Old Friends

I knelt down in the red earth and tried to steady the lens on one knee. The snake moved faster than I anticipated. One moment it lay in a seemingly restful sleep-state and next it was lunging straight at my face, full attack position, head raised, hood flared. Spit to blind, then kill.

I closed my eyes and pressed… click click click click. “Got it,” I said to the guys who then quickly moved their expert hands to bag that deadly animal before sliding to the side the 3″by 5″ piece of glass that protected me. “These photos will look amazing on the walls when we finish building.”

I stood, brushed off my jeans and wiped the sweat off my face with the sleeve of my now not-so-white T-shirt. Black spitting cobra, check. Now, just a few dozen more to go.

Gazing out at the vast expanse of deserted bush lands 360 degrees around, it was amazing to me that this nice couple from South Africa would come with their two sons here to build a park. There was nothing, as far as the eye could see, but the now emerging structures of their reserve and the two wooden tee-pee style vaulted structures they called home. A third structure housed a pit latrine and a semi-private area in which to bathe with bucket water. Meals were eaten under a canopy of dried palm leaves held up by four tall tree limbs. Just passing through, I was, on my travels to nowhere, when they kindly invited me to stay a while. So I pitched my bright blue LL Bean tent like a jelly bean on that vast dusty, lifeless landscape and got to work photographing their snakes while they constructed their education conservation center. Three large deep pits surrounded by waist high cement walls were filled with deadly Adders, Black and Red Mambas, Gaboon Vipers and Boomslangs. Adjacent long, thin structures held cages soon-to-house all the venomous and non-venomous snakes of Tanzania and East Africa beyond.

The boys, just a few years older than me in their mid to late 20s, were expert snake handlers. They whipped those venomous snakes around like I would a yoyo.  A few times a month they would leave for faraway lands, following reports of mamas being killed by the stealth and camflauge Puff Adder while working their shambas; or of boys in the bush dying from lethal bites of the Black Mamba; or of toddlers being swallowed alive by African Pythons. These guys ran TO the snakes. Local heros they were.

“Anne, do you want to feed the python,” one of them asked me as he went to fetch a young white goat from behind the eating area. “No thank you,” I said. But curiosity got me and I hung around to watch that bleating little goat disappeared into the ever expanding jaws of that massive snake. A few days later, after that goat was digested, that very snake was draped over my shoulders as a joke. Humor in snake land.

14 years later I returned. It was nearly unrecognizable to me. Urban sprawl from nearby borgeoning Arusha town had transformed this once barren landscape into dense, crowded, hustle and bustle of cars, businesses, homes, herds of passing cattle, and more. Once inside the compound, I met their South African mama at the front desk. The wrinkles on her tanned face were so deep I thought I could put a pencil in them and it would stay. I marveled to her about all the changes and complimented her on all that they had achieved. While paying my entrance fee I scanned the foyer, noticing the many Maasai trinkets available for purchase in the glass counter beneath the register and the walls covered with framed images of visiting dignitaries and the country’s first post-independence president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere along. Shelves filled with every type of snake skeleton imaginable stood to one side, and the exit was marked by a photo of a python slit in half with a dead man laying inside, intact. My thoughts drifted back to that goat.

I asked about her boys. One, she said, had long since moved away. He’s living in Europe now with his wife and kids. “The other?” He is here. “Can I say hi?” I asked. “He’s back in the house.” I made my way through neatly manicured pathways edged with flower beds passing rows of snake cages and many large pits. In one, a demonstration was going on for a tour group whose leader was translating the snake handler’s Swahili into German. I passed through a bar built in the center of the compound whose walls were covered with photographs of endless visiting tourists and backpackers from around the world along with hanging t-shirts and bank notes. Back shelves were filled with every kind of booze and Coca Cola refrigerators stood filled with soda, bottled water and Fanta. Behind the compound were the washrooms buildings for the camp site. Now a destination for budget travelers, the park is equipped with seat toilets and hot showers. Then, the garage. Lines of land rovers being repaired and lorries being unloaded for a maintenance stop during their long overland African journeys. Next door, the house. A modest cement structure with a tin roof, front gate and small garden. I knocked. “Hodi?” No answer. “Hodi,” I called again, using the traditional Tanzanian request to enter.

The man who came to the door stood stooped over a bit, dressed in raggedy khaki safari gear and heavy worn boots. His face was covered in a scraggly beard and his hair longish and in disarray. His teeth, dark and crooked clearly hadn’t seen proper dentistry in years. He looked far older than his 45ish years. “What do you want?” he  snarled. “Do you remember me? It’s Anne, from years ago.” He stared for a while, and I sunk back wishing I had never come. Slowly the haze began to clear. He remembered, and he hugged me. I nearly fell over from the stench of alcohol.

I told him about my life as a wife and mother in America and about my work with UNITE. He told me about the park, about their new health clinic that is the only one around equipped with anti-venom. He showed me their cultural museum that teaches tourists about the life of the local Maasai and he introduced me to the orphans his family is raising as their own. When we ran out of things to say, he offered me a drink. No thank you, I replied, it was still morning and I hadn’t yet had my coffee. As I left we exchanged promises to email and stay in touch. Despite many subsequent visits, I have never seen him since.