Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Snakes and Chiefs

Some 20 kilometres from Butiama on the road to the Serengeti National Park that passes through Fort Ikoma a traveler comes across the village of Nyamuswa, the seat of the late Chief Mohamed Makongoro Matutu of the Ikizu ethnic group who died in 1958.

I have recently visited Chief Makongoro's homestead on several occasions and have been informed that there is a huge snake at an area with a granite rock outcrop near the homestead. One of the Chief's sons who took me around the area in an attempt to locate the snake said the snake has been around for a long time. He recalls seeing the snake from his childhood days. I estimate the son is close to 60 years old today.

Although our attempts to locate the snake were unsuccessful I am told the snake was allowed to stay in the area by the specific instructions of Chief Makongoro and for that reason those who live there today, mostly members of his family, do not harm the snake. Occasionally, the snake emerges from the tall grass and granite rocks to soak in the warmth of the sun in the mornings. Sometimes, the snake wanders farther and into the residential area where members of the Chief's family live. The snake is so old that witnesses report grass has grown on its head.

At Butiama, in the area where the late Chief Nyerere Burito of the Zanaki ethnic group used to live, residents regularly report seeing another large snake that I have not have had the fortune of sighting. That snake sometimes moves into one of the residents of Mwalimu Nyerere, a house that remains uninhabited for lengthy periods. The snake leaves the house when people move in, but returns when they leave.

The beliefs and treatment of some animals and snakes of the Ikizu and the Zanaki could be similar. The Zanaki do not harm animals, particuarly those living near the homesteads of chiefs. It is believed that those animals are ancestral spirits.
A small Black Mamba on my desk.
In one of the rooms of the house where the huge snake has been sighted I have encountered smaller snakes on the office desk that I use regularly. I also frequently see them casually crossing the floor as I work on my laptop. When I am at the desk, as a precaution, I always raise my feet and rest them on the sides of the tables about six centimetres above the floor.

I suspect the larger snakes lay their eggs inside the house and after these snakes are born they move out of the house. On different occasions I have caught and released three of these small snakes. Since some time has passed without seeing any more snakes, I believe that my presence in this house is causing their departure.

For a while I suspected that the small snakes I had sighted and removed from the room, including the one in the photograph above, were of an extremely poisonous species. I believe my suspicions could be true. A book by Bill Branch called A photographic guide to snakes and other reptiles and amphibians of East Africa indicates that my co-tenants are from the dreaded Black Mamba species. Its name is derived from the fact that the inside of its mouth is pitch black. It lays between 12 - 18 eggs and grows up to 3.2 metres long.


Mbele said...

Thanks for this wonderful account of snake folklore in your part of Tanzania. It reminds me of research I did in Sukumaland in the nineties, through which I learned much about the tradition of snake dancing.

The snake has been a central figure in folklore, from the earliest days of human history and around the world. It features in folk tales, myths and legends, and, as you indicate, the snake is the subject of beliefs and taboos. Even in the Bible, there are snake tales, all the way from the Garden of Eden.

I enjoyed your article. It throws light on the folklore of your area and highlights the universality of folklore. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Once my mother told me that WaKerewe do not harm pythons either. Just avoid it and then name your new son Masatu.