Unwanted visitor

The girls’ boarding room at the Isaac Newton School has no mosquito nets. I don’t know why. Nets are extremely effective in reducing malaria infections, but there’s an unfortunate belief in some parts of Uganda that the pesticide used is harmful (it isn’t), that natural remedies work (they don’t), and that malaria mosquitoes aren’t in the area (they are). A couple of the individual beds had nets – brought from home, apparently – but the doors and windows were unprotected. This really needs to be fixed, and to keep out more than just mosquitoes.

The Isaac Newton School is a boarding school in that there’s a room with nine mattresses on the floor:

Girls' boarding room at the Isaac Newton School

The bed on the left is for a matron. Some kids board because they live a long way away, others because they get access to the school facilities at the weekend. It’s pretty basic, as you can see, but it’s a good option for the kids who need it.

I stayed at the school for a week, along with two students from Swansea Met., and on our first day alone at the school we explored all the rooms and tried to get to know the kids. They were keen to show us where they slept, and very kindly let me take photos. One of my fellow students, Sam, is studying video, so we were making the most of the opportunity to film and photograph. The girls all wanted to be included, and were happily posing with various items from around the room, when suddenly they all started screaming. I looked up from the viewfinder and saw the kids flowing past me, heading outside as fast as possible. A teacher appeared at the door in some agitation, yelling at the kids to get out, and I turned around to see a snake coming through the window.

A window three metres off the ground.

Half a second later and the teacher was inside, between us and the intruder, so Sam and I figured what the hell, and kept shooting / filming. A couple of sixth formers piled in to help, and I have 10s of video before remembering there was an actual video expert in the room, and I should stick to photos (as proven by the sound going weird – I have no idea what happened):

Obviously the best defence against a snake is to throw shoes at it until you can get the shovels / massive sticks:


And over the next 90 seconds they killed it. Which actually made me a little uncomfortable, even though I knew Uganda is full of poisonous snakes. It’s an entirely reasonable thing to do – I’m just surprised my animal-rights instincts kicked in for a snake coming into a girls’ dorm. Them’s the breaks, snake. Anyway, once dead they carried it outside and posed for me and Sam:


At this point I should have followed it to get some close-up pictures, but the kids were crowding around us, desperate to see the footage from inside the room. I defy you to say no to such a thing. So that’s the last I saw of the snake. But we asked the kids what type it was, and they answered immediately: a cobra.

A cobra. Holy shit. So we spent the next couple of days telling people about our near-death-experience with a cobra. And then we thought – ‘it didn’t look like a cobra. They were cobras in Indiana Jones, weren’t they? They have the wing things around the heads. It didn’t have one of those. Maybe it’s not a cobra’. And we reluctantly acknowledged that our anecdote may have to be reigned in a bit.

It turns out identifying snakes is quite hard. Back home I got all the close-up shots I could, and tried to figure it out from the markings. My pictures are weirdly inconsistent – the first shows regular rings, the second doesn’t. It’s definitely not a cobra, though. Here’s what I have (apologies if somewhat mangled snakes are upsetting):

Snake close-up 3

Snake close-up 2

It could be a green mamba. That’s as good as a cobra, anecdote-wise, as it’s a seriously nasty snake: bites are fatal without prompt treatment. But I’m not sure the markings are quite right. Alternatively, it could be a green tree snake. Green tree snakes are green, and live in trees, and that’s it. They are less exciting than green mambas. Can anyone help? It’d just be nice to know.

The kids got over the incident very quickly – we were off to the local football field (you have to chase the cows off it first) within 15mins. On the way we talked to the teachers and they said they’d never known a snake come through the window before. And then we asked the students and they said it happens all the time. So who knows how common this is. But it’s pretty lucky we were in the room – I see no reason snakey couldn’t have curled up in someone’s bed. Or have come in at night.

I reckon a net would help against snakes as well as mosquitoes, though the latter are by far the bigger killers. So, one way or another, nets for the door and windows will be going over with the next trip. I’m just hoping the school can enforce their use.