I live in a little area carved out of Sierra Leonean palm tree jungle but I have not yet seen wildlife in abundance. Unless you count the wildlife kept by the children and the aunties in the home - the chickens which frequently sneak into our house to peck at the floor and lay an egg or two in the shower or the mangy dogs which roam around with chunks of skin missing from their ears and an ever present cloud of flies. If you go through a day without seeing a brilliantly coloured butterfly or a night without noticing the streak of a firefly you quite simply haven’t been looking. Lizards are also a common feature, sunning themselves on the side of a wall or clambering noisily across the tin roof of your house. To the list of the ubiquitous could also be added what have been described as the “duck frogs”, though you will hear them more than you see them. During my first night in Banta I woke up in need of the toilet (the dehydration/peeing-all-the-time balance took a few days to perfect) and heard this ridiculously loud racket that sounded unnatural to my waking mind. It sounds like half-quack and half-croak with one blast always preceding a tumultuous couple of moments with every reptile seemingly wishing to have his say and then, as if they had all exchanged glances and agreed that nothing more needed to be added, the noise suddenly disappears into the darkness as suddenly and as randomly as it had appeared. When you actually see one of the duck frogs for the first time you can’t help but smile. They are tiny little guys.
Bugs are also generally everywhere. Big flying bugs, little flying bugs. The hateful mosquitoes and black flies, or moot-moot in krio, are also always around hatching some devilish scheme to get a taste of my blood no doubt. One brandishes malaria, the other river blindness and both can make you want to scratch your skin off. One night shortly after I arrived in Sierra Leone I woke up feeling a large pool of sweat that had gathered in the small of my back. Nothing to write home about. But then the pool of sweat started to move up my back and I realised that something else was going on. I swiped my hand across my back and knocked a cockroach into my mosquito net. There are quite a few large birds around but I need the bird watching brother to come and identify them for me. The only ones I do know are the weaver birds that you see quite regularly grouping themselves together to construct their little round works of art in trees near the fields of the farmers they torment in this the time for rice harvesting. I have also seen the bird of prey which hunts the little green and yellow rice thieves – what people here simply call an African hawk.
One of the interns earned the name Munda-Cobra Killer after an encounter with one of those famously dangerous snakes (Munda is a mende name meaning “our own”). Admittedly if you look at him with a dubious expression on your face for long enough he will crack under the pressure and suggest the possibility that his killer blow may in actual fact have really just amounted to a stone landing on a very recently deceased reptile, but I prefer the original version of events. Later in the interns’ time here I myself saw a snake seconds after it had been stoned to death…Munda again flexing his snake killing muscles in the effort (I am always amused by how quickly and directly but with an air of nonchalance he reacted to the cry of “snake”, lifting up the biggest rock to hand and running towards the noise. “No big deal guys, this kind of thing happens in my village all the time”).
However, it wasn’t until later that I saw my first live snake. It was slithering up the road that runs from our home to the school – not all that big, black and it moved sort of sidewinder-like – and initially I just passed by it. Then I realised that really I had to take the danger that this thing represented seriously. Not in Kansas anymore kiddo. In other words, I had to kill it. I threw a stone at it. Missed. I threw another stone. Missed again. Okay…okay…give me a break here – I was trying to kill this guy from a good if-this-thing-can-spit-then-surely-it-couldn’t-reach-me-over-here distance. I decided I should use a bigger stone. I threw a small boulder. Now, I am not prepared to say that I missed with this one but any possible hit wasn’t what you would call direct either. What I do know is that the snake curled up against the stone – either pinned by it or deciding this would offer it some protection from the inaccurate attack it was under. But in this Irishman the serpant had met its match. Brain over brawn was always going to be my only hope of survival in this world. Giving my reptilian friend a wide berth I walked around to the other side of my boulder and played my trump card. I rolled the stone forward with my foot. For the slightest second the snake’s flesh bulged before it popped. I had to use a leaf to scrape bloody yellow snake flesh off my trouser leg, before continuing my walk home with something like triumph in my step.
And so we come to my nemesis, the monkey. Sierra Leone is known for its monkeys with certain areas of the country set up as sanctuaries for them. The chief in a local village used to have a little pet monkey called Shipment but he seems to be no more. It became a running joke between my friend Andy (the aforementioned Munda) and I that I had not seen a wild monkey and even though lots of the interns saw their fair share and even though I have been here for a whole lot longer I have still found the little scumbags utterly elusive. I had to make a statement to these monkey creatures. So I ate one. It was very tasty and I reckon now that I’ve made my feelings clear.
I am sorry to all those who have subscribed to this blog and just got a flurry of emails... I finally got a chance to add this stuff and I grabbed it with both hands!