Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Adventures of a Snake Phobe in the African Jungle: A Collection of Short Stories- Part 1


Long have I known I would one day live in Africa, and long have I known that the dreaded snake species would be my biggest difficulty in living there. I avoided South America like the plague, knowing that the tropical climate of the continent would surely be a hot bed for the legless creatures. “Africa,” I thought to myself, “surely Africa with it's deserts and plains would be the safer bet of the two.” Little did I know God would send me to Gabon, Bongolo Hospital to be exact- 9 hour drive from the capital and smack down in the middle of the tropical jungle on the equator, home to 3 of the world's deadliest snake species in addition to boa constrictors and pythons that freely roam.
Yea. Home Sweet Home.
Oh the thought of re-nigging on this whole Africa thing has crossed my mind once or twice. I mean when I say phobia- I mean PHOBIA. We're talking I'm reading and turn the page to a nice portrait of a snake posing for a snapshot and that book is involuntarily hitting the wall. We're talking seeing some flash of a snake on the TV and Amanda's is in the fetal position uncontrollably weeping for the next 5 minutes. We're talking my own 2 little brothers- who love to pick on me no end- left the snake thing alone. As much as they lovingly tormented me in other things, they respected the snake boundary line. And any risque of a chance meeting with a nice slithery snake in a glass box in a zoo-- not happening! Petrifying, paralyzing, uncontrollable, debilitating fear.

So ya, about Africa....
I didn't have to pray or think about it very long before realizing that a fear of snakes would be a pretty lame reason to not obey my Lord and follow my God. We know how appealing the road to Calvary looked to our Savior.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

So in the year or so leading up to my departure overseas, I gradually started a process of de-conditioning and asking God to help me, counsel me through it. I didn't want to, but the last thing I wanted to lug to Africa was debilitating fear.

It started with someone trusted holding a picture of a snake across the room, and them letting me take my sweet time moving closer and closer to it until it came into focus. I'd last as long as I could looking at it and then I'd say “enough” and leave it for another day. Gradually things started to get better. I was able to see a photo without overreacting. Even the odd commercial became a little more doable (although I was squealing the whole time I watched it) at least my eyes were open and I was not assuming the fetal position. Next came time for the real guys-a big step. A real snake in the room in a nice glass box. I was firmly on the other side and could leave when I wanted. Then one day there was a dead baby garter snake in the flower bed at my parents' house. Donning the thickest pair of work gloves we could find, my Dad and brothers coached me as I held that snake in my hands for the first time and stared in it's dead disgusting eyes. We prayed a prayer of praise right then and there in the yard- thanking God for helping me to get to this point. I still feared snakes, but I was no longer governed by it. By the time I left for Africa, I had successfully put myself through the torture of watching 'Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark'- and managed to laugh on the other side.

Safe From Afar

I arrived in Gabon feeling that, now by God's grace, I had wrapped my mind around living among a thriving snake populous. What I needed Him to help me grasp now- was that they were deadly. Now I wasn't fearful simply because they had no legs- I was fearful because they quite realistically were able to take my life- some in less than 15 minutes flat.
Talk about deepening your prayer life! I remember praying, asking God to be my Counselor, asking him to continue to counsel me on this issue and to help me work through and trust him even though the threat was very real. I wasn't sure what to expect (as far as how often I would run into a snake here) but it seemed as though God was exposing me little by little- as if his Mighty hand were holding off a threat like in the book of Job- only giving me as much as I could handle.

My first encounter I was walking down the hill to the hospital to teach. It was a pleasantly warm afternoon and the sun cast a golden glow on everything it touched. Perspiration trickled down my brow despite the slight breeze, and as I carefully tread (constantly looking for no-legged creatures as I did then) I saw this large, black scaley tube just off the road in the grass. I was almost passed it when I saw it, and it wasn't moving. It appeared to be dead. Reluctantly I paused to get a closer look and saw that it had been well run-over by a passing taxi, mercifully leaving it lifeless. I saw it and thought to myself, “huh, that wasn't so bad, I'm alive and he's not terribly big.” I had images of these larger than life reptiles eating my leg off – you get the picture.

The next couple encounters were in the safety of a vehicle. We were driving back from church in a village about an hour out when the car came to a sudden halt. There was a large, fat Gabonese viper taking his good old time crossing the road. He moved slowly across the road, the rhino-like horn protruding from his head. I was thankful to be inside the car and not with the Gabonese guys who jumped out the back with machetes to procure their viper-dinner. I was surprised at how beautiful it was - it was black with a beautiful diamond pattern of vibrant yellows and whites down it's back. I never ever thought I'd hear myself say a snake was beautiful- but it was – from the land cruiser at least.

Cameras and Snakes Don't Mix

The next encounters started to get a little closer to home. Our gardener was out trimming the trees (so snakes won't climb up them and get into our attic) when suddenly I hear him yell,
I ran out the front door and find him searching through the bushes at arm's length with his shovel, looking for the Green Mamba that was finding shelter in the bushes just outside our door.

I went and got him the machete, then I ran back into the house for my camera. I told him I wanted to take a picture once he killed it. "Ok Mama" he said. (Note "mama" and "papa" are just polite cultural addresses)
Bad idea.
The green mamba finally emerges from the bushes onto the stone path up to our front door and starts heading towards me.
I start yelling, "Tues -le! Tues-le!" ("Kill it! Kill it!")
He's looking at me confused and starts yelling "Take the picture! Take the picture! Look I have it for you! Take the picture!"
"Tues-le! Tues-le!"
"Take the picture!"
"Kill it! What are you waiting for? Just kill it!"
It's at these moments where your language skills are put to the test.
Being able to be funny and to express yourself when you're angry or under pressure are 2 of the last things that come linguistically.
That day my french tongue was put to the test.
I kept stuttering and barely got the words out I so desperately wanted to communicate.
I can't decide if it was more of a scene from comedy flick or horror film- but there it was.
He finally killed the thing and I got a picture of the Green Mamba- dead.

Later that night I felt anything other than "at peace" about the whole thing. What if there were more? Are they coming in the attic right now? I kept thinking of that Green Mamba heading straight for me and for our front door. I was sitting on my couch in the stillness of the late night, unable to calm down completely and go to bed. I started praying that God would protect us and some how keep us from harm, surround this house with protection while we sleep.
All of sudden I hear this heavy breathing at the window.
I listen intently. My heart stops. There it is again- I'm not just hearing things, something is definitely outside the front window.
I tip toe to the window, trying to avoid being seen from outside. I get to the window and peek over the glass slats to see what could be lurking outside.
There, laying right in front of our house to sleep for the night, was Harley. The big dog of my Gabonese Mama and Papa. They never let him out at night. But there he was, laying in front of our house, right where the Green Mamba had tried to come up to the house earlier that day.
I never felt so relieved or so taken care of- God had already answered my prayers.
As I whispered a word of thanks to my God, it was as if he replied, "I am always here protecting you, but just to give you a tangible reminder, here's Harley to guard you while you sleep."
I slept in Peace that night.

Hide & Seek with Life & Death

The wailing could be heard floating up from the hospital- the hard to hear and hard to miss sign that someone had died. This time was more difficult than usual. A high school aged boy, 15 or 16 years old had been bitten by a Black Mamba and had not survived. It took him too long to get to us, the anti-venom was rendered ineffective. A thick cloud of grief suspended itself around the hospital for days. It hadn't been a good week for snakes.
Come to think of it, it hadn't been a good month. 
We had had several cases of snake bites recently.
One poor elderly woman had to have her leg sliced open on both sides because of the swelling from the venom. It was a blessing she was alive.
A five year old came in, after having been mauled by the teeth of a python.
I didn't even know they had teeth!
Apparently they do- molar like chompers and if they decide not to hug you to death, they like to use you as a chew toy.
Mercifully the little boy survived.
And amidst all the casualties and death, every few days there seemed to be a little gift left just outside our door--yet another lost snake in the bushes.
The hunt would start, sometimes taking several guys to find it.
They aren't something you just say "oh well" to losing- even for the Gabonese.
So every couple days I had to face the fact that a deadly snake was just outside my home- and then go take care of patients that had nearly died because of these suckers.

In an afternoon that followed, I arrived back to the hospital after a village vaccination clinic. I ran into one of our Docs, Renee who asked for help with a patient-
yup you guessed it- another snake bite.
The patient was a large, well built young man who had been trimming grass when he was attacked.
These snakes aren't very large, but there this big guy was flat on his back fighting for his life because of this black skinny snake. He had received the first vial of anti-venom but was still unresponsive. 
We kept watching him intently, monitoring his vital signs and praying that he would live.
He was such a big guy, we gave him another vial of antivenom.
Still nothing.
It was not looking good.
A crowd of friends and family had gathered outside the ER, some were already starting to wail in hopelessness.
He started foaming at the mouth.
We kept clearing his airways, waiting and praying the anti-venom would work and that God would heal him.
Finally, after a total of 3 vials of anti-venom, the young man woke up.
The crowd's wailing turned to songs of praise and rejoicing.
God had spared him- the young man was going to live!

I returned home just afterwards to find a black snake, just like the one that had nearly killed that young man outside my door.
My roommate and I got out our weapons- you know the usual- shovel, pitch fork, hockey stick (good for pinning) and of course a trusted machete. We even poured boiling water to the bushes to chase him out but to no avail.
The young guys next door weren't home. We called some of the other missionaries and within minutes we heard the rumble of the diesel land cruisers booking it up the hill to our house.
Three of them jumped out of the vehicles and choice weapons in hand.
The cavalry had arrived!
I cannot describe the feeling of seeing them come up over that ridge. It was like Gandalf showing up at the battle for helm's deep-----ok maybe not quite that dramatic-but you get the gist. 

The Princess and the Snake

"Goodnight, sleep well! Thanks for talking!"
"Ya you too"
It was getting late and we had talked for several hours. I really enjoy getting to know and invest in the short term visitors that come for several months, and Laura, a med student visiting from Ohio became a welcome friend during her stay here at Bongolo. We had been up chatting at my house, enjoying a cup of tea and the cool repreive that late evening brings and it was time to wrap things up. We said goodnight after chatting by the front door for a few minutes and off she headed home.
As I was shutting the door I glanced down and saw a gecko lying on the floor, not unusual in this menagerie of a house I live in with lizards, spiders, rats and cockroaches- but this guy looked hurt- his back leg was useless. I shooed him out the front door (geckos don't exactly smell like roses when they die hidden in your house) and started locking up.
Something stopped me.
It was as if something said to me, "check outside one more time before you lock up."
OKaaay-- Check outside? Sure. Not like I care that much about this little gecko, but sure, I'll check on him one more time.
I opened the door and glanced down and saw him right by my foot. He was still on the threshold between the screen and door so I bent down real close to get a good look at him to see if I could see better what was wrong and,  "OH MY GOODNESS HE DOES NOT HAVE LEGS!"
That was the exact thought process that went through my head.
It wasn't that gecko- it was a BLACK SNAKE!
And I had practically bent down and kissed the thing!
I shouted for my room mate and tortuously kept my eye on that no- legged creature.
Once you find a snake, you can't ever let it out of your sight, even to grab a machete because you could lose it in the house and have no idea where it went. And yes, I always seem to be the one that finds them and stands there staring at the thing. Yeehaw.
He slithered up the door jam in between the door and the screen, trying to camouflage himself in the shadows of the night.
Yea, tough luck buddy.
Out came Rachael like a pro with her machete, stumbling around, blinded by the light of the lamps after being sound asleep and me shouting and pointing at the snake like a freaked out kid.
We managed to chase him out onto the porch where Rachael, still blinded, started desperately hacking away at the concrete where the snake was efficiently avoiding each blow.
At last the snake met his maker at the edge of that machete blade.
There was much jigging and rejoicing and thanksgiving in our house before bed.
I stood in awe of how God had protected us - all by whispering in my ear to check on that silly gecko
There are still hack marks on our concrete porch.

To Be Continued...

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