Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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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.

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