Mamba Memories

 

 

by John Tyler Connoley

 

May 4, 2005

 

 

When I was two and my sister less than a year old, my parents took us to a church conference that involved camping out in a tent. This was in Zambia, during my parents' first term as missionaries. In the afternoons, while Mom attended meetings with pastors' wives or led children's services, my sister napped in a fold-up playpen in the tent. The arrangement worked well -- the meetings were outside and close to the tent, so Mom could hear if Martha stirred or woke.

 

One afternoon, midway through the week, Mom stepped into the tent to see how her little baby was doing and found a visitor. A mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in Africa, probably attracted by my sister's warmth, had curled up next to her in the playpen. Mom immediately sounded the battle cry, "Snake! Snake!" People came running, carrying sticks and shovels, whips and rakes ready to beat the offender to death, but the sneaky mamba slipped through a hole in the tent and escaped into the grass. We never saw him again.

 

In later years, my family told this story around the table at holidays, as a funny family memory -- "remember the time when . . ." It ranked up there with the time Grandpa saw a cobra in the grass and started running from it. The faster Grandpa ran, the faster the cobra followed. His cries of "Snake! Snake!" brought the usual assortment of shovels and sticks. And after the locals dispatched the cobra, they realized the poor thing had tried to bite Grandpa in the ankle and had caught its teeth in his pant leg. It wasn't chasing him at all.

 

One Thanksgiving, as we were sitting around the desiccated turkey carcass telling funny family stories, we had a knock at the front door. Most people used our back door for visits and we weren't expecting anyone, so my father said to me, "Johnny, go see who that is." I opened the door to find a cobra, hood extended, striking at his reflection in the glass. Of course, I called "Snake! Snake!" with the usual results.

 

Surprisingly, I can't remember ever hearing of someone we knew dying from a snakebite -- one of the younger missionary kids came home one day with two telltale puncture wounds on his knee, but he couldn't remember being bitten and he didn't even get a red ring around the wounds. However, living with so many close calls, certainly affected my view of the world.

 

Growing up in Zambia, I never believed the fantasy that the world is safe. Every time I climbed a tree or walked in the grass, I watched for the movement of death slithering by. When my friend Mark stepped on a puff adder one night as he was walking barefoot behind the schoolhouse, my response was not sympathy but chastisement for walking at night without a flashlight. At least Mark was barefoot and felt the snake underfoot in time to jump away before the sleepy adder struck. We all agreed, if he'd been wearing shoes it could have been much worse, but if he'd been carrying a flashlight it would have been much better.

 

Choosing to ride my bicycle to a friend's house a mile away, even though it meant peddling fast past the woods where a legendary man-killing mamba lived, prepared me for the trips to Lusaka my family would later make. On those trips, it was human man-killers lurking in the woods who frightened us as we drove fast to get to our destination safely.

 

In the late 1970s, the Rhodesian Civil War was more than a decade old, and guerillas had set up semi-permanent camps in the forests of southern Zambia. Fighting against white apartheid in Rhodesia, the guerillas hated white people -- whether Rhodesian soldiers or American missionaries. The newspapers had already reported the raping and killing of a Baptist missionary couple captured on the country's only highway near Livingstone on the boarder with Rhodesia, but our mission hospital needed medicine and the only way to get it was to drive the highway to Lusaka.

 

We always traveled as a family in those final years of the war, because of the constant warnings from the American Consulate and rumors of personnel evacuations. Once, when Martha and I were fifty miles away at school, the consulate had called and issued a travel ban -- they'd received "credible threats" against Americans. My parents drove to our school in defiance of the ban and stayed with us until the warning was lifted. After that, we traveled together whenever possible, particularly if Dad had to go to Lusaka, which was a good eight hours from our house.

 

Most of the route was relatively safe, since we were driving away from Livingstone, and we figured we'd drive fast through the one stretch of road where the guerillas lived (like riding fast past the mamba's lair). We also left early enough to be safely in Lusaka long before sunset.

 

Unfortunately, as we climbed the hills up into the guerilla forests, our truck began to overheat. The downhill sections gave the truck a rest, but with each climb the temperature gauge climbed as well. More than halfway to Lusaka and unable to turn back, we prayed the truck would make it over the last hill. A few times, we stopped at the top of an overpass to let the truck rest and feed it water. And, it would seem okay until the next climb. Finally, as we inched toward the top of a particularly large hill, the engine blew its head gasket. We were at a dead stop.

 

The constant stops had slowed us so much that the sun was setting as our truck gave up the ghost. We were like Mark, strolling behind the schoolhouse, unable to see the dangers lurking in the foliage. Unlike Mark, we were watchful, knowing that what we couldn't see might kill us.

 

As we waited, I don't remember being afraid to die. I was only afraid of being hurt before I died. As with mambas and cobras, the guerillas were more frightening for the pain they would inflict than for the death they could bring. In Zambia, death was inevitable; pain was avoidable. 

 

I don't know how long we'd been sitting in the dark and watching the trees when a jeep drew up behind us. Two men with machine guns stepped out from the vehicle and walked up alongside our truck.

 

As the two guards stood still, machine guns at the ready, another man climbed out of the jeep and walked toward my father's window. Dad rolled down his window and looked at the man's official-looking uniform. I think I held my breath. This time, there was no calling for sticks and shovels.

 

The man gave Dad an incredulous look -- eyebrows furled, mouth just barely smiling -- and said, "Do you know this is guerilla territory?"

 

Dad said, "Yes," and explained the situation. He finished with, "We hadn't intended to be in the area after dark, but we couldn't have planned on the lorry breaking down."

 

It turned out the man was a Zambian military officer, looking for military deserters who'd been spotted in the area. He offered to tow us to the next town, where his brother owned a garage, and where we could get a place to stay. He also stated the obvious, "You're lucky I found you before someone else did."

 

And so we had another story to tell at the Thanksgiving table. Like Mark's puff adder, the guerillas had been too slow to strike us in the night. Like Martha's mamba, death had been close but had slithered back into the trees. Like the people who came running with sticks and shovels, our Zambian officer had chased the snakes away. In time, we'd even laugh at the question the officer had asked, "Do you know this is guerilla territory?" As if we hadn't grown up there. As if we were happy tourists, blithely unaware of the dangers in the grass.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2005 by John Tyler Connoley

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