Crime and punishment

Hiding behind wall clocks and paintings, scuttling inside air conditioner vents, wriggling with their boneless bodies across white walls and ceilings. Just the thought of one prompts a shudder which shakes my arms, shivers down to the tips of my toes and comes back up to my shoulders.

In Mombasa, in a large house with open doors and windows and a large garden, house lizards were ubiquitous. Hiding behind wall ornaments during the day, creeping out as the sun set in the evenings and squirming across walls with their zigzag movements all night only to disappear with the newborn sun.

Thankfully, in Nairobi, with the colder weather and a smaller apartment in an estate that offers a thin strip of garden, there are fewer around. But not completely gone. The occasional lizard can still be seen in the house – even after all holes in the netting have been plugged, doormats firmly wedged into the space between where the door ends and the floor begins, and strict rules established for opening windows during the heat of the day and firmly closing them before dark.

For as long as I can remember, geckos or house lizards have been the most abhorrent sight for my family. It is a superstition that has its origin in Islamic history. While a spider spun a web to cover the entrance to a cave in which Imam Ali (the Prophet’s son-in-law who was, according to Shi’a faith, given the title of Imam and entrusted with the leadership of the religion) was hiding, a lizard gave his hiding place away when enemies came to kill him.

The religious fable justifies the cultivated and ingrained disgust we have for these creatures, while our squirminess is probably just a physical reaction to their reptilian nature. And I suppose if we just shivered and squirmed from afar, maligning its character, it would be one thing. But in my family, we took an aggressive step forward.

Open combat. We would wage war against any lizard that trespassed into our home.

If it is a small one, our weapons are a bottle of Doom (insect and cockroach killing spray) and a very long stick (so we can stand far away and hit it in a misdirected manner). Once the creature is still, drowning in fumes of Doom, we throw the red plastic Doom cap over it so that it is trapped under it, and then leave it overnight to suffocate. The next morning, when the strengthening light of day has chased away the fears and frights of the shadowy night, we slip a piece of paper under the Doom cap, wiggling it a little so that it emerges from the other end having successfully gone under the creature. Then the entire trap, Doom cap + piece of paper, is tied into a plastic bag, with a tight knot on top. The package is disposed of not in our garbage can, just in case the creature survived the Doom attack and managed to escape from the tightly tied plastic bag, but right outside the main gate of the estate, preferably in a neighbour’s garbage bag which is scheduled for collection that same morning by the trash collectors.

That is fine for small lizards where the entire can of Doom and the randomly banging stick stun it into submission and allow it to be trapped [shudder]. But what of the larger ones that move so much faster, are so much bigger with their beady black eyes [shudder] and manage to hide behind a frame or a clock or in an unreachable corner?

In that case, one of us, half sitting-half crouching on a seat with one leg outstretched ready to bolt and the other curled close to the chest dampening the shudders, keeps an eye on the creature, monitoring its movements across the wall, while a second person very slowly, without any sudden movements which could alert the creature to run and hide, rushes to the night askari (watchman) and pleads with him to come into the house with his kijiti fagio (hand broom made of small twigs). Taking off his shoes at the main door (in Muslim homes, it is a custom to remove your shoes at the front door since prayer mats are directly placed on the bare floor), the askari is momentarily blinded by the bright lights – to better keep an eye on the tricky creature, we have flooded the house with lights – and looks around apprehensively for the enormous creature that he has been called in to kill, and then smothers a smile at the sight of one of us half on – half off a chair, vigorously gesturing with whispers.

He glances across in the direction pointed to and looks confused. And then as we spit out staccato words in kitchen Swahili, “Kafiri! Ume ona? Piga yeye. (Lizard! Have you seen it? Beat it.)”, and then, “Mpaka ni kufa.” (Till it dies), a look of understanding crosses his features. He leans forward grasping the fagiyo tighter in his hands and swings it at the wall, barely connecting with the creature. It runs. He lunges again chasing it with his arm and movements. At one moment, the fagiyo connects with the creature and it flies from one corner of the room to the floor.

In the background, a chorus has formed. One of us is shouting, “Piga. Piga.” (Beat it. Beat it.) The other is entreating spiritual assistance with a running invocation of “Ya Ali” or “Ya Hussein” (the Prophet’s son-in-law, and the Prophet’s grandson – both of whom the Shi’a faith closely identify with), whichever name forms first on the tongue.

It is squirming across the carpet now. The askari is still swinging the fagiyo at it without much success because of the soft carpet under the creature. And then it is caught again in the spindly sticks of the fagiyo and flies to another corner of the room, squirms its way across to a piece of furniture and hides.

All of us start looking for it: discussing where we last saw it, and the angle of the askari’s last swipe to better understand where it could be. We are peering behind furniture from a distance, careful not to get too close, pushing footstools and chairs with a long walking stick in the hope that the movement will force it to show itself. Finally it is spotted hiding behind the broad legs of a wooden table. An attack of Doom descends on the motionless form [shudder] and a prodding with the fagiyo, and then it emerges. The askari with renewed zest jumps at it, and we are at the finale.

Scenario 1 is where the askari with one blow of the fagiyo stuns the creature and it turns belly up. To confirm that this is not a ploy or a pretend death, we coax him to prod it and if need be, finish the job. Once we are assured of the result, he sweeps it onto a piece of paper that we have handed him with outstretched fingertips, and heads outside.

In the most gruesome instances, the askari has been so vigorous that a stick from his fagiyo has cut the tail off the creature [shudder] and the askari has to be reminded to sweep up all its parts, just in case the folktale turns true and a new lizard grows out of the tail [shudder].

Scenario 2 is where the creature is caught in the sticks of the fagiyo and the askari rushes out the main gate with it, carefully balancing the creature within the crisscrossing sticks. Either way, we chase behind him, still shuddering with disgust and in a half whisper-half shout say, “Ta tupa inje kabisa! Angalia tena kuona kama ni kufa.” (Throw it out completely. Check again to see if it is dead.) The odd “Piga!” bursts out, a remnant from the recent attack inside the house.

Creature disposed of, a tip for the askari for services rendered changes hands and we return to the house which smells of his sweaty socks – a smell that I continue to associate with lizards – and anxiously glance around the walls.

Walls clear, we scour the flour with our eyes, remembering the parts it had crawled on and then huddle on the opposite side of the room, hugging our knees and repressing post trauma shudders. We sit quietly for a few minutes and then go to bed a little more bravely, looking around at the walls and ceilings, the adrenalin of our victory surging in our veins. And these anxious glances up at the wall, prompted by the sight of an imagined shadow, continue for the next couple of weeks: peering into unoccupied rooms, the quick switching on and off of lights hoping to startle any occupants…

The next morning, a rigorous clean up exercise takes place purifying the furniture and floor in the battle room. The mood is sombre for a while in remembered horror, and then the inevitable discussion: Where did it come from? What opening or crevice did it crawl through? Did we somehow break the rules and leave the window open too long?

And then the specifics: Did you see how big it was! And its colour!

And the inevitable final question: I wonder who it represented?

One of us would always have an idea and a short discussion would follow of a recent altercation with a particular person. Killing the creature would in our minds be equated with successfully vanquishing an enemy: be it our own or Imam Ali’s. Sometimes the conversation would get so intense that physical characteristics of our enemy would be imposed on the creature, with a shared knowing look being passed around the table as if a conspiracy had been uncovered. That same afternoon, more rigorous security measures would be instituted to shield the house from another intruder.

Narrating it, I can see how silly and cruel the entire experience may seem to those who do not have a similar phobia: three adults descending on a defenseless creature that can cause no harm. But logic aside, the lizard is a creature for which an ingrained hatred has been cultivated over generations. Every time we see it, we take arms and do everything in our power to destroy it. And like any intense, irrational emotion, no amount of reasoning can lessen the revulsion or extent of antagonism that the creature evokes.

February 2 2012

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