I mentioned that I saw Peace Corps as a ‘writing scholarship’. And also that I knew I wasn’t much of a writer. I was hoping that Peace Corps would give me time to write a book – and a subject to write about.
My efforts produced my first decent manuscript called The Kimendo Road. It relates how the first paved road to a village very like Kpagouda brings unexpected change. While I never even submitted it to a publisher, Nancy claims to this day that it is the reason she married me. I guess it suggested I wasn’t only a systems geek. Having a condo, car and a steady job probably didn’t hurt either.
I borrowed a lot from my experiences there. For example, my snake stories. One day I showed up at a farmer’s house and noticed that he had a goat tried to a nearby tree. When I asked why it was there, he told me he was having a big party the following day and he invited me to come. (No one had a watch in Kpagouda back then. They told time by pointing at an angle of the sun).
The following day I rode back at the appointed time and found my farmer sitting on a stump looking glum. When I asked what was wrong, he hooked his thumb over to the tree where the goat had been. I spent a moment trying to figure out how he’d managed to tie a ten foot python to the tree – by a rope down its throat. “No party,” the farmer confirmed. “Snake ate the goat.”
There was also the time a local snake skin trader announced his visit by clapping at my front door. Upon entering, he laid out a roll of very long python skins – some reaching fifteen feet or more. When I asked him where they came from, he told me he’d caught the snakes himself.
I’d seen a local farmer run a much smaller python through the head with a six foot spear. The not yet dead snake wound its body up the spear shaft and constricted until the shaft broke into pieces. Then it wiggled itself back into the woods.
Given how hard it seemed to be to kill these things, I asked how he went about doing it himself. He said, “It’s not that hard. I just follow them until I find the hole they live in. Once I see that they are in there, I take a long knife and tie it to my naked thigh. Then I put my leg into the hole and wait for the snake to swallow it. When it gets up to my crotch, it can’t go any higher. So all I have to do is to drag the snake out of the hole, and just keep cutting it down the side the whole while.”
I wrote the stories above over the last few months. I initially wrote the fictionalized version thirty-five years ago. I had not seen the words below since I wrote them.
Before the road crew arrived that evening Chunga devised a plan. Moussa came in behind the noisy group and took his habitual place at the bar. Each time Chunga walked by she said something to him, casual, pleasant. He answered her questions simply, never asking any of his own. Then, by accident, she stumbled on a subject that seemed to jolt him out of his silence. His face, a patchwork of tiny scars all but invisible from a distance, created a beautiful pattern on his cheeks and highlighted the intensity of his already bright eyes.
Chunga asked him what tribe he came from and about the meaning of his scars. “My father died the day I was born,” he answered quietly. “He became the python that lived in the scared forest beside my village. My face is marked with the lines of the python in his honor.”
As she looked the pattern became clear. She could see the small intricately woven triangles of the enormous snakes. “It’s beautiful,” she said as the man beside Moussa broke into the conversation.
“In my village we kill pythons”, he said proudly. “We have a special way and its very dangerous work left only to the bravest men.”
“How do you do it”, Moussa asked with more interest than Chunga had ever seen him express before.
“You go in the morning, before the serpent has eaten. You go naked, only wearing a belt. You put a long knife in the belt and let the blade hang along your thigh. Then you put your foot into the python’s hole and you wait.” The man ordered another beer for effect. Moussa and Chunga urged the man to continue. “The snake comes out,” he said after filling his glass “and he begins to swallow your foot. He swallows slowly. It takes a long time, and while he is swallowing you must not move because if you move he will come out of the hole and kill you.’ He took a long pull on his drink. “Then, when the snake reaches your hips he can’t go any further. You slip the knife from your belt, he has already swallowed the blade, and you cut the snake open down the whole length of your leg. It is the only way to kill those big snakes.”
Moussa stood looking at the man for a moment. “We have a trick to play with the python too, but we’d never kill it. When the old snake dies in the scared forest, young men in my village have to go find another to take its place. And do you know how we catch it?”
The men in the bar had grown quiet listening to the story of killing the python and now they waited to hear how one could be caught. “When I was young, our old python died and I was sent with the other boys to bring home another,” he began. “The elders never told us how you catch a huge python, they only said ‘go out and get one and don’t come back until you have it.’ The bigger they are the more honor there is in bringing them back, but of course also the more danger.
One of my friends had an idea. “It took us three days but we found the hole of a python that was well known in the area for the size of the animals it killed. Then we went out and bought a sheep,” he said with a mischievous smile. “A big fat sheep. We took the sheep to the hole and tied it to a nearby tree with a strong cord and then we waited. The sheep cried during the night and in the morning, instead of the sheep we had a giant python attached to the tree by a stout cord which ran down its throat.”
Moussa burst into laughter as he remembered the story. The men in the bar clapped and cheered. They ordered beers for Moussa and the man beside him and they repeated the story all night in the bar, seeming never to tire of it.