Celts among the Shona
Matthew Aherne, O.Carm. First published – 1964.
There are two aspects of the snake problem in Africa. One can look at it from the frightening side and one can look at it from the less serious side. New missionaries choose the former outlook, out of sheer fright; those who have been in Africa for some time accept the position that both they and the snake are in Africa and they can’t do much about changing things. I am of opinion that the general impression about snakes, among newcomers, is a mixture of expectancy and fear. When you arrive in Africa, you dread the idea of ever seeing a snake, yet, in the back of your mind, you want to see one, as soon as possible. One reason behind this paradox is that you want to get it over. Another surely, is the appeal to adventure. A snake is a blood-curdling creature to contend with, and there is something very exhilarating in having met one and got away. And there is always something to write home about. You have seen in the flesh what you recoiled from long ago in the familiar picture of St. Patrick and the snakes. Perhaps this consideration even serves as a reminder that you too are now a missionary in a strange land.
I recall that, in University days in Dublin, one of our professors told us that the realisation never measures up to the expectation. This, I think, is true about seeing a snake for the first time. For weeks perhaps, your imagination has been busy picturing the first encounter, devising the mode of attack or escape; your expectation of seeing a snake round every corner has been excellently enhanced by the numerous snake stories trumped up for the benefit of the newcomer. Then, one day, you see your first snake. He is a creeping reptile after all. He looks horrible enough, but he doesn’t come straight for you with his fangs bared - unless you are very unfortunate that day. In fact he takes the initiative in making off in the opposite direction. You have broken through the barrier!
What about the real defences on both sides? First of all, the snake is by nature a cowardly creature. He doesn’t look for trouble. But - and this is the important point - if you give him trouble or he presumes that you do, you could hardly have a more deadly adversary. Nature has equipped him with such powers of agility and such weapons of attack, that you stand little chance if you hesitate. You are contending with forces that lie outside your orbit. Let us be fair to the snake. In the natural order of things, you are not his natural enemy. He has to fight his way amongst other types of enemy. Retreat is your best course of action. Foolish indeed is the person who would play with snakes.
I remember very clearly the day I saw my first snake in Zimbabwe. It was a few yards from the room in which I was living at the time. I happened to be moving a big stone, with the help of some African boys. Suddenly all the boys sprang backwards, shouting in the local language, ‘Nyoka!’ - ‘A snake!’ I looked and there he was, under the stone. I was rather surprised at his small size and, as I thought, his harmless appearance. I said, “Is this a snake?” One of the boys replied, “Yes, Baba, and it is one for which we have no medicine.” I retreated then all right. The warning registered and remained.
Since that time, I have had a good many encounters with snakes out here, and on a few occasions, it was indeed a ‘near thing’. Only in the case of lightning have I come as near to a sudden end, but that is another story. My worst tussle with a snake was at St. Barbara’s Mission one day in 1950. First of all, I must admit, I literally walked into trouble. A cardinal rule in the bush is that one must not leave the beaten track or walk in high bush grass. Well, I left the beaten track and walked through the grass. Snakes were farthest from my thoughts, and I was not even paying attention to where I was treading. Then it happened. I was in the very act of putting my foot down on a huge snake coiled up in the grass. I was saved by an instinctive impulse of the kind that one might find portrayed in a story book. I did what alone could have saved me. I sprang into the air, in a backward movement, high up, so that I managed to cover some ground between me and the snake. And then luck favoured me yet once again. The snake, having hurled himself about, moved in the opposite direction, and was thus not waiting for me when I came back down to earth. No doubt, someone was praying for me. If ever I left the beaten track after that, I kept my eyes and ears open.
But there is a funny side to snake incidents, too, even though it be intermixed with deadly danger. There was, for instance, the day when a snake came into my room and proceeded in my direction. I had not much time to think the situation over. Windows were made for more than light and fresh air. I was through one in record time. And there was the day when ‘something’ got into an old wireless at St. Barbara’s Mission. A brother took the wireless in his arms and carried it out to investigate. And out came a deadly hooded cobra, one of the worst snakes in existence! We all beheld the scene with a feeling of ‘what might have been’. There was also the unique approach of Brother O’Toole at Mount Melleray Mission. I saw him catch a snake by the tail and then crush it with his boot. But the funniest story I can recall was the reaction of a certain brother in the community to an incident with a snake at very close quarters. He was looking for something in the river when he found himself a few inches from a snake. He jumped up and ran for all he was worth. The reaction came in the form of nightmares. On the first night he re-lived the incident. He had a nice alarm clock near his bed. He made bits of it in making a clout at the snake’. The next night a flash lamp went in the same way! After that, it was becoming a little too expensive even for exciting nightmares, and he seems to have made his peace with the snake.