Thursday, December 6, 2012

Skink in my Sheets

*As posted 29, May 2012*

For some seven months now I've been wrapped up in this struggle. I usually consider myself the victim in this situation. Still, I'm not proud of everything that has transpired. A fair warning: like many weird stories this one takes place in the bedroom.

It usually starts somehow as follows: I come home after a long day at the fish farm, and go about my routine. I slurp down the last of my ramen noodles just before the sun sets and light a candle. I make my way to the bedroom and tune in to the World Service. And in that presumed privacy I strip down to my skivvies, you know... to keep cool while I'm stretching. My attention is usually on the shortwave radio, so I rarely notice when I'm being watched. She'll be lying there, like the skink she is, pressed between my sheets completely silent. Completely unwelcome. I don't know why she keeps showing up, what she expects. She can't possibly think I appreciate her sly intrusion. How she manages to slink in there, undetected, time after time.

I'll admit it was cute at first, even a little flattering. I used to feel bad when I chased her out of the mosquito net, back when it all seemed so innocent. Back before her perseverance bordered on insanity. She always scurries away dramatically, as if I were out to do her some harm. It used to be fun, like some sort of dance, something you could laugh about, but lately it just seems sad, even pathetic.

I've hit new lows. The other day I just picked her up and dropped her on the floor, without uttering a word... I don't even know myself anymore. Of course all of this makes a man ask some pretty tough questions about himself. How could I be this callous? What is it about me that draws such reptiles into my bed?

She was there again last night, curled up with her head under the pillow. When I discovered her she played dumb, again, as if she was there by some mistake... again. I shouted. I'm not proud to say, but I really let her have it. The worst part about it was that she just sat there, looking at me with that unblinking stare, with her head cocked to the side... she licked her face. Completely disarming. That's when I noticed she had had another accident. I stopped yelling and tried to calm myself. This happens from time to time. She spends so much time in there, that once in a while she'll leave behind an almond sized turd. I felt bad. It had to be really embarrassing for her. I heaved a big sigh, flicked it away (“at least you didn't try to hide it under the pillow again”) and, for the first time, I relented to the absurdity and made to lay down -but then , just as I was giving in, she bolted up in a panic, clawed her way through a space under the netting and disappeared under the bed. She'll be back tomorrow, she can't help herself. Crazy-ass skink.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Small Things

Today was... inspiringly awful. It started when I was out tending my dry season garden, which as of now consists of a couple of upright rice bags with some tomato seedlings poking out the sides. I've been trying to coax some cilantro and garlic chives to push up, but no luck yet. I was in the process of redistributing the overcrowded seedlings to the base of the bags to use up any residual water. I stuck my hand down between the earth and one of the bags when I was met with the worst sort of pain. Like a jolt of white-hot electricity, the sting shot up my arm. I let out a predictable “Ouch!” and searched around for the culprit. For a moment I imagined a scorpion and the inconvenience that would bring. How ii would have to saddle up my trusty bike and hope that the eleven mile ride to the hospital wouldn't kill me. And once I got there I would have to explain, through lips that would no doubt be swollen and green by then, that a scorpion had stung me and that it wasn't one of those eight-inch ones that only sting and hurt real bad -but one of those little brown bastards who schedules you a date with St. Peter. And there would be the eye-rolling and guffaws at this silly obroni who characteristically makes a big deal out of the slightest, little, fatal arthropod attack. After at least ten to fifteen minutes someone might find the time, amidst all the frantic morning sweeping, to attend to the perspiring white guy dying under the mango tree. And once they admitted that I had a serious sting there would be the requisite eye-rolling and guffaws over the well known clumsiness of obronis, who frequently put themselves in such situations. Then there would be the phone call to Peace Corps -only then my complaint would be different. “It's only a scorpion,” I would say to them in my most macho voice “honestly I don't even care about that finger -I really don't want to trouble you... any mail?” And what if it was real bad and I had to get sent home. That would be embarrassing, showing up with nothing but a bug bite, just months shy of saving Africa from famine, desertification and the AIDS virus... if only I had a little more time. I would have to rewrite the set of pick up lines I've been preparing. “Yeah I was in the P. Corps,” I would say, stretching my shoulders and abbreviating unnecessarily “I gave all that up though, on account of a bad brush with the African wildlife.”

All of this made me very anxious, so I pushed up my glasses and made an earnest search. It didn't take long to find the nest of ants. This particular variety I have become all to familiar with. They have wide set mandibles that they carry perpendicular to their axis, vaguely reminiscent of hammerhead sharks, ever the ready to snap. Thus delivering the tiniest dose of venom that must be akin to the bite of the infamous bullet ants of Latin America. I remembered an incident in my first month at Kechiebi when I found myself at one of many impromptu fufu inhaling sessions. My host's children were looking awkward while hurling stones into the tree overhead (fufu goes best with adrenaline). Pitying them I thought I would help by climbing the tree and collecting the fruit they were after. Stupid. They let me hoist myself up there -maybe because they didn't have the English words for “look what you're about to do! Dipshit.” But I climbed to a height of some fifteen feet before I realized I was covered by a platoon of the very same ants. They say, for evolutionary reasons, it is difficult to remember painful events. No it is not. I have to give those bugs credit though, they made an art of seeking out the most inaccessible bits of flesh. Some even stowed away for a while, waiting until my guard was down.

Back to this morning, by thirty minutes time my finger had swollen to a respectable size and I knew my day was ruined. I will forever remember this as the day that I was bit by that insidious ant! Not the day when seven months of work at the fish farm literally swam out a hole in the cage. But the day I walked around with a slightly annoying, itchy sensation in my hand. Not the day when, caked in algae and fish waste from head to toe, I saw a year of planning and toiling brought to naught. But the day I had to momentarily relive a painful experience. Not the day when my fellow fish farmers and I painstakingly rescued the the reminants of our tilapia population and somewhat triumphantly restored hope in the form of a smaller breeding cage. But the day I heroically sojourned on after an unpleasant encounter with a six-legged beast.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Kente Fest!

Matilda's release

The Lake Volta

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Public Pick

Privacy is different here. Many people aren't comfortable eating in public. However, it's perfectly acceptable to urinate while facing on-coming traffic and chatting with the local authorities at a police checkpoint. And bath time is the perfect opportunity to soap up and wave hello to the neighbors. Many Peace Corps volunteers, myself included, get a strange satisfaction from trying unusual, embarrassing and sometimes disgusting things in the name of cultural integration. While I haven't yet urinated in front of a police officer or taken a bath in full view of a church congregation I have tested my own comfort limits from time to time. And sometimes these acts of machismo (or stupidity) do turn out to be gratifying experiences. This is one tame instance that I felt ok posting where my grandmother could read it.

Not too many day's ago I was trying to find some shade while I waited for the taxi home from Nkwanta to fill up. The Harmattan, a month long bout of dusty skies brought over from the Sahara, was still in full force and I felt a felt an unwelcome sensation in my left nostril. Once I became aware of it I wasn't able to take the dried clump of mucus and dust lodged in my skull off my mind. I suffered for a good five minutes before a vivacious young vendor walked by. She had a big glass box on her head, filled with something meaty and she kept calling out “YeeeEEEEeeeess gizzzaaard!” She noticed me staring and walked in my direction, probably assuming I wanted a gizzard kabob. Then, while looking me in the eye, she unabashedly shoved her index finger up one of her nostrils, hooked it and pulled out the offending crust. I was inspired.

In America it is taboo to pick your nose at all, especially in public. This is a regrettable and unreasonable expectation put on us by our society. There are some boogers that simply can't be rubbed or blown away. While I would never advocate habitual picking (I learned my lesson during the memorable Dodgeball Incident of '96) I do think it's time we acknowledged and embraced the occasional need to pick.

I then remembered that I had seen this many times before while in Ghana. I had always admired Ghanaians for their ability to do it in public but I hadn't yet had a chance to test my own bravado. Well here it was. I'll admit I hesitated. I had to look around and make sure there weren't any other Obronis walking by. But I was eventually able to take the plunge. I'm proud to say I removed it with all the expertise of a six-year old, right there in front of hundreds of people in the Market day crowd. This was liberating in more more ways than one. The vendor stopped in front of me, her eyes still fixed on mine. She smiled. We had a moment.

Friday, December 17, 2010


It’s snake season in Kecheibi. I started noticing them about a month ago. Small green snakes squirming under logs and big dark shapes vanishing in the grass. Maybe it’s the colder nights, I see them basking in the late afternoon on foot paths and rocks. A few weeks ago a volunteer in a neighboring village woke up to the thud of rocks on her door and the violent barking of her dog. That’s her story to tell but the long-short of it is there was a Cobra hanging out on her stoop. This sort of thing has happened before; earlier this year a volunteer in my district managed to kill a cobra and a green mamba in his bedroom. Its obvious to me these serpents are crying out for attention. In a country that is positively slithering, young cobras have little elbow room when it comes to being noticed. It’s pathetic really. Last week I had my own visitor, a young black cobra, maybe only five or six feet long, waiting on my stoop. He was no doubt hoping I would let him in. Every time I cracked the door open for a better look at him he would stare back at me with an expectant look. This sort of behavior is normal for adolescents, no doubt he was abandoned by his parents at a very young age – I would be surprised if he ever even knew his own father. But even with troubled youth –especially with troubled youth- you have to be firm. I grabbed my machete (known locally as a cutlass –which I prefer because I sound like a pirate when I say cutlass) and a frisbee which I quickly drew eye-spots on (I wasn’t sure yet whether or not it was a spitting cobra, they aim for your eyes) and charged out the front door, hoping to surprise and corner him. But he was a little quicker than I gave him credit for; he darted over to the compost heap and out of sight. I went back inside and collected myself. But before long the stranger was back at his post, practically begging for my attention. Well, like I said you have to firm, firm and unrelenting, that’s the only way to get through to them. I made a second charge, brandishing the underside of my frisbee with a menacing look on my face, and followed him into the long grass. I haven’t seen him since. I’m not proud. In fact I feel a little empty inside. Maybe I’ll be easier on the next one, you know let him in for a while, make some coffee or something.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Road to Nkwanta


Saturday, October 30, 2010

I Don't Need Anything.......... here's a list

I've been at site for a little over two months now and I'm starting to really get comfortable. My home is coming along, as of today I will have propane for my stove (being able to cook for myself regularly is a big deal). And yes Mom, I'm making plenty of friends here -I'm also figuring out who to avoid. Just in the past week I've met some people that I think will make my work much more productive and enjoyable. Specifically, I met a beekeeper in a nearby village called Ambrose. He's got a 50-box operation and has been successful in getting others into apiculture. His work is in the fledgling stages, and I think I can play a role in vamping up production and securing markets. More on him later... the point is I have plenty of meaningful work for the next two years, and more importantly I've met some capable, forward thinking people. And I've already mentioned my garden project etc. In a lot of ways I will be spending the next two years as a gardener.

I've been pretty persistent so far about not letting my friends waste their money back home to send me things. But now I have a few requests. Mostly I need seeds for my garden. There are plenty of seeds for tropical varieties. but I want to tryout/introduce some new varieties from back home. Don't bother running to the hardare store and sending a box full of seeds. I would much rather people just sent a single packet enclosed with a letter here and there. And I'd be even happier if you chose stock from your own gaardens (ie if you've been growing some giant pumpkins for halloween). Also don't rush, I won't sow anything until february/March. And I will happily plant anything throughout my service. So this is just a standing request. Don't go overboard. Its always hot here and either really wet or really dry. Annual plants should do fine during the wet season, especially if they like a lot of water.

Seeds I'm interested in:
Bushbeans, Large disc/ornamental sunflowers (not the wild types that spread quickly), lettuce (especially "summertime" and "optima" which are heat tolerant), chives, Perrenial Kale, nasturtium, Bell bean, Pinto beans, Sesbania, cowpeas, kiwi, Scarlet runner beans, ALL Herbs (parsely, Oregono etc.), Bread root, goldenberry, Olive, Grapes, red bell peppers, ALL squash/Pumpkins (epecially the kind that will attract attention to my garden), ALL melons (the Coloradoan who can get me some Rocky-Fords will have a special place in my heart). And whatever else you think might grow here.

Also: I get a lot of visitors to my house. Alot of them are young children who love to flip through my field guides. They get really exited when they see pictures of monkeys and antelopes. I've had some success in getting them to read about the animals and in general this has been a great way to start conversations about wildlife. So my second request is for magazine clippings. Specifically about African (or North American) wildlife. Anything you think might spark their interest. The more daring amungst you might send a larger envelope containing a "Ranger Rick"or other wildlife magazine. I could also use a copy of "Reptiles" magazine or a similar publication. My friends here are fascinated by the fact that Obronis keep snakes as pets. Also Gardening magazines would be amazing.

[For those of you insistent on sending larger packages (this should be a short list of people, namely my parents): I wouldn't skoff at a few field guides. Plants, insects, mammals etc. I already have a copy of West African Birds and the National Geographic African Wildlife. But I'm a nerd who likes to ID things -they don't have to have pictures, Dichotomous keys are great too. Use your highspeed internet powers and look around, please.]

Don't stress. I have no particular expectations. I won't be upset if I don't get something from you. But I will be upset if I don't get some letters. So send those at least.

Thanks to all.


Friday, October 29, 2010

It's hard to get pictures that aren't all green.
From my porch.

Tiny Praying mantis. She must be an ant mimic.