When I moved into my first village home in Njombwa village for my Peace Corps training I was glad that we were required to hang our mosquito net from the ceiling and neatly tug it under the mattress. That way I was safe from all kinds of strange critters populating my room at all times, particularly at night. I often could hear the termites eating away at my wall or floor right under my mattress. It was an eerie feeling to have to share my space with animals that are usually banned from living in civilized homes in the Western hemisphere. We use poison to keep our living space sterile. Other volunteers advised us to buy a large can of “doom” as one of our first and most important purchases. “Doom”, as the name already suggests, is a very strong insecticide and kills on impact. All of us used it gratefully feeling somewhat empowered by its strength so we could bravely face the night and our insect phobias.
The mosquito net itself is soaked in a long acting pesticide not only preventing insects from entering our “safe zone” but also killing them while trying.
After moving to my “permanent” site for the next two years in Malosa, Malawi, I, at first was happy to see that my little side building/storage unit I call home, had concrete floors and window screens. I felt so comfortable at first that I didn’t even saw the need to hang my protective net. But then there came the strange noises sounding like somebody clicking his tongue to the palette. I found out soon enough that these noises are made by lizards. Who knew that lizards talk to each other loudly? Then I saw them, coming out from cracks between the ceiling and un-insulated metal roof. One, two, three, four…..emerging from one hole and disappearing into another. As if this wasn’t enough revelation for one night I also heard really loud rustling noises from the other room. The racket was created by one single large frog who had come through an opening under my door and now happily explored every plastic bag I had hastily left on the floor.
I couldn’t do anything about the lizard family but I sure enough could trap the frog in an empty peanut butter jar and release him onto the moist grass.
I had the landlady fill the holes in the ceiling and thought that this would take care of the problem.
Well, I am slowly finding out that, in Africa, living spaces are shared. People share very small huts with each other, sometimes with their animals if necessary. And other critters are just part of the deal: lizards, frogs, termites, spiders, mosquitos, flies, and aunts. There is just no way of keeping things like these out. Women usually have the job of re-mudding the floors to fill any cracks to make it harder for insects to come in. This chore has to be done every month or so. Cracks, gaps, and holes are just everywhere.
I knew I started to adjust when I pointed one of the lizards out to the guard who watches the large house. Without much ado he took one of his shoe and just flattened the lizard leaving a trail of blood and gore on the yellow wall. Unexpectedly I felt very sad that his lizard whose family I had watched night after night crossing my bedroom ceiling, now was gone. Would the three others wonder what happened to him or her? Do lizards miss each other if they cannot talk to each other anymore?
Something similar happened with a frog who liked to sit in the little water puddle left in my bathing tub. Each night I would indignantly dump out the frog into the grass. Every next night he was back until one evening he was not. I started looking for the frog and felt really guilty that I might have dropped him from too much of a height the evening before, maybe even injuring him. Had I killed him? I kept looking for him for several more nights.
Over the past few months I have been learning about how all living things have a place and can easily share space. At first I thought it very strange and unhygienic that one of chickens around the school would choose a cardboard box next to my desk filled with old and dusty exam papers as her place to roost and produce 9 beautiful chicks which now follow their mother around all over the school.
I also enjoy the goats that roam free and can be watched walking up the road, crossing the street or resting near the market.
I realize that I long for this kind of coexistence. It makes sense. It allows me to connect with other species. It makes us all equal parts of this world. It makes us care for each other.