Spit, spat, said the snake*

“O-bla-di-o-bla-da. Life goes on, yeah…”

“O-bla-di… Are you sure? That doesn’t sound right. Is it English?”

“That’s what I can hear”, I said. “Wait, the lyrics are in the album. Pair of dummies that we are.”

“Yeah”, Erik said. “But remember, we agreed the lyrics can only be used as a last resort.”

“Right. Let me put it back on.” The record started to turn on the turntable. 33 rpm. I lowered the arm gently. The White Album. Nº 0259893.

Desmond has a barrel in a market in the market place.

“Molly is a singer in a band.’

“Did you write that down?”

“Yeah,” Erik said. “But a ‘barrel’? Doesn’t make sense, does it?”

I looked around. My BFF Erik and I were playing records in a kiosk in the middle of Erik’s garden. Impeccably trimmed Kikuyu grass and bloo ming jacarandas. Somewhere in East Africa. He and his parents lived in Lavington, a posh borough of Nairobi, the capital of recently independent Kenya. Late sixties. Their house was a typical grey stone British colonial house. Just like Karen Blixen’s house in ‘Out of Africa’.

Being both ‘Frogs’ in an entirely English-speaking environment we were already reasonably bilingual. But a small thing nagged us a bit. Songs. There were still details we did not catch in the songs of that time. You wanna know whether you are fluent in any language? Play a song. If you can understand everything, you’re good. If you’re missing a word or two, you’ve got some catching up to do. Singing is the most advanced form of language. (Says who?)

An additional incentive, at 15 years old, were the Friday night dances the nuns organized at Loreto Convent, so the fair blue-eyed English maidens could meet the proper boys. Separate schools for boys and girls you know. ‘Proper’? Well, two Frogs snuck in sometimes. Undercover. I say ‘Friday night dances’, though the event started at about 6-7PM and ended on the clock at 10PM. The nuns ran the entire operation with an iron hand. Lights were never dimmed, even for slows. The Mother Superior herself patrolled the gardens and bushes outside, an electric torch in hand. She probably approved each and every song the band from the nearby Boys’ school played. ‘Ob-la-di, ob-la-da’ was the current hit. We had to catch every nuance of it. Couldn’t afford ignorance in front of the fair maidens. I turned the switch back on:

‘Desmond says to Molly, “Girl, I like your face”
‘And Molly says this as she takes him by the hand

‘Ob-la-di, ob-la-da
‘Life goes on, bra’
(Bra? Seriously?)

Then the dogs started to bark.

*

“Silence les chiens!” (Shut up dogs, for the non-Frog fluent) Erik yelled. With obvious little effect. The dogs kept on barking. We looked in their direction. They were near the house, barking at a small hedge by the kitchen wall. We switched the turntable off, got up, and walked towards the bl..dy dogs.

Erik had two dogs, Bim, a sweet, drooling boxer and Babar (aka Baron du Carrefour de la Pelouse, or some other fancy pedigree name. Babar, for short, was a large black and white collie. Don’t ask me the model. They seem to have developed many sub-brands for collies in recent years.

Both dogs were about three yards away from a small hedge that ran along the house wall, under the kitchen windows. Dining room and terrace to the left. The hedge was about 4 ft high. The dogs kept a distance yet barked their hearts out at something. We stayed away form the hedge. Always keep your distance in Africa. Just in case. We looked at the hedge. Then we saw it.

A black cobra was dancing gently on top of the hedge. Its hood fully open. It turned its head right and left to watch each dog in turn. Left, right. Left, right. A deadly dance.

“Wow!” Erik said. “A cobra! Look at that!” We backed away two yards more. In Africa, or elsewhere, don’t mess with snakes. You can get away safely with them if you keep your distance. Plus there was no doubt: many snakes are not venomous, but this one was. We were looking at the cobra dancing on the hedge, when it suddenly lunged forward. Just a fraction of second. Then went back to its dance on the hedge.

Bim, the boxer, broke away. Ran a few yards and stopped.

“What’s wrong with Bim?” I asked. Then I understood. The boxer was rubbing his eyes with his paws.

“Erik! It’s a spitting cobra. Grab Babar. Now! I’ll bring Bim to the water hose.”

Grabbing both dogs while keeping an eye on the spitting cobra was not an easy affair. Erik hooked Babar still barking like mad, by the collar to a chain. We both dragged Bim towards the water hose. I held Bim tight while Erik turned the water on and splashed water into the dog’s eyes. Have you ever tried to hold a full-grown boxer while splashing water into his eyes? Good exercise. I recommend it. After a few minutes of getting thoroughly soaked ourselves, we figured Bim’s eyes had been washed. Maybe he wouldn’t go blind. A spitting cobra’s venom can do that. We then dragged the dog and hooked him to another chain near Babar. Dogs being taken care of, we turned back to the snake.

Bl..dy snake was still there. Dancing on the hedge. Taunting us? Or scared “shirtless” of humans? (No. Cobras don’t wear shirts. At least that one didn’t. But snakes fear humans more than we do snakes.) Most cobras inject their venom as they bite. Spitting cobras have the venom holes at the front of their fangs, and basically spit the venom into the eyes of their ‘attackers’. i.e Erik’s dogs. Or us. Keep a distance, I tell you.

“We need a large stick, or something.” Erik said. “This snake is too dangerous.”

“No stick I can see.” I said. “Your gardener is too neat. When’s he supposed to come next?”

“Tomorrow. Can’t wait that long. I got an idea!”

“Hmm”, I said. Always a master at répartie. “Pray tell: what idea? Wanna grab the snake by the neck? Be my guest.”

“No.” Erik said. “My rifle.”

“Your pellet rifle? You must be joking.” Nerves can do that to you. I was getting ‘posher’ by the minute. A rifle? Please! We both had the same ‘rifle’. A French brand. Diana I think. With telescopic sight. You ‘break’ the barrel, insert the pellet, aim, shoot and ‘voilà’. We would train our skills in his garden or mine, shooting at empty beer cans (his father’s or mine’s. We weren’t of age). But a dancing cobra? With a pellet rifle?

“Okay. Get your rifle,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye on the snake and the dogs.” Whilst he ran to his room, I looked both at the snake and around for a broomstick, or a rake. No dice. The gardener was neat indeed.

Erik came back down. Put a pellet in his ‘snake rifle’. Just a tad smaller than an elephant gun. Like half the size. He aimed. Pulled the trigger ever so slowly. Shot. Missed.

The snake kept on dancing over the hedge.

I’ll spare you the bilingual curses in English and Frog between every rifle loading. About half a dozen attempts. Then Erik, disgusted, handed me the bl..dy weapon. I failed once. Twice. Thrice. Just as miserably. At a distance of five or 6 yards, a snake is quite small. The telescopic sight actually made it worse. And there was a fleeting lateral wind. Ask any fisherperson about the huge fish that ‘just escaped.’ Same goes with riflepersons. Or golfers. The wind’s never right.

And then? The cobra got tired of the game, slid into the hedge and disappeared. We washed Bim’s eyes again a couple of times. Then locked the dogs inside the house and went back to the Beatles’ double white album. Dance (See Brit pronunciation of ‘dahnce’ on Youtube) was on Friday. We had to be prepared. Lest the Mother Superior kicked us out as Frog intruders. I’d heard her once. She had a Cockney accent. Didn’t understand a word she said. But her tone was very clear. Do. Not. Mess. With. The. Mother. Superior.

‘Desmond takes a trolley to the jeweler’s store
Buys a twenty carat golden ring (rin-ring)
Takes it back to Molly waiting at the door
And as he gives it to her she begins to sing (sing)’

*

Two days later – Bim the boxer ended up fine, the hose washing had been the right thing to do – Erik was having breakfast with his parents on the terrace, ‘Tayari’ the Cook brought the eggs to the breakfast table. I forgot the Cook’s name. Have it at the tip of my tongue. We used to call him ‘Tayari’ which means (Dinner or Lunch or Breakfast) ‘is ready’ in Swahili. The cobra slid on the terrace stairs. Two yards away from the breakfast table.

‘Tayari’ grabbed a teeny weeny little stick the gardener had left on the terrace. (Not so neat after all, the gardener.) Cook hit the cobra on the head. One single swift hit. Dead was the cobra. Erik had told his parents about the snake, though not a word about our repeated, pitiful attempts at shooting the thing. Cook dealt one stick blow to the head and gone was the snake? Come on! We never mentioned our sorry shooting skills to this day.

‘Ob-la-di, ob-la-da
Life goes on, bra
La-la, how the life goes on
Hey!’

The end

* An African childhood #6. Part of the Mzungu chronicles:

Mzungu, plural: wazungu. Mzungu is a Bantu (Swahili) word used throughout East Africa from Uganda to Kenya to Tanzania to Zambia and in the great lakes region, from Rwanda, Burundi, to Congo Kinshasa. It means “white man”, or woman. The origin of the name dates back to the 18th-19th century, when European explorers came to East Africa searching for the source of the Nile, the gold mines of Solomon, or the Mountains of the moon, what have you. It literally means traveller or wanderer. Africans then, could not understand why Europeans could not stay in place, why they had to move all the time.  They thought Europeans were a tad crazy. Mimi na mzungu. I am a Mzungu. Kwaheri sassa. See you soon.

Dr James Ashe fooling around with a – non-spitting – cobra. c.1967. Don’t try to do that. Ever.

Dr Ashe (a ‘crazy’ mzungu) showing off a bit at the Nairobi Snake Institute c. 1967. Dr James Ashe (1925-2004) was one of Africa’s most renowned herpetologists. Collected snake venom to produce serum. He dedicated his life to saving lives from snake bites. The James Ashe anti-venom trust was established in 2004 after Ashe’s death to provide free-of-charge anti-venom serum to victims of snake bite. There are between 7,000 and 32,000 deaths a year from snake bite in Africa alone. Close to 50,000 in India. Asante sana, thank you, Dr Ashe.

“Da” real thing. The Beatles’ White album. Still play it from time to time.

John Lennon et al. photograph from the “White Album”. (c) Somebody. Cheers.

76 thoughts on “Spit, spat, said the snake*

  1. What a glorious read!!! Totally enjoyed this!! Also good to hear about the Ashe trust – seems an excellent initiative! Great that you still have that White Album first pressing too! 😉
    Stay well!

    • Thank you. It was fun to write. Obviously the story combines various elements that may or may not have happened at the same time. And my “portrait” of the Mother Superior is not quite accurate. The nuns were actually very smiling persons.
      And yes, I still have the White, Sgt Pepper’s, Let it bleed, Cream live… And a few others. LP’s cost a fortune then. Shilingi mingi. Many, many bobs. So we kept good care of them.
      Cheers.

  2. What a delightful post, Brieuc! Obladi obladah!
    Glad the dog was okay – as well as you two. Who would have thought a hit on the head would suffice?

  3. Jamais rencontré de cobra. Des crotales, oui, pas gentils non plus mais un chouia moins létaux quand même. Et un tas d’autres serpents que je n’ai jamais ni approchés ni même tentés d’identifier. Il s’en trouvait souvent un sur mon chemin, près de Kourou. Je l’ai vu assez souvent pour lui donner le nom d’Ernest. Ernest n’était guère aimable. Un jour tout de même j’ai réussi à l’approcher suffisamment pour en prendre une bonne photo … qui doit être maintenant au lieu de millions d’autres photos, introuvable. L’amérindien qui prenait soin de nous, frogs métropolitains, m’a dit que j’avais bien fait de garder mes distances. Le serpent était mortel. L’était-il vraiment ? Cet amérindien avait tendance à noircir toutes les situations. Pour me dissuader d’aller seul en forêt ou parce que c’était son job de ramener les frogs à Paris, à peu près intacts ?
    Merci, Brieuc, et une belle et souriante journée à toi.
    PS. Et à la fin, ce microscopique virus a l’air bien plus dangereux qu’un cobra ou un crotale.

    • Crotales? Pas bons non plus. Ernest? Sympa. Le guide avait ou n’avait pas raison on ne saura jamais. Il y a bcp de très mauvais serpents dans la forêt Amazonienne. Le sucurucu Brésilien par exmple. Ou le serpent corail. Le “faux” corail est innofensif. Ernest était-il mince ou trapu? Tête mince ou triangulaire?
      Et oui, ce petit virus “qui de rien du tout” (comme le ramoneur de rien du tout) est grave…
      Bonne nuit.

    • C’était un personnage fantastique. Ma soeur et moi l’appelions le Dr Müller, car il ressemblait comme deux gouttes d’eau au méchant de l?ile noire et de Tintin au pays de l’or noir… 😉

  4. Ob-la-di…
    Comprendre une chanson en anglais dépend aussi de quel anglais il s’agit ! Si le/les chanteurs sont anglais, irlandais, écossais, américains de l’est ou de l’ouest, australiens etc, ça change la donne, et l’accent, et la prononciation, et ça peut devenir un vrai casse-tête !

  5. La capture du cobra à main nue est un jeu dangereux. Il faut vraiment être en manque d’adrénaline pour s’y essayer. Moi, je passe mon tour. Et en courant !

    • Moi aussi. J’ai appris ça en Afrique. Dans le cas du Docteur Ashe, c´était son métier. (Et celui de son staff) il faut attraper le serpent à la main pour lui faire dégorger son venin dans un récipient. Lequel venin sert ensuite à faire du sérum. Bonne soirée.

  6. Wonderful story Brian. I once read that Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da was one of Ringo’s peculiar sayings where the language guys, Paul and John, used to laugh about and also kind of loved. Hard days night, seems also to have been one of them.

  7. First of all, have no fear–I will never, ever fool around with a cobra of any ilk. Second, this is one of the best pieces of creative nonfiction I’ve ever read. A spitting cobra, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and a formible Mother Superior all in the same story? It doesn’t get much better than that!

    • Well, thank you kindly. Obviously, the core story is true. We did fear for Bim’s eyes very much. And the bl..dy snake was very real… Now, I’m not sure it was Obladiblada. It may have been another song. We were very keen on mastering every nuance of English… And I must confess: the nuns were actually very nice. All pink and smiling. But they did keep a keen eye on their flock. 😉 So yes: creative nonfiction!
      (Do stay away from snakes. My best advice. Even now, whenever I walk in tall grass, I tend to stomp my feet, a warning to any snake around, so they can go away)

    • Thank you Gigi. Sorry about the snake. But too much risk. Cook did what he had to do. When I think back to that day, I am still amazed at how quickly one takes decisions in a crisis. Cobra? At a distance? Dog breaks away and starts rubbing his eyes? Spitting cobra. Water hose. Now! And wash away…

  8. What an interesting story! Your run in with the cobra and the subsequent battle reminded me of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling. Enjoyed every bit of your thrilling story and it was told so well. Also the descriptions of the nuns fit my memories of the sisters in my school. They ruled over us with an iron hand too and let not forget, eagle eyes.

    • My father had told us the epic tale of rikki-Tikki and Darzee the tailor bird when we were little in West Africa.
      And the nuns? A perfect description: iron hand and eagle eye. “Your skirt is too short. One can see your knees. Lower it now!”. 😉

  9. Really enjoyed this story!
    You reminded me of my first 6 years of schooling with the nuns…they were brutal. Although it was a co-ed Primary School, we weren’t allowed to play games at lunch time with the boys. An Apartheid at school.

    • I can imagine. a friend of mine went to nun school until the end of high school. No boys, no, no. Not even Friday night dances. When she went to University, she went into shock. 😉

      • Nope, the time that our class played ‘Stuck in the Mud’ with the boys, one of the nuns dobbed on our class. The Principal (a stern nun) came in with a thin cane and made our whole class stand up. We all got the “cuts” – a whip across the palm of each hand. The classmate that the Principal didn’t like at all got 9 on each hand. I will never forget that day or the brutality of the nuns.

      • “Stuck in the mud”. OMG. You’re the first person ever to know the game. I played it with my sister and a couple of Brit kids we met on the beach on Cyprus, centuries ago. Since then I have found no-one who’d played the game. Now if I recall it involved spreading your legs while standing in the mud. Holy mother of God… We can’t have that here. (Brutes indeed) (Worse than the Mother Superior at Loreto Convent, Nairobi…)

      • Ha, ha, made me laugh! Yes, that’s exactly what the game entailed. I’m showing my age now. These days, it would be called child abuse but in those days, the nuns got away with caning and more.

      • You are much younger than I am m’dear. The “English” system involved a lot of caning. Not sure until when. In France it was a ruler on the fingers. Not sure when it ended either. Thank God, it’s over.

    • Thank you Luisa. It was quite an adventure… We failed miserably with the snake but at least we saved the dog’s eyes. I still don’t know how we thought of the waterhose…

  10. If understanding music means you understand language then I still don’t understand English. Half the time I don’t hear the lyrics right and when I read them I laugh because I thought they were saying something else. Or I hear al lyric for the first time to a song I have known for years because I just never listened to it. Or sometimes I just don’t understand what the writer is saying in the first place because its too poetic or abstract. Bah! I say. Bah.

    In other news, we saw lots of water snakes this last weekend at the cabin trying to fill up on pollywogs/tadpoles. It’s that time of year. They are harmless yet I keep my distance anyway. Snakes are not my favorite.

  11. Well, that was a fine tale, Brian. Now I know how to kill a 🐍, so a very useful read. The Beatles’ songs will never die. That White Album is epic, although the Rubber Soul one holds the best memories for hubby and I.

  12. Lovely story about the “Friday night dances the nuns organized at Loreto Convent, so the fair blue-eyed English maidens could meet the proper boys.” I can’t even look at pictures of snakes, so afraid am I of them.

    • The best dances were at Loreto convent. (Which you surely remember) I don’t know why. There were about 2 or 3 other schools that organized dances in Nairobi. Not sure which.
      Sorry about the snake pictures. I know many people shrink in horror of them.
      I’m used to snakes. there seemed to be snakes in every house we lived in Africa. Our first house in West Africa, the Cook killed a 9 ft python in the garden one day. Garden in which we kids 5-6 then played all day… So I know snakes and stay away… 🙏🏻

      • Yes, I know. I don’t know why I liked the ones organized by Loreto Convent. And yes, big houses in Africa always have snakes. It’s so terrifying to see one in the garden or fence.

      • LOL. SO the Loreto dances were an international policy? 😉
        Most snakes avoid confrontation. It’s all a matter of distance. You’re safe from the average snake at a 3 ms distance. Then back away slowly, ever so slowly…

  13. Fabolous! Funny, growing up in Germany a lot of English speaking songs gained more meaning with time. With some it took decades 😉
    House of the rasing sun, anyone?

    • There is a house in new Orleans,
      They call the Rising sun
      And it’s been the ruin of many of many a young boy… 😉
      (Even Johnny Halliday – RIP – had a go at it in French.)

  14. I echo the comment above about Rikki Tikki Tavi, one of my favorite children’s stories. Glad Bim kept his sight. Thanks for sharing some of your very unique history.

    • Cobras are deadly beasts. Rikki was a brave little mongoose. (I wanted to have a mongoose when I was little)😉
      Glad you liked the story Carol. Another story to fill the Mzungu Chronicles. Au revoir

  15. enjoyed this action you delivered to us from the chronicles!
    thank you dr. ash indeed and funny to imagine the gunshots missing the snake and then one hit with the stick and done!

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