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The World | DISPATCH FROM WASARE, KENYA

Some See a Blessing, Others a Curse in a Visiting Python

Traditional villagers revere the snake as a harbinger of good fortune. Others, notably church leaders, see it as a symbol of evil.

April 06, 2003|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

WASARE, Kenya — Since this nation has been basking in a new beginning -- its first change of government in four decades -- many Kenyans have been searching for signs that their hardships will soon be over.

So when a 16-foot python presented itself in this village on the banks of Lake Victoria, some residents regarded it as a harbinger of good news: More rains would come, their harvests would be more bountiful and their livestock would produce healthy offspring.

But one person's blessing is another person's curse.

The arrival of Omieri, as the serpent is known, has exposed rifts in this rural community, pitting people who adhere to traditional African beliefs against those who follow religions of the establishment.

Some residents, including senior church leaders, are calling for the snake to be destroyed -- even burned at the stake. Others say they will protect the python with their pangas, or machetes, if need be.

And caught in the middle of the debate is 35-year-old Benta Atieno, who now believes it's her divine duty to ensure that Omieri safely hatches the dozens of eggs on which it sits, then leaves with its young.

Six weeks ago, Atieno stumbled upon the python near her mud hut. She says she froze in fear when the serpent slithered out of a yucca bush, then coiled up looking like four stacked car tires with a head.

Atieno ran to tell other village folk about the creature, and elders told her that the serpent was Omieri, an occasional visitor whose presence could signify good tidings. The python is revered by the Luo, a Nilotic people who migrated several centuries ago to the Lake Victoria region.

If the python was cared for, good things might ensue, the elders said. If it was abused, bad luck would befall the village -- as happened seven years ago when drought hit the area after some young men set fire to a similar visitor.

Atieno lives with her five young children in a small hut about the size of a Humvee. Next door, her husband lives with his first wife -- many Luo are polygamous -- and four children. Her husband's mother occupies a third hut nearby.

The family members survive on fish from the nearby marshes and from subsistence farming. They constantly battle with hippos that come to eat their maize and beans.

After hearing from the village elders that Omieri could bring good luck, Atieno began to share her family's scarce rations with the snake. She fed it local versions of grits, doughnuts and flat bread.

On the third day, she decided to tell a local government official that Wasare had a special guest. The word leaked 220 miles to the capital, Nairobi, from where local and foreign television crews set out to capture footage of looky-loos surrounding the snake coiled over its basket of eggs.

Commentators opined that the snake's presence was the latest piece of good luck to strike Kenya. First came the nation's decision last December to sweep out the corrupt regime of former President Daniel Arap Moi. That was followed by surprisingly strong performances by the nation's scrappy cricket team, which proved to be one of the top squads at the recently concluded World Cup of Cricket in South Africa.

And now: Omieri.

The Kenyan Wildlife Service sent officers who decreed that Omieri should no longer be fed homemade delicacies but instead served frogs, rats, live chickens, goats and even dogs.

A crew of foreign engineers working on a power generating station near Lake Victoria came to see Omieri. They offered Atieno 20,000 Kenyan shillings -- about $250 -- for Omieri, saying the serpent would make good grilled steaks.

Atieno had not seen that kind of money in years. She said she could use it to repair the gaping holes in her mud walls and to replace the grass roof on her hut with metal sheets that would keep out driving rain.

In the end, she told the engineers that Omieri was community property, not hers to sell.

Atieno and her husband, Samel Ochieng Okumu, used reeds to build an enclosure around Omieri. Curiosity seekers would now have to pay a small fee that would be used to fund the snake's diet. But Omieri was also receiving some unwanted attention. Shadrack Owuor, archdeacon of the local Anglican church, threatened to lead his flock to burn Omieri, branding it a symbol of evil.

"Omieri is a devil which should not be venerated but destroyed," said Owuor. "It is a pity that [other] religious leaders are staying quiet as the devil grows in our midst."

It was a snake, the archdeacon reminded the faithful, that caused Adam and Eve to commit the first sin.

"To blame the snake for the failure of the first human beings to resist sensual temptations is to scapegoat," countered the East African Standard, a daily newspaper based in Nairobi. "The tempest may lie elsewhere in the human mind."

Lately, Okumu and other young men in the village have been standing guard with pangas, taking turns protecting Omieri.

One day last week, Omieri slowly slithered out of the nest. Like a model on a catwalk, it paraded for a few people surrounding the enclosure. Its dark brown spots glistened in the sun. It looked at a hen pecking at some dirt -- pouncing distance away. But Omieri appeared too sluggish to pounce.

Atieno noted that the hen was one of her last chickens. Omieri was now being fed two chickens for breakfast and another two for dinner. Atieno said she and her family had not tasted meat in months.

However, she said, her job could soon be over. Wildlife officials have told her that in a few weeks, after its eggs are hatched, Omieri will disappear into the night.

"Sometimes, I wish she would just give us her blessings and go," said a weary sounding Atieno.

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