Last Wednesday was so exciting I’m going to write about it again! Last week we went to a garden to be involved in some weeding and I spent my last little bit of work time for the day writing last week’s blog about it. Upon finishing I was sitting doodling when Kavaluku got my attention from outside.
“Steve, Kandu! Kandu!” , “Snake, snake!”. Kavaluku was very animated, snakes here not generally being good news. At this point, I made an assumption that could have ended badly.
“Handu legilog?” (an awake/living snake?) I asked. “Kandu igom!” (a live snake!) he replied. Here I should explain that Kavaluku speaks a different dialect from the one we are learning to speak. There are a number of differences and a significant one is that the Imengis dialect says [ʔɐndu] for snake while Matat says [kɐndu]. The ʔ in Imengis is the sound you make when you say uh-oh, where you catch at the back of your throat. It’s a glottal stop, an absence of sound in a way, and it’s particularly hard to hear at the start of words. Most people can’t tell when there is one and when there isn’t at the start of words (and in English we often unconsciously add one to words starting with vowels, making saying words that start with vowels feel soft and elongated to us if we really try not to use a glottal).
Now the problem wasn’t with the word “handu”/”kandu”; the problem was with “igom”. “Igom” means alive, or life, but in Imengis “higom” (I cut it) is basically the same. For some fun word salad in Imengis “unn” (bee) and hunn (head louse) are very hard to tell apart 😀 Saying the bee had head lice would be a recipe for confusion! “Unn hunn og” would probably need some explaining.
So when Kavaluku said “kandu igom” (a live snake) I heard “kandu higom” (I cut the snake). Kavaluku, being a Matat speaker, would have said “kandu kigəm” though if that’s what he wanted to say. I made an assumption. Kavaluku is an action man, always out hunting and hiking all over. I assumed he’d done us a favour and killed the snake already, and because that was what I was expecting to hear I wasn’t paying attention!
Cool a snake to look at! I gathered the kids up and went out leading Alice and Millie by the hand to go see the snake, thinking it was dead, but it was still very much alive and unmolested. The snake was curled up under a little decorative bush right in front of Philip and Natalie’s house and we stood about 1m away having a look at it. There was a ditch between us, which was a mitigating factor, but it was way too close!
Kavaluku was completely stunned by this. He was terrified! He saw the snake and thought to himself “I’m a sinner and if I mess with this snake I might die. I’ll get Steve or Rhett so they can deal with it”. (I’ll just report what he said and not comment on it here). He was calling out for us to back away, but I still thought it was dead!
I went over to Kavaluku and borrowed his machete thinking that I’d cut the snake’s head off, just in case it still had some life in it! I raised the machete, swung and struck true, catching it full force on its skull. At that point, I realised it was very much a live snake as it thrashed around! I find it amazing that I didn’t miss my mark as my aim is usually terrible!
How God protected us! After cutting its head off and throwing it into the bushes we had a good look at it. I went home to look up what kind of snake it might be. From the markings and its short, fat shape it looks a lot like a death adder, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. We don’t have antivenom here in PNG as far as I’m aware, so a bite from that guy could have been fatal! The Kovol people seem to confirm this, calling it an “undinang” and confirming they think it is venomous. During my culture study, I asked about venomous snakes, to learn that there are venomous snakes here and 1 person in memory has been bitten and died from them.
This week I was interviewing for the prayer and sacrifices section of culture. Asking about prayer, I asked when they prayed (because people reported that they did) and what they asked for. Someone responded that they pray that God would keep them safe when they work in their gardens because they could fall down, cut themselves or be bitten by a snake or centipede. Fear of snakes is a very real thing out here in Kovol, leading to a kill-on-sight attitude towards all snakes! Writing to an international audience about how I killed a wild snake, I have no idea if the response will be generally positive or negative, but I can confidently say I did the absolutely right thing according to the Kovol people.
We’re so glad Kavaluku saw the snake and we could take care of it before one of our kids trod on it playing outside! It’s quite frightening to see such a dangerous snake in their play area! Since then I’ve been keeping a better look out on the trails, which is funny because after living here for 3 years or so it’s only the 2nd snake I’ve ever seen! It’s a real reminder to us how life is in God’s hands. Venomous snakes are scary, but still probably far less risky to our safety than getting hit by a car when we’re in town, or back in England. I have a good story to tell to our Kovol friends now about how I fearlessly took care of a death adder, but only because I misunderstood their language!
I’ve made many, many mistakes with the Kovol language up to this point — but this one was the only one I can think of that almost had fatal consequences!