Journeys involving pythons

a dead python laying on sandy soil in Diawling National Park Mauritania

This is JAP, Just A Paragraph: A short post to keep my blog ticking over, (thanks Mika!). Readers of this blog will understand when I say that “shorter” still means more than one paragraph. While I think JAPs work differently for different people, for me they are just a sneaky way of getting past the barriers I think up that prevent me from writing a blog post. Describing this as a JAP isn’t necessary to understand the post, I just share the idea with you in case you may also benefit from it. So:

Months ago I sent Mom a hard copy of “An African In Greenland” by Tété-Michel Kpomassie, after reading this glowing review. I’m finally reading it, now that her and I are under the same roof.

Kpomassie is taking me on a fast and slow odyssey from Togo to Greenland. Maybe it’s not surprising that his remarkable trip was motivated by strong and complex pressures, of both the “carrot” and the “stick” variety. He yearns to reach the ice and people of Greenland. He also really doesn’t want to see any more of a python-worshipping cult that’s forcing him to join them where they live, in a guarded forest in his native Togo.

Without intending to, the leader of the cult drives him away, not just from the forest but from Togo and West Africa! And yet before this happens, she has one effect that she wants: making him feel compassion for pythons.

I loved the passage describing her impassioned monologue. I suddenly thought of a dead python I saw in Mauritania, months after I’d passed through Togo, on my own journey through West Africa, a bit like Kpomassie’s journey but mostly entirely unlike it. The python I saw in Diawling National Park is pictured at the top of this post. Here’s part of the priestess’ speech:

“…Yet just think, no one ever apologizes to a snake—let alone expresses any kind of regret for all the sufferings inflicted on them. Do people even realize what harm they do to snakes when every year they keep destroying a part of the bush that is their natural habitat, and chase them away from round their houses? The poor things are so surrounded by enemies, they spend their whole lives trying to escape. For besides man they also have to protect themselves from attacks by enemies no less to be feared, the ants.”

“Ants?”

“Yes, ants! And even a new-grown shoot of grass can hurt them! Grandfather (python) suffocates his prey in his powerful coils, breaking the ribs. He swallows it slowly, swallows it whole, after coating it with saliva. Then he has to keep absolutely still for a time, because it’s hard for him to move while digesting his prey. This enforced stillness may last several hours, sometimes whole days, according to the size of the animal swallowed. Even the body of only a medium-sized animal, swallowed bones and all, prevents him from moving freely at once. Sometimes a trickle of blood comes from the mouth or the nose of the victim as the python is squeezing it to break the ribs; then, while he’s lying inert to digest it, columns of ants, attracted by the blood, will fasten on to the python. They enter his mouth, his nose, swarming all over the softer parts of his flesh, stinging him all over. He dies after the most terrible agonies. But the python, who is very clever, doesn’t always let himself be taken so easily. He can go without food for a very long time, and so reduces these risks. Often he even leaves his victim half dead, then crawls in a wide circle round the wood to make sure that certain kinds of anthills aren’t there. Nor will he swallow large prey in a freshly harvested stubble field. The young shoots, which are very sharp, may start to grow again and pierce his body, if he has to lie there helpless for too long!”

I don’t know if all this was true or if the priestess was trying to make me feel sorry for pythons. Be that as it may, my eyes were now shining, not with fear but with compassion.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie, An African In Greenland

I wonder what Kpomassie would have done had he seen this dead python in Mauritania when he passed through more than half a century before I did. Compassionate as he may have felt towards the pythons as the priestess spoke, it seems to me that Greenland’s lack of snakes was part of the arctic island’s appeal for him. Would he have buried the python like the priestess directed him towhether to avoid being cursed, or out of respect? Would he have been reminded of his home, if Togo even felt like home after years away and complicated memories?

I’d assumed that someone had killed this python without a thought about its life and its death. I’d seen a green snake killed in Togo in a manner that seemed to me perfunctory, if not vindictive. But who knows. I’m making myriad assumptions. Where I saw the python, there are also desert crocodiles, and I’ve heard that these are respected in southern Mauritania. They’re connected to water, something cherished in such a parched place.

I was just so hot that day, short on water and snacks, fixated on my needs and safety, feeling overwhelmed at how slow we were able to cycle on the soft road. I was curious, but only a little, to see the python decomposing between the road and the lagoon. The python was a novelty and a small horror–what if its larger sister or brother had squeezed under our tent the night before, when we had camped nearby? Like that viral story in the bicycle traveller community about that guy cycling in Congo or wherever, whatever, having to figure out to deter the however-large-it-was python or boa that had lodged itself under his tent.

If Kpomassie was ever scared, hungry or frustrated on his journey, he doesn’t dwell on it in his writing. And he must have been: his journey through West and North Africa took the better part of a decade, and not because he lingered to follow his touristic whims. And then, of course, he found himself in a part of the world entirely unfamiliar to him. This must have been very difficult at times. He’s a curious, grateful and pragmatic guy, and his writing is nonchalant about his own accomplishments. It instead dwells on all the help he received from others along the way.

I’m not yet halfway through the book. He’s just gotten to Greenland. While I appreciate what I’ve learned about Togo (and France…and pythons!) so far, I more appreciate learning about the attitude he approached his journey—and his life—with.

Megan

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