Today we had a little excitement in the compound. The storekeeper came to me really agitated. He said that he’d gone in the food store to check that things were ready to deliver food on Monday. But when he opened the door he found a big snake. He showed me that it was as big as his forearm. Now, we have snake scares from time to time. It results in a frenzy of activity, as all the expats run for digital cameras, and the Liberians who grew up in the bush get their slingshots, cutlasses and sharp sticks ready, and all the city boys from Monrovia scream like girls. I tend to try to steer clear of the circus and watch the country boys to make sure that the snake is dispatched swiftly and safely.
First, a word on MSF Nimba Project snake policy. The policy is, “we kill them”. As an addendum to the policy, we let the watchmen eat them if they want. The problem with the snakes is that only some of them are poisonous, but those that are, are really poisonous. In fact, they are so poisonous, the treatment protocol for snakebite is, “if they are alive when they get to the hospital, treat the symptoms because he’ll survive anyway”. (With a little imagination, you can figure out the other half of that “if”.) Since not all of them are deadly, it’s not fair to kill them all. But the problem is that finding someone in the heat of the moment who knows if a snake is safe to leave in the compound is impossible. So every snake sighting turns into a snake hunt.
So Isaac reports a snake. We have an hour or so before sundown. Isaac is not really hot on snakes, but I can tell from the way he is acting that this is a serious snake, over a meter. The other ones we have killed have been a meter tops, sometimes only 50 centimeters. The problem with the food store is that there are pallets, and so there are lots of snake hiding places. There are several rooms, but right now we know which room it is in, so we need to act fast and take advantage of the knowledge. The food store won’t be safe until we find and kill the snake. The other problem with a food store is that even the best food store has a few mice, and mice are snake food. So it’s not like the snake is going to just mosey on out of the snake buffet without a little help from a cutlass.
As I said, when the circus atmosphere takes over, I do my best to watch and see how I can keep it reasonably safe. I try to follow the lead of the person who decides what to do and then starts doing it. We checked to see if James the watchman was around, because he’s the great hunter. He usually steps up to the challenge of all the hunting needed in the base. Alas James was not going to be on duty until after dark, and it was clear that I needed to find another hunter. Luckily a driver/watchmen named Diago stepped up to the plate and started poking
under the pallets with a long stick. We called for a flash light and tried to look in from the doorway. Diago couldn’t do much with the stick form the doorway. This is when things stalled. Diago didn’t have any more ideas, and I was left holding the flashlight.
One of the things I learned in log school is that the key to effective leadership is to keep people thinking that there’s always something you know how to do that they don’t, and that they should listen to you. Usually, bravado and a smooth tongue can maintain the proper level of respect. Sometimes however, you can’t fool the crowd and you actually have to show some real leadership instead of just bluffing. I realized this was one of those rare moments. So, in I went, flashlight in hand.
The nice thing about pallets of food all lined up in a warehouse is that they form a grid underneath them. When you are on your knees looking under them with a flashlight, they line up in rows and columns. You can eliminate a lot of territory by working your way through the place checking rows and columns. So I worked my way in looking for the snake, crawling on my hands and knees. About halfway through the room I found a tiny piece of the snake, luckily just a piece out of the middle. Not too intimidating. And it was easy to tell where I would find the rest. So I screwed up my courage and checked the next row, and there it was. It was really big. Way bigger than any we’d seen before. Isaac was right, and I was glad we’d found it. But now I had a problem… how to kill it. I
regrouped outside and explained what I’d seen to Diago. With more information, Diago was willing to come inside with me. First though, he cut the stick down, using the cutlass expertly. He made it into a spear, even going so far as to take off the little knots on the edge so it could slide through the pallets easily. Either that or he was just trying to kill time tpo avoid going back in the building with me. When the stick was as ready as it would ever be, we returned to the warehouse and I shined the light while he got ready to stick the snake. The sharp stick is not to kill it, but to hold it in one place, it turns out. Once he was lined up, he poked it against the back wall with a quick thrust and the snake got very angry, very fast.
I hopped up and started moving boxes. Richard the radio operator jumped into the act and helped me tunnel towards the snake. We had to remove about 12 boxes to get to it. The first few were no problem, but the closer I got to the bottom of the stack and the snake, the more careful I had to be to grab the box and get out of there. Diago held the snake firmly and we exposed it. Adolphus came in with a cutlass for the kill. The snake was whipping around and Adolphus was trying to cut it’s head through the slats of the pallet, which is not easy. I was yelling for a second stick, since it turned out that Diago didn’t have very good control of the snake after all. The snake foolishly lined his head up
with the slats for a second and Adolphus finished it off with the front of the cutlass, which is squared off. The blade came down between two slats of wood like a guillotine, and the snake was in two pieces. Happily the head only had a few inches of body attached, which made it unable to move much. The rest of the body was going all over the place, but without the head, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
This is the part of snake killing that gets scary. The problem is that the Liberians like to poke at and otherwise taunt the head, and the head of the snake is still intent on killing someone, body or none. So you have to clear out until they crush the jaw, and then it’s a bit safer. So I ran for cover, mostly because the whole thing was really creeping me out by that point and I just wanted to get the heck away. Diago held up the body, and it was as tall as him… over 1.70 meters. It even had a mouse in it’s belly, making it look all the more gruesome. Many pictures were taken. Diago was proud to be in most of them.
Afterwards, as all the adrenalin was draining away I gave all my fellow snake killers a well deserved soda and toasted them all. Richard commented in his Liberian way, “Jeff is BRAVE! No one would go in to find the snake, but Jeff did!”. I ought to be able to get some mileage out of that for a few weeks! Then I’ll have to climb up on a roof and adjust an antenna or do something else dramatic to impress the locals. Tough crowd, these logistics staffers.