Those First Lovely Days in Africa, 


Slithers in the Night


By Annette Olson

Summer 2003

This is my story. It’s about a girl who became a field biologist partly because others did not think she could do it.  “Ha! I’ll prove you wrong,” I thought, and I did.  Yet, I was way over my head at times.

I decided to study tropical biology in graduate school for many reasons.  Mostly, the science itself interested me, but I also chose this field because of my personal insecurities.  I have a history of hypoglycemia and thus a history of fainting (at the most inopportune times), and I was thin and shy.  I had grown up on a farm, though, so I was strong enough.  Still, I felt that I needed a great challenge to overcome what I perceived as shortcomings.  Moreover, to counter my being the “brain” (i.e., nerd) in my small, country high school and, later, in college, I wanted some of the glory of working in exotic lands that Indiana Jones had made so appealing.  So, I went to study at the University of Miami, which supported work in the tropics. 

This is where it got tricky.  I was somewhat diverted by my new social life.  I felt I was a nerd, and so this was a big deal to me.  My hectic personal schedule caused many people in my department to wonder if I was suited for tropical work—insecure, skinny, prone to faint, and party girl.  Precisely because of these labels, though, I became more determined to do biology in the tropics.

I decided to work on mongooses in the rainforests in West Africa.  Mongooses were almost unstudied animals at the time (a decade ago), and most species remain unknown today.  I seized the chance to conduct groundbreaking work in exotic Africa, of all places.  I began planning a two-month pilot study at a research station in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where researchers had seen several unstudied species of mongooses.  One professor remarked that he could not believe I was going.  “Annette,” he said, “I just can’t see you out there swinging a machete.”  Luckily, his comment was countered by the increased interest of single men, who thought it was darn cool that I was about to go swing a machete.  Tropical biology is sexy!  On the other hand, tropical diseases are not.  Another professor asked if I was afraid of malaria and river blindness, which a previous student had contracted at that same research station.  The student had not seemed greatly harmed by the diseases, and the danger did not seem real to me, so I laughed and said, “No, I’ll go over a single individual, and come back a community.”  A third professor said it would be almost impossible to study mongooses, which are relatively small animals, in a large, complex environment like a rainforest.  I became more dogged about going because of these challenges.  Reverse psychology works well on me!

I arrived in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, on the west coast, where I settled in for a few days to buy supplies.  Freetown was dry dust, a few tall trees, extreme poverty, Mercedes, packed taxis, open sewers, expensive cafes, and no electricity.  I had expected these things in my adventure, and I loved the experience—minus the open sewers and the poverty.  I was in some shock that I was actually doing this.  I knew I just needed to get past the initial scare of a new environment and things would turn out all right. 

The research station was on an island called Tiwai, in the Moa River, in the eastern portion of the country.  It was about an eight-hour drive away.  I hitched a ride with some members of the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone to Njala University, halfway to Tiwai, where I stayed for three days waiting for the university’s truck to take me the rest of the way.  At Njala, an instructor named Philip and his wife Martha invited me for dinner, and I ate my first dried fish in a spicy sauce over rice.  There also, I was introduced to the pervasive rumors of West Africa.  A Fulbright professor had me over to his house to share homemade french fries, and he told me that some people there are so starved that they eat dead bodies.  His proof?  People often stole formaldehyde in what he believed an effort to preserve bodies for protection against grave robbers.  I am sure my face showed my disbelief, and I wrote in my diary that night “quite a juicy tale.”  He also told me about the secret societies of men and women there, and that if a woman comes across a men’s society meeting, the men cut off her nose.  I did not believe that either—mostly.

By the time the university’s truck dropped me off at Kambama, the village closest to Tiwai, I felt prepared for my new life.  I was loaded down with supplies, and I had seen some of the countryside, though I was beginning to feel a little isolated.  Tiwai was in a remote portion of the country, and it was a three-hour walk to the nearest bus station.  Momoh Magona, the research station’s manager, met me in Kambama.  Momoh and two other employees from the station helped load my stuff into a motorboat, and we crossed the river to the island.

Tiwai is an island about four miles long and two miles wide, and is designated as a wildlife sanctuary.  Rainforest covers most of the island, with trees up to 15 stories high, but there are also patches of swamp, bamboo groves, and young secondary forest.  No villages inhabited the island at that time, but there were three camps; the main research station on the west side of the island, a small research camp to the east, and a visitor center near the north tip.  Travelers who wanted to see a beautiful rainforest with one of the greatest densities of primates in the world could stay in the last camp and take tours.  Thus, the research camps were not completely isolated.  Because the island was remote, however, visitors came only rarely and they consisted almost entirely of Peace Corp volunteers living in other regions of the country.

Momoh gave me a tour of the west research station and helped me settle in.  I liked what I saw.  The camp was in a clearing on a hill, surrounded on three sides by rainforest but with a gorgeous view of the river on the fourth side.  Better yet, hammocks were positioned in the best viewing spots.  There was no electricity and most food was cooked over a fire, but I knew this before arriving.  I had a large tent waiting for me, with enough room for a bed on a frame and a bookshelf.  I also had this camp to myself.  The two other researchers who worked on Tiwai at the time were both away—Kate in the east camp and Dawn offsite.  No employees slept in the camp at night; they all went to back to their villages across the river.  But before they left that evening, Momoh offered to arrange for a guard to stay in the camp, at least until Kate came back.  Knowing I had to be strong, I said no.  “You are a very brave woman,” he said, and everyone left.  Those words made me a little nervous. 

That night, I slept in my tent at the camp’s edge, right up against the forest.  Of course, I could not sleep.  I heard too many rustlings that sounded as if they were from animals the size of pigs, but in my mind, more dangerous.  According to my advisor, a leopard lived on the island.  I think I got two hours of sleep.  Luckily, morning and the camp employees finally arrived.  

At first, everything was grand.  I met all the workers, and everyone was pleasant.  I saw the river where one bathed.  It had mini-rapids and lovely, hidden pools among the rocks, and no one had seen crocodiles there in over a year.  Then lunch began, and so did the “initiation” of the newcomer.  I was told tarantula stories, jumping snake stories, and cobra-infestations-under-the-tent stories.  (Five poisonous species of snakes inhabit Tiwai:  black cobras, spitting cobras, green mambas, the night adder, and the Gabon viper.)  Poisonous snakes always have made me nervous, but I had interviewed several Tiwai researchers before coming and was not too worried—most had seen only a couple snakes a year.  Still, this talk at lunch made me uneasy.

After lunch, Momoh took me for a short walk into the forest to show me the trail system.  The rainforest was beautiful and just like one imagines.  When evening came and everyone had left, I settled into a comfortable hammock with a view of the river to catch up in my journal.  While I wrote, a group of Campbell’s monkeys foraged in the trees next to my hammock.  Then three chimpanzees, including one with a brand new baby, came into camp and stole fruit from one of the banana trees.  Fantastic birds flew by, and I saw wave after wave of bats cross the river and settle into Tiwai’s forest to forage.

When I tried to sleep that night, I kept hearing noises, including numerous slithers under my tent.  I spent a restless night, and, it turns out, dangers truly were out there.  Somebody robbed the camp while I slept.  In the morning, I found the door to the storeroom open and the lock missing.  At the time, I did not know that anything was stolen, but when Momoh and the other employees arrived, we discovered that someone had taken the payroll of about $350.  The men were rightfully upset, and Momoh sent a messenger for Kate, who helped managed the research station.  While waiting for her to come, I continued to unpack, but I felt awful about the robbery, because it occurred while I was in the camp.  I felt slightly responsible, as if I had fallen asleep on the watch, and I felt taken advantage of in some respects.

Kate arrived several hours later, introduced herself to me, and then she and the men sat down to discuss what to do.  I watched from a hammock a short distance away.  Afterwards, Kate came over to talk.  I was a little frightened and I was decked out in my shiny, new field gear, and I guess I looked vulnerable.  Kate gave me her own “welcome to life in West Africa” initiation.  First, she told me of the decision about what to do regarding the stolen payroll.  She wanted to call the police, but the men rejected that, saying the police were corrupt.  Instead, the men wanted her to hire a juju, or medicine, man.  Kate described to me how a juju man would go about finding the culprit.  All suspects (i.e., all the workers on the island) would gather in a circle.  The juju man would go around the circle carrying a hot iron, and lay it on each man’s arm.  The iron would burn only the guilty man.  Kate decided to delay hiring a juju man in hopes that some other means would show itself.  We both believed that we would never get the money back. 

Then Kate began her stories.  The first started as we took food out of wooden boxes to prepare lunch.  She told me how the station used tarantulas to hunt roaches in the boxes.  During lunch, she talked about the culture of the Mende, the main tribal group in that area.  Just three days before, Kate told me, the village of Kambama had invited her to a sacrifice to the river devil.  She went, and the villagers slaughtered a goat in the river, singing both Christian and Muslim songs.  On a more relevant note, Kate told me that the station workers would not enter Tiwai’s forest at night for fear of forest devils.  (Later, the men would express concern when I started going into the forest at night to trap mongooses.)

Next came Kate’s danger stories, including her tale of giant forest hogs (they can get chest-high there) chasing her up trees, and how she had almost stepped on a cobra not long ago.  She also once hit a green mamba with her motorbike, and she, snake, and bike all went down in a tangle, but she managed to get out while the snake thrashed around.  Kate told me that she had never experienced as much gut-wrenching, heart-stopping fear as she had here on Tiwai.  She also said not to worry, that Dawn, the other researcher who had worked there for a year, had not seen a snake yet.  The fact that Kate, who seemed so sure of herself and in control, could be scared in a “gut-wrenching” manner made me worry about the level of danger.

Kate went back to the east camp that day, and I spent a third night worrying about burglars, giant hogs, and snakes, in every little rustle near my tent.  It can be scary to wake up and hear scratching sounds, rustling, and slithers.  You just pray the sounds aren’t inside, but still you have to know, so you turn on your flashlight and check under the bed and in the corners, then turn the light off, try to see outside your tent, can’t see anything, so in the end you lie on your bed with your flashlight next to your pillow, and your glasses on, listening intently to noises until you fall asleep.  Animals such as duikers, which nibbled on the tent or on the bushes next to it, did not scare me, but I was afraid that one would nibble a hole large enough for a poisonous snake to get inside.

Yes, snakes scared me.  And, as much as one tries to tell oneself that the chances are very small that you’ll encounter a snake, your tired brain starts going in circles, and it’s hard to get those thoughts out of your head.  To top if off, drums were being played somewhere that night, as there would be on many nights.  Later I discovered that the Mende often played drums for parties, but at the time, it was like an exotic soundtrack for my worries.

That morning, to make myself feel better and to start conquering my fear, I went alone into the forest a short distance.  The quiet forest seemed peaceful, not dangerous.  Later, a lunch of pancakes with mealworms (they had gotten in the flour) countered that feeling of peace with nausea.  I already knew that I must not to waste any food, especially in front of local people, whose children often suffered from malnutrition.  I ate it. 

In the afternoon, Momoh took me out on my first real venture into the rainforest—to help look for mongoose burrows.  At first, it was splendid.  Immense trees, vines, humidity, and tropical sounds all outweighed my fear of snakes.  Then Momoh said, “When you cross buttress roots, watch out for jumping tarantulas, spiders that will jump on you.”  When we got back to camp, Momoh mentioned how surprised he was that we had not run into a cobra in the places we had searched.  By that time, I was beginning to realize that Momoh told stories to make himself seem brave.  Still, I felt frightened.  We had not found mongooses, but by then I wasn’t sure I wanted to, because that meant I would have to come back for one to two years to conduct my research and I was beginning to doubt that I could handle it.  I was wrapped up in fear, and though I kept saying “give yourself time, Annette, and you’ll get over this,” I was making myself sick with the question of “how will I explain this to my research committee back at the university?”  I was scared to death of a snake biting me in a country that possessed no antivenom.  If I was bitten, I would have to walk three hours before reaching transportation that would still take eight hours to get me to a hospital.

A short while later, my anxiety abated, but homesickness took its place.  I had no phone to alleviate it.  Cell phones were not yet prevalent, and the nearest telephone was back in Freetown.  I missed my family and friends, and wanted to talk to them about this strange environment I found myself in.  I kept thinking, “I have to survive two months of this and then come back for more?”  I was especially concerned that I would be the only researcher on the island next time, as Kate and Dawn were leaving in a couple of months. 

That evening, I heard voices speaking in Mende pass on the trail next to camp.  Thinking that one of them might be Momoh, and having some letters for him to mail, I decided to follow them to see if they were going to the visitor center, a mile to the north.  When I arrived at the center, I discovered that I had missed Momoh, but I met an American woman of about my mother’s age.  She told me that her husband and her daughter, a Peace Corps worker, were out watching monkeys with a guide.  She and I squatted on rocks around a fire and she acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  I told her about my feelings of isolation, and she was very understanding and motherly.  I believed that if she and her family were not afraid to stay, then I should not worry so much.  That one visit helped so much, and I managed to sleep some that night. 

Over the next several days, my fears subsided a little.  I ventured out more and more into the forest on my own.  There was an excellent trail system, and I kept to the trails as I wandered, looking for potential burrows that mongooses might use, and keeping an eye out for small brown animals among the brown and green leaves of the forest floor. 

I also decided to survey the eastern portion of Tiwai for mongooses, and I arranged to visit Kate.  The east camp was about two miles away, and three trails joined my camp and hers.  The workers told me which route to take, but two-thirds of the way to the east camp, the trail became overgrown and faded.  I tried several branches off that trail, but it began to get dark and I finally gave up trying to find poorly marked trails in a dark forest with just a headlamp.  I turned around to go back the way I came, but I lost the trail.  While I was lost, something that sounded like a large cat growled repeatedly at me and caused my heart to jump, and I ran into some hogs, but luckily they did not chase me up a tree.  I finally managed to find the trail and I returned to the west camp.  I knew I had to try again, though, because I needed to overcome my fear and because Kate was expecting me.  I decided to go to the visitor center to get directions from a male Peace Corp volunteer who worked part-time on Tiwai and who often stayed at the center.  That decision meant more hiking through a dark rainforest.  Luckily, the Peace Corp volunteer was there, along with the American woman I had met before, and her husband and daughter.  They all knew that I was scared.  I was heartily embarrassed.  I must have proved that there truly is such a thing as the smell of fear.  The American woman gave me a warm coke and crackers to help my nausea, and I stayed with them for a few minutes.  The Peace Corp volunteer gave me correct directions, but also said that he would never walk over to the east side in the dark except for emergencies.  Nevertheless, I went, and I made it to the east camp.  Of course, I was still afraid, but I was proud to have made the trek. 

The eastern camp was smaller and more primitive than my camp, and the forest felt much closer there.  Kate and I ate slightly spoiled rice and beans by candlelight.  Just when I felt safe, and I headed off to the latrine, Kate warned me of the spider that inhabits it.  She said not to bother it and it wouldn’t bother you.  The spider was the largest I had ever seen.  It was a whip spider (also known as a tailless whipscorpion) and was about three and a half inches by four inches, with its legs.  Then, in our tent we discovered a five-inch long gray and pink centipede.  (It turns out that at least part of the slithering under my tent was due to centipedes.)  Kate and I caught it and dumped it outside.  Kate said that because I was not squeamish about that, that I would have no problem here.  Feeling proud, I blew up my air mattress and tried to sleep.  I endured another sleepless night, but only because the air mattress squeaked. 

The next morning, Kate and I got up before dawn to travel to her study site, where she pointed out potential mongoose burrows.  The rest of the day, I searched for more burrows by myself.  I thought I heard mongooses once but I never saw them, only scratches in the dirt that I suspected they had made.  That evening, Kate walked back to the west camp with me so she could study primates there for a week.  We got along great while she worked there, fixing spaghetti with weevils and chili with ants, and talking up a storm.  It was great therapy.

A couple of days later, a Peace Corp worker visited the island, and I invited her to look for mongooses with me.  As on most previous days, I had no luck finding them—until we heard a repeated “thwacking” sound.  We tracked it down, and, through dense bushes, we saw a mongoose fighting a black cobra.  I was excited and happy.  The mongoose and the cobra circled and repeatedly attacked each other.  The “thwacking” sound was from the cobra striking at the mongoose, missing, and hitting the dirt instead.  The mongoose and the cobra moved off into denser undergrowth, and we could no longer see the fight.  Then we heard a yelp.  Cobras, of course, do not yelp, and we figured the mongoose had been bitten.  When I circled the area, though, I thought I saw the mongoose chasing the snake. 

I had finally seen a mongoose, and snakes no longer were invisible threats—now they felt somewhat manageable.  How convenient that I was studying an animal that fought cobras.  The following week, I recovered quickly from my first one-on-one encounter with a six-foot long cobra (we faced each other a yard apart, then I backed off slowly).  By the end of the first month, Tiwai felt like home.  It felt so normal that I had trouble recalling my earlier fears.  My sense of isolation and homesickness also abated with the large number of visitors to the island and some mail from home finally arriving.  I grew to love the spicy African food.  I also became used to moldy bread, cakes and pancakes with mealworms, and food gnawed on by roaches.  We never had a tarantula in the food box for pest control.  Several of the workers did arrange for a juju man to come find the payroll thief, but not all the workers would participate, so the trial fizzled. 

There were still anxious moments.  Kate suffered from a severe bout of malaria that was worrisome.  I found out that red colobus monkeys vocalize at dawn with sounds like a woman’s screams, which can be disconcerting.  I also experienced another type of serious fright.  During the second month, I spent some time alone in the east camp, and on two separate nights, poachers walked through my camp.  Tiwai employees had noted poaching in the eastern part of the island for some time, and only poachers would enter the forest in the middle of the night.  The first night, I hid; the other time, on Kate’s advice (she said that the poachers were just hunters from nearby villages), I yelled, “Who’s there?” and heard a quick retreat.  The men did not come back through camp, although on a later night Kate faced down a hunting dog there.

Overall, however, these frightening events were widely interspersed among days filled with touring the incredible tropical forest on Tiwai.  I saw galagos, genets, duikers, and monkeys galore.  I saw chimpanzees cracking open nuts with rocks.  At least 300 species of butterflies and moths exist on the island.  Most importantly, I began seeing my mongooses regularly, which gave me hope of being able to trap them when I returned for more field research. 

By that time, I planned on returning.  I had worked through my fear, gained experience, and felt competent as a field biologist.  I had survived this challenge.  Far more significantly, I enjoyed my time in the rainforest. 

A year later, I went back to Tiwai. On my second trip, I caught and radiocollared mongooses, tracked their movements, and observed their behavior.  Because I did a lot of night work during that second season, I saw new types of life, including giant snails, phosphorescent mushrooms, civets, and bongos at an incredibly close distances.  I also had two more close encounters with cobras, and I swear that I saw more poisonous snakes than did all the previous researchers combined.  (The other researchers were all primatologists and looking up, whereas I studied animals on the ground).  And I often heard lovely noises under and outside my tent.  Yet the hardest thing for me on this trip was the isolation.  I went to town for supplies only once every two months, and mail took two to four months to get to me.  Luckily, another researcher named Cheryl lived on the island the entire time I was there, and we were good friends.  Even so, when I got back to the U.S., my speech patterns were impacted by my time in the field.  I worked alone in the field most of each day, and spoke mostly Krio when I did interact with people.  Back at home, I spoke with a slight hesitation that took a couple of years to get rid of, but it was only a minor aggravation.

Unfortunately, the two-year trip I planned for completing my mongoose research ended up only lasting a year.  Liberians invaded Sierra Leone, and Cheryl and I had to evacuate.  A horrible civil war ensued, and the country still has not recovered.  At least one of the research station employees was killed.  Even a decade later, we still do not know the status of Tiwai and its wildlife.

I am grateful for the unique experiences I had in West Africa, and for the chance to see the rainforest and the mongooses.  And I am particularly proud of finding a strength in myself that others doubted. 


After leaving Africa, Annette Olson studied mongoose communication at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.  She received her doctorate in 2001 and is currently a research collaborator with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  She is writing up results from nine years of studying mongooses and plans to work on North American or African conservation issues.