Essay: Of Snakes and Men

03/23/2013 12:53

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Of Snakes and Men

By Cherno Baba Jallow

Perhaps, you will be inclined to wonder: Why, I, an ardent fan of horror movies, can’t still muster the courage to watch Snakes on the Plane. Ever since Samuel L. Jackson’s flick came out a year ago, my usual appetite for the strange and the bizarre in movies has been in decline. I don’t know why this is the case or whether it should be at all, but now I can’t even bring myself to watching those kinds of movies that leave you shoulder-shuddering, mouth-agape and with a mind awash in the macabre details of fear and agony.

Yet, I have to admit: I have seen movies more engrossing in their cinematic denouement, palpable in their suspenseful, cringing effects. The Chain Saw Massacre was one: A group of young men getting hacked off by a chainsaw-wielding mad man. The Diary of a Cannibal was another: A woman who killed and consumed her lover – kidneys, liver, everything! These two movies are in a league of their own, for their barbarity, and for their capacity to shock and awe. Jackson’s movie raked in a lot of publicity, hewing out, by dint of its reptilian éclat, a memorable place among Hollywood’s crop of suspenseful, horrific movies. It must have been that good. Still, I can’t be excited about it. The other day, I skipped it over at my local video club and rented, instead, Malibu’s Most Wanted. Yes, that Hip-Hop comedy about some white guy, a rapper and gangster wanna-be.

This time I will have to surrender my fan card. This one by Jackson, one of my favorite American actors, will have to go unseen. The reason is that I just can’t stand his snakes. Not out of malice, for I harbor no ill-feelings towards reptiles. Part of my childhood delights involved watching, with animated keenness, the razzle-dazzles of lizards between branches and atop trunks of trees. My humanity for mammals is more than just a hint of herpetological indulgence. It is real. Irreducible. Encysted at heart.

It is just that snakes scare the hell out of me. Imagine, in real life, being on a plane, far off the earth and deep into the skies. And you come to realize that aboard the plane are poisonous snakes looking to kill an eyewitness to murder (Jackson’s movie). That will be painful to watch. You are bound to feel for the victim. There is no escaping a plenitude of bloodletting pangs from rampaging snakes. I am thinking. Twenty. That’s right, 20 years ago today, I survived a snake-bite in the rice-fields of Basse. In 1987, I almost had my own tragic Steven Irwin moment – killed by some creature lurking in the depths, in my case, of some thick, ramrod-tall bushes. The main difference, though, was that I was just ambling about, minding my own business on a footpath forested by stubby grasses. I wasn’t looking for trouble. And nor was the Australian. He just happened to be a victim of his own zoological curiosity, trying to understand the intricate world of creatures under sea.

Anyway, back to my story: the snake curls up my right ankle. I feel its weight. I flail my leg and the snake yanks off, dropping on the ground. I am running, screaming and breathless – pain initially unbeknownst to me. My father makes a frantic rush towards me. I am crying, looking at stains of blood trickling from my ankle. The snake had bitten me.

About 45 minutes later, a passer-by, the late Alhaji Sorrie Jallow, came to the rescue. He rode me to the Basse Health Center. But the dispenser had gone for the day. And the serum for snake-bites was in his office, under lock and key. So we rushed to the old marabout in nearby Manneh Kunda. He gave me bowlfuls of medicinal liquids (herbs and nasso) to help me emit out the snake’s poison. Another round of liquids still couldn’t produce any vomiting. The old man checked out my eyes as if he were an ophthalmologist. He asked if I could see and I nodded affirmatively. The marabout then concluded that it wasn’t a poisonous snake. I don’t know what kind of a snake it was – what much do I know about the classification and species of snakes except that the Puff Adder and the African Rock Python are Africa’s most poisonous and biggest snakes respectively?

Men and snakes have a relationship spanning millions of years. In the July issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, University of California – Davis anthropologist Lynee Isbell, explained that the fear of snakes may have caused early mammals (predecessors to humans) to develop new strategies of snake-detecting abilities (vision and large brains). The relationship between snakes and man “… goes back to long before we were people … that might sort of explain why we have such extreme attitudes towards snakes, and varying from deification to ophidiphobia, or fear of snakes.” It is an adversarial relationship, you know. Well, sort of.

Unlike ours with dogs, the relationship between men and snakes is harder to compartmentalize. We think they are predatory towards us; and this fear, much of it implied actually, has morphed into some kind of a cold war between the reptile and humans. We are intimidated by them. And they are us, too. It is an environmental co-habitation characterized by innate fear and anxiety on both sides of the humanoid-reptilian divide. Yet, man continues to be enthralled by snakes: their elongating and serpentine physiques, their quick and circuitous movements, and their reclusive habits. Snakes hoard themselves too much! I have lived in the state of Michigan for 17 years now and I have never seen a snake yet. Even in The Gambia, it takes an act of serendipity to see one slithering on the grasses or in ponds or ridges.

This thing about snakes avoiding the public view has not helped in bridging the gap of misunderstanding between man and the reptile. We are always suspicious of their reclusiveness and we think their hide-outs make them deadly foes, always inching for some deadly attacks. Contrary to what you might think, snakes are timid creatures and rarely do they make unprovoked attacks. And snake-bites, for reasons of their occasional lethality, have the tendency to draw us into knee-jerk, frantic reactions. News spread out fast, too. During the last general elections in The Gambia, a victorious candidate caused a huge national stir when rumors spread out that a snake had mysteriously bitten him and he had died. His long silence didn’t help. The story turned out to be false.

When news of my misfortune spread around in Basse, I was treated to some kind of celebrity status, not the kind that comes with popularity but fame accentuated by tragedy and accidental mishap. My friends and neighbors looked at me as if I had died and gotten back to life – some kind of a zombie. Even today when people find about my escape from a snake’s wrath, they are quick to shoot out questions not with the purpose of learning a thing or two about my experience but rather to convey a sense of bewilderment at my fortunate flight of survival.

I understand. In our society, a snake-bite can be ascribed some strange connotations, a phenomenon explicable only by factors outside of the ordinary. But the truth is that snakes do bite. Some are poisonous. And they will kill. According to the UK-based Travel Africa magazine, snakes kill about 23, 000 people each year in Africa’s hinterlands. Over a decade ago, a neighbor’s brother in Wuli Bantungn’ding, Upper River Region, died of a snake-bite. He was late to seek medical treatment. The venom had spread in his body.

But these deaths were symptomatic of inadequate or inaccessible medical care more than reptilian ruthlessness. Snake-bites like dog-bites, monkey-bites, scorpion-bites, etc., will cause damage if left untreated. Perhaps, I survived mine because of my accessible care, herbal and medical (I did finally receive a serum-injection after the dispenser was found in town). Or perhaps, I was just darn lucky. Or perhaps still, the snake wasn’t poisonous after all (some green snakes, for instance, aren’t).

One thing is for sure: I am still here. But my dread of the snake lives. Permanently.


Editor's Note: An unedited version of this essay originally appeared on the Gainako website in 2007.

Cherno Baba Jallow is a contributing editor for My Basse. He lives in Southfield, Michigan, USA.




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