Thursday, July 14, 2011

Once Upon a Time.....yes this is a true story

I haven’t really written much about my experience in the village, describing what it was like seems nearly impossible. It seems impossible mostly because I can’t believe I did it. Earlier this year I went for a week to the village to do research for work. I didn’t stay the night in the village, I didn’t even have a meal in the village, I simply went out for interviews and came back to Chipata (a provincial capital and pretty developed town) every night. Each day I was in the village all I could think was “How did I do this for two years?” The following story will be a good indication as to why I asked that question. I am sorry if this is a repeat for some of you, it has taken a long time for me to put this down in writing. Although I am thinking of trying to get this published (after Peace Corps) I will give it a test run here.
Rainy season was upon us, it was an exceptionally rainy year. The bushes around my house were growing three inches a day, the maize was growing tall, and the entire village was bright green just after a month and a half of rain. This was my first rainy season and my first few months in the village. With all the rain and a sick stomach I spent the day indoors reading, writing, drinking tea and going a little bit crazy. My neighbors called me for lunch around 14:00 and we indulged in nshima (maize porridge)and probably kapenta (freshwater sardines) or a green vegetable. I didn’t stay long after the meal, my entire body hurt because of my stomach pains and I wanted a nap.
After opening my house back up, I made one last trip to my chimbusu before crawling into my dusty, mildewy bed for a much needed rest. Seeing as this was my 15th trip to the chimbusu I didn’t bother doing my usual check around and proceeded to take off my chitenge and squat over a hole the size of my foot. (Important side note, since I had spent the day indoors I was wearing very short shorts that a very taboo in a Zambian village with a chitenge or traditional fabric wrapped around my waste to cover my thighs, a sexual body part). Back to the squatting. My legs had gotten a workout that day and I was hoping this was just a routine drill and not an emergency. While contemplating life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness hovered over a hole the size of my foot I started to feel drops on my shoulder. Bloody hell, as if I didn’t have enough problems today now the grass roof of my chimbusu leaked.
Deep in thought, stewing over the leaky roof I felt more drops accompanied by a rustling noise. Slow, as if I couldn’t be bothered I lifted my head up to look at what was making the commotion. To my horror there was a spitting cobra, hood flailed out spitting venom at me. The bastard. To my astonishment his aim was spot on. Cobras aim for the eyes to blind their prey to make it easier to attack. The bastard. Right in my eyes, both of them. All at once my shorts were up, my chitenge was around my waist (god forbid I display my sexual body parts in public) and I was shouting at the neighbors “Insoka, Insoka, Ba Thomas, S-N-A-K-E!!!!” Nothing. I was at the front door of my house already and no one was within sight, well I couldn’t really see my eyes had seized shut. I’ll be damned if my neighbor lady hadn’t finished brewing beer that day and her husband Ba Thomas, the one I was calling for, was hammered. The kids heard me shouting and called the brother to Ba Thomas that stayed two houses away from me.
As I was trying to call Peace Corps Medical with a dying cell phone Ba Paschal came running with a stick in hand shouting at me to bring my sun glasses and point out where the bastard was. I hung up with medical so they could call me back because not only was my phone dying but I didn’t have enough talk time for an extended conversation. By this time about 15 people had showed up in my yard watching me stand on my porch with seized eyes, Ba Paschal chasing the snake out of the chimbusu and the neighbor lady screaming every time Ba Paschal slammed the stick down on the snakes body. With no word from medical after a minute or so I called them back, “sorry” she said “I couldn’t get through, let me try again.” Panic was starting to set in. What in the world does one do in this situation? Finally she got through and before she could say a word I blurted out in a sheer panic “Am I going to go blind?”
“No, there are no recorded incidents of people going blind from cobra venom encounters”
“What do I do?”
“Get the eye wash from your medical kit and rinse your eyes thoroughly, you can use water as well.”
“The neighbors are telling me to use milk.”
“NO! Don’t use breast milk, you won’t know the HIV status of the woman providing the milk and breast milk has the highest content of the virus as far as body fluids go.”
“What about powdered milk.”
“Water should work just fine, you could do, they say it neutralizes the poison. Start with the eye wash though. Then take a few advil and get some sleep we will call you back in a little while.”
By this time the phone was furiously beeping that it was going to die, I sent it with a kid to the cell phone tower to be charged and proceeded to rinse. The eye wash didn’t last long for rinsing out two eyes. Next I moved on to water, splashing furiously as a surge of pain rushed through my eyes every time I blinked. “Milk, use milk” the other neighbor lady kept telling me. I pulled out my can of blue bell powdered milk, dumped some into a bowl and added filtered water to make reconstituted milk. Again I splashed furiously as milk dripped down my elbows and chin with 15 people watching me. Finally a bit of relief. It hurt every time I blinked, like a sand box was being moved around on my eye balls. Every time I tried to open my eyes they snapped shut of their own volition and hurt for a minute from all the sunlight I had just let in.
Ba Paschal managed to kill the snake and I managed to get a photo with my film camera of him, the snake and a couple of amaguys hanging around my yard. I sent everyone away thinking I should just take some advil and get some sleep. I closed the door and crawled into my dusty, mildewy bed and laid there wondering when the pain would go away. Five minutes later there was a knock on the door. Ba Paschal was coaxing me to the door, “Ba Jocelyn, I have some medicine for you.” Yes please. I opened the door and there stood Paschal with a huge leaf in his hand wrapped up like a funnel and held shut together with a piece of straw. Really?
 “I have some African medicine for you.”
“I don’t know Ba Paschal, I think I will be ok. What is it?”
“Tree bark, let me drip it into your eyes.”
“Ba Paschal, I don’t know. What if it makes me go blind?”
“It won’t make you go blind, it will help with the pain, we use it on the dogs when they get spit by a cobra.”
“Ok Ba Paschal, lets give it a try.” Must be just like asprin, that comes from tree bark as well….didn’t you see Pocahontas?
Once again I was in the squatting position with my face turned up and Paschal pouring water into his leaf funnel and dripping the extracted medicine into my eyes. Every drop hurt and every time I blinked it hurt even more. After a good three minutes of this I declared I didn’t think it was working.
“Ba Paschal, it still hurts. It feels like there is sand in my eyes.”
“The cobras, they mix sand with their venom before they spit. That is why it hurts so bad.”
I looked at him, used my fingers to pry my eyes apart and said “Do you see anything?”
“Oh yes, there are little white balls.”
“Maybe just pull them out of my eyes?”
“What should I use?”
We both looked around and then he grabbed the bottom of his sweat shirt and slowly pulled out little white venom pus balls one at a time. After he got every last one out of my eye it no longer hurt to blink. My eyes were just sensitive to the sun.
“Thank you Ba Paschal, that feels a thousand times better. I think I will sleep now.”
After a long rest I collected my phone and found out that Peace Corps Medical had talked to the guard at the cell phone tower that is in charge of keeping everything running. I texted the medical staff that I had my phone and was feeling alright. She called back and we discussed the afternoon’s events. At some point I asked her if this had ever happened to another volunteer, turns out I am the second volunteer in Peace Corps Zambia history to have a cobra spit in their eyes. I would love to meet the other guy.
This isn't the spitting cobra, this was another snake in my house, most likely just a house snake. But this is what a bludgeoned to death snake looks like. Gross

Over the past three years I have often thought about this day and have had some concerning information surface. A book I read once talked about a blind dog that had gone blind after a cobra spit in his eye, they book took place in Zimbabwe so presumably the same species. But that is still not a person going bling from a cobra. Someone else told me that it is a myth that cobras mix sand in their fangs to spit with the venom. From what I can conclude from that, the balls form from reacting with the fluid in our eyes. I won’t even comment on the reconstituted milk, really? What was I thinking? But at least it wasn’t breast milk. Yes I am now completely terrified of snakes and often have dreams about them, although its been about 6 months since I have had a dream about snakes.

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