goes.
About a week after I phone Hamidu, he sends me an unexpected email. The talk about pythons has triggered memories. ‘Let me tell you,’ he begins and goes on to recount the story of the time, fifty years ago, when his father was bitten by a viper while out night-hunting. He came home bathed in sweat and with blood seeping out from old scars and tribal markings. The family took him straight to the doctor who sent him to the hospital. While he was recovering in there, his household was visited by another snake, this one a giant python. Around seven in the evening the family was eating supper when, quite suddenly, a rooster which had perched itself on top of the family’s hen house, made a funny noise and fell to the ground dead. Hamidu’s mother went to inspect and saw a monster python curled there. She called to her co-wife to bring a stick but the co-wife took one look at the snake and said it was too big for the two of them to kill. They called for help from two men from neighboring houses. They shot the python full of arrows but the snake just turned around and broke off the shafts.
The men then resorted to sticks, attacking the python in turns. Each man would rush in, hit the snake’s head, and retreat. Eventually they managed to kill it, skin it and share out the meat. The snakeskin measured over fifteen feet in length. It was two feet wide.
Rock pythons can be found almost anywhere in the north of Ghana but they are particularly fond of inselbergs because these are cracked and riddled with caves. Local people -and outsiders – in search of fortune go to these places to leave offerings of choice food in expensive containers. There are a number of python caves in a pair of conjoined granite hills, twin peaks, half a mile out from my village, Danko. I told my assistant, Boris, I wanted to see those caves. Wanted to see what people left there as offerings. Imagined something out of Lord of the Rings, yawning caverns guarded by monstrous rearing vipers.
Boris said we couldn’t go to the caves in the rainy season, it would be too muddy, too dangerous. The large pond that intervened between the village and the hills would be swollen and spilling over its banks. The surrounding marsh would be knee deep in water and mud. Pond water contains leeches, larvae, amoebas, guinea worm cysts and the microbes responsible for cholera, hepatitis, polio, dysentery, schistosomiasis, etc., etc., etc. – the list goes on and on.
So I said, okay. I don’t mind, let’s wait.
We set off half a year later in the dry season, at the peak of harmattan, skirting the pond on a footpath of hardened mud. Wild cotton bushes thrived in the pebbles and scree at the base of the hills. Elephant grass flourished further up; it was scratchy and strong, more like tall reeds than grass and it made for extremely slow going.
Not until half way up the hill did we encounter granite, grey and knobbled and full of potholes. Going was easier here and within ten minutes we were at the top of the yoke that joined the two hills. Boris pressed on for a little while, then stopped near the lefthand peak and pointed, ‘There.’
I was terribly disappointed. The ‘caves’ were little more than ten inch splits in the granite. A twenty foot snake would have to squash itself flat to get in there. It certainly wasn’t a place to which a python could retire with a belly full of calf or crocodile. And there was no chance at all of seeing a monster ourobouros guarding the entrance to a gaping cavern. There were, however, a multitude of food dishes spread out over the ground near the cracks in the rock. All of these dishes were empty. Some of them looked as if they had been sitting there for years.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’ve seen it.’ The sun was already hot and it came to me that I was an idiot to be standing at the entrance to pythons’ caves wearing only sandals and a light cotton dress.
Boris looked around. He said he had spied an easier way to get back. He started off downhill to the yoke between the two hills. After a couple of minutes, he found what he was looking for and shouted to me, ‘Over here!’
He was standing at the opening to a long passage that dropped down through the vegetation, a perfectly round, pipe-like tube three or four feet in diameter. Elephant grass had been pressed flat to the ground at the bottom of the tube. On the sides, brush and grasses had been forced apart only to meet again overhead. Boris started down this tube, taking it at an easy trot, bent half over at the waist. He told me to follow and promised there would be an adjoining passage further along that would bring us out at the bottom of the hills.
We were in a tunnel that looked as if a giant bowling ball had rolled down the hill flattening vegetation along its way.
‘What is this?’ I wanted to know. ‘Who made these things?’
Boris turned. ‘It is the snakes who have made them.’
Oh, dear. ‘How big are they?’
‘As for them, they are big!’
Right. Unwelcome thoughts of Dune entered my head. Spice worms. My heart started beating: thump, thump, thump. ‘Let’s go. Let’s get out of here!’
There was a python living near my house in Danko. It kept itself well-hidden and for months no one was aware of it. This was back in the nineties. There were as yet no toilets in the village. You found a place to poop outside where no one could watch you doing it and that was that; within twenty-four hours dung beetles would have removed all traces of excrement.
For months I made use of a large bush forty feet from the house, squeezing between the branches and squatting down out of sight. Then Kate came up from Bole for an extended visit. While she stayed with me she used one side of the toilet bush and I had the other.
The last morning of her stay we were loading up the car for the trip south to Accra, planning to drop Kate off at her home along the way. We were nearly finished. Most of our bags were stashed in the Nissan when Kate said she needed to visit our bush.
She was out there less than a minute when she started to scream. Seconds later she came stumbling towards us, shouting, ‘Waahuu! Waahuu!’ (Snake! Snake!) She was trying to run but couldn’t; her panties were caught down around her ankles, clutching at her feet like a pair of shackles. She moved her legs rapidly but was reduced to taking baby steps. In her hand she held aloft a toilet roll and it unfurled behind her in a long white streamer like a flag.
She told us she was squatting down in her usual place when she saw something move at the base of the bush. Looking more closely, holding her breath, she saw the telltale markings of a python. It was a big one, a monster, curled there under our toilet bush. It could have been lying there for weeks. Months. Half a year. We’d been within inches of it every day.
In January the northern Ghanaian bush is always ablaze. Fires are set deliberately. They roar and crackle across the savanna, crimson flames shooting twenty and thirty feet into the air. Small flecks of sooty grass drift down from the sky like black snow. Hawks hover overhead, just above the advancing edge of the flames, waiting to swoop down on small animals fleeing the conflagration.
Every year without fail someone sets fire to the grasses on the twin peaks near my village. For some reason the burn is always started at the top. From a distance it’s hard to make out exactly what’s going on. There’s a flash of red above the yoke after which the blaze spreads downward in long glowing streams. You might imagine you were watching a volcano. Bone dry grasses explode into flame and the hills are encased in descending strands of fuchsia and scarlet as balls of burning grass tumble down the hillsides in slow motion like sluggish torrents of glowing lava. It can last as long as an hour. Viewed against the settling darkness of early evening it is incredibly beautiful.
But I wonder then about the pythons. Wonder if they have retreated to the depths of their caves. Are they safe there or does fire devour their oxygen? Is the burn started near the top of the hills with a deliberate intention to hurt or kill the snakes? Is this done out of envy of local rich men or out of religious zeal? Are devout Muslims or Christians to blame, believers hoping to erase pagan idolatry? Or is it just one more example of our species’ thoughtless delight in destruction?
People kill snakes all the time and without compunction. In Vermont, towards the end of summer you can find plenty of mauled carcasses flattened on the road and you suspect they’ve been run over deliberately, that someone has taken the steering wheel and aimed it directly over the snake, killing it in the firm conviction that they are ridding the world of evil.
Out walking in late September I find a blue-striped snake squashed dead on the road. I lift the carcass. Even in death the creature is beautiful. Its stripes are the soft aqua of tropical seas. The scales of its stomach are pale-blue pearl, translucent, luminous.
I carry it home. Perusal of the Peterson’s ‘Reptiles and Amphibians’ reveals there are no blue snakes anywhere in the east apart from a restricted zone along the Gulf coast of Florida. I phone Vermont Fish and Wildlife and speak to a woman named Charlee who tells me the snake is probably a common Vermont garter snake whose yellow-green stripes have deteriorated to blue after death. This often happens, she says, but asks me to e-mail photographs just to be sure.
Monday morning Charlee emails back. Yes, it’s just a common garter snake whose stripes have changed color. But in an aside she notes that the snake was pregnant.
What I had thought were the snake’s ruptured intestines were actually her children.
I decide I’ll feel better if I bury the snake. I take a shovel and wander outside to look for an acceptable location, somewhere I wouldn’t mind ending up myself. I find what feels like a perfect spot.
Lovely view, soft ground. I dig a hole and arrange the mother snake and her squandered children, apologize to them. Say good-bye. Replace the dirt and turf.
It’s when I stand back to survey my handiwork that I realize what I’ve done: buried the snake directly beneath our favorite apple tree. It’s hard to escape those biblical tropes.