Today we were in a village called Rubira. The people here were very friendly and inquisitive. Children followed us around from house to house as we did our work, calling out “muzungu, muzungu!” ( a white person!), delighted by the whiteness of my skin. For some, this is the first time they’ve seen a white person. The beauty of being a part of a study like this for a foreigner is the ability to engage with communities in an intimate way on a daily basis. Traveling from home to home in each village gives you a feel for the people there; their habits, their superstitions, the idiosyncracies that make each culture unto its own. As we roamed from home to home, we noticed that each house had many visitors. They all sat beside one another in the shade provided by the home. I imagine how they spend the long days, talking and gossiping as neighbors do, migrating with the shade provided by the home as the sun moves across the sky. When we approach, there is a sense of excitement and curiosity. We begin as always by greeting each person. At one particular house, nestled deeply among the banana trees, the man who owns the home is well into his eighties. We are told he cannot walk so we approach him at his low lying, hand carved wooden stool and begin to lay the 6 meter rope with which we will check his vision. His elderly wife watches with curiosity, waiting for her turn. The neighbors stand along the “sidelines” to get a better view of the spectacle.
Just as we are about to begin, there is a screeching from behind the house. I am instantly reminded of an excerpt in a book I read about Rwanda, describing a “call of alarm” that, when uttered by a fellow villager, required all who heard it to immediately respond. If you did not, how could you expect your neighbors to respond in kind if ever you needed them? I’m lurched from this recollection as those called to action rush by me into the field of the banana trees. The ”disabled” old man leaps to his feet and follows the fray. Ignoring this “miraculous development” I jump to follow them, only to be hailed back by my teammate, Regis. “ ALESSANDRA STOP” he demands. Disappointed I can’t follow the excitement, he quickly translates what the woman has been yelling about. “Quick hurry and come! There is a snake in the bushes. I have stopped it, but come and kill it, now.” Intrigued, I ask, “But how did she stop it?” Apparently, it is widely known in the villages that a snake can be stopped in its tracks when a woman who has borne children crosses her ankles and touches her breast. Regis recounts this superstition to me with a twinkle in his eye. We watch from a safe distance as the men beat the bright green snake to death with sticks. It is pulled by its tail onto the dirt path, where the bludgeoning continues until all can be sure it’s quite dead. I take a picture like the “muzungu” that I am. With the task at hand completed, the neighbors return to the sidelines, and we to our work.
Later, I recounted this story to my colleague, Egide. He asks what kind of snake, and I reply,” a green one”. He furrows his brow in confusion and states, “but the green snakes don’t harm anyone.” The romanticized sense of danger I harbored ebbs. I proudly produce the souvenir picture I had snapped in the moment, and his expression changes at once. “Ohhhh”, he says, “That is a very dangerous snake. It can leap 12 feet, and kill with one bite. I lost 2 cows and my dog, Tiger, to that kind of snake. But why would you ever run toward it??” My sense of danger is renewed, albeit slightly less romanticized. I’m suddenly glad for the stern warning delivered to me by Regis. Despite my logic and scientific mind, I must admit I’m also a little glad that a woman who had borne children came upon the snake before I.