Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
Something to say?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Cobra Land

Freetown is one of three cities in the world where cobras are endemic. I didn't know that until the British Council sent me a wad of familiarisation documents, before my first trip to Sierra Leone in 1983.

   The documents were amazing: they told me, among other things, how I should boil my salad before eating it to avoid stomach diseases and not buy food from the open markets. In Makeni where I lived there was no food sold anywhere else.They also urged me to attend an induction event at a manor house in Berkshire to learn about living in the tropics. In spite of the fact that my CV clearly said I was born and bred in South India. And yes, I should buy a hat; I would need one at garden parties when royalty came to visit. Garden party? I had never met one of those animals before and hoped to avoid them forever.

   I had not a seen a single wild cobra in India in the twenty-three years I lived there. The snake charmer occasionally brought some doped-up cobras around, which danced to his pipe. They looked harmless; my father said that the poison fangs had probably been removed.

   In Freetown, however, cobras were common - part of the landscape. My very first morning in Freetown, I drove to work to the Ministry of Education, at eight in the morning, feeling my way into the centre of town.The road descended from a hill-side rapidly into a cleft of land where the town nestled. The road to the Ministry was a mud-red ribbon which wound round the depression in the ground, with clusters of government buildings, in large compounds, on one side.

   Just before I reached the entrance to the Ministry, I saw a huge black rope stretched across the road. Lorries hooted over it and passed without stopping. It was only when I was nearly upon it that I noticed it was a huge cobra, squashed to brown-and-red pulp in the middle, and the rest of it intact. Thankfully, quite dead. Later, my colleague at the Ministry dismissed the event lightly. 'They come up from the low ground near the ocean,' he remarked. 'So much new building in that area.'

   In Makeni, in the North, where I lived from 1983-1985, there was a resident presence behind our flats. The women would see it sometimes near the outside cook-house when they worked there. Once, it was seen in the brick oven and no one would cook there for some time. 

   Things got interesting when a pet monkey tethered to a tree behind our flats died from snake bite. The men decided to take notice. One day they saw it crawl back into the brick oven. Two of them quickly made a fire from dry leaves. They waited outside until the poor snake came crawling out and beat it to death.

   It wasn't until 1985, when I moved back to Freetown that cobras lifted their hood again. One got inside our Assistant Directors air-conditioner and his wife came running to my house next door, with the baby. She was crying. 'Can't take any more of this,' she wailed. A few minutes later, Kaba, my young gardener, walked in to show me his trophy. A three foot, very thin cobra hanging dead on a twig. He was very amused at the crying white woman.

   She gave him ten Leones for his troubles. 'Where was the husband, Kaba?' I asked, after she left. 'Running around taking photos,' he said. He must have thought all of us Mzungus (foreigners) quite mad. My worry was that Kaba would soon begin to find little cobras to put in our AD's house to get more ten Leones.

   Kaba himself got attacked in my garden one day by a spitting cobra. He could not open one eye for a while, and I washed the eye with coconut milk as they did in India. I hoped he would not be tempted to go near them for a while. At least till I left the country.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Sierra Leone revisited

Sierra Leone’s present plight occupies my mind. You might ask, what about Guinea and Liberia? Well, Liberia is pretty much over the worst, and Guinea claims that the Ebola virus is not spreading, though information appears hard to come by. The fact is, I did not live for five-and-a-half years in Guinea or Liberia. I don't know any Liberian and the only citizen I know from Guinea lives in the United Kingdom.
   I started this blog account (Other Lands and Other People) when it occurred to me that many people from Britain know little about how people in Asia or Africa live. Apart, that is, from the bright spots like Thailand or Singapore. South America has become more familiar with some tourist spots becoming famous in that part of the world. But,Congo? Mozambique? I bet very few people in Britain know what those countries look like, how the people live, and what, in human behaviour, is taken to be the norm.
    Sierra Leoneans live with every-day deprivation that we could not dream about. A great part of Africa does. When I finished my fifteen years sojourn in various parts of Africa and returned to the UK, my first thought was, thank God for running water and absence of cerebral malaria.
    I had come up against both: in the Northern part of Sierra Leone, in 1986, I became ill without knowing what was wrong. My head and neck hurt a little all the time and my energy levels fell. My job required running around all over Sierra Leone like a mad monkey. I came to the UK at about that time on leave and became seriously ill with fever, vomiting and diarrhoea.
    The local GP in Basildon came around to my house (I was bed-ridden by then) and said he would do some tests. The test results took forever to come; in between he would not prescribe anything. I kept pleading with him to treat me for Malaria, but he could not see any evidence of it even in the blood. When I started rigours as in Malaria, he ordered another blood test, and I knew I would die if he did not give me medication soon. The second blood test showed I had cerebral malaria and I was carted off to the Billericay hospital, where I was isolated, in spite of my telling the doctors and nurses there, that Malaria could not spread without the mosquito.
   I remember the consultant from the School of Tropical Diseases who came to discharge me; he opened a small bound booklet and started searching for information on Malaria. This did not actually encourage my faith in him. So I said to him, 'The flukes live in the liver for a while. I need medication for three weeks to stop them from making me ill again.' He looked again in the book and prescribed another medicine. In Sierra Leone, many people live with Malaria until they die.
   Malaria kills a great number of people in some countries. More than Ebola, but it does not spread from person to person. I am sure malnutrition kills just as many. Infant mortality rates are high and the death of a child in small, remote communities is commonplace.
   The pharmaceutical companies did not get interested in producing a vaccine for Ebola until recently. When the WHO started making dollar signs. The question: do people from other countries have a moral obligation to actively promote health and the eradication of disease in other countries, even when we are not under threat?