Early March, 2009-
I'm an idiot. I wanted to water my garden and catch the last part of the BBC World Report so badly that I left Jah Kunda at 7:15 PM. That's a 15 minutes or less before the sun usually goes down, and I didn't bring a flashlight. And I'm alone.
The usually ill-defined road quickly becomes almost invisible, as the stars, unhindered by the lights of cities or even small towns, gave only slight definition to the surrounding bush. I forge ahead, blindly feeling out the path with my tires, ruts and tree roots like expletives in braille, jarring me just as I think I've hit a smooth patch.
I am reasonably sure that there is little or no danger lurking in the bush. Still, each shadowy mass begins to resemble a mob of baboons or hyenas rushing me with gnashing teeth and glowing red eyes. My imagination even conjures up leopards perched in trees, waiting to pounce, though their existence in The Gambia isn't exactly certain, and the odds of coming upon one in my district would be slim to none, due to hunting and deforestation.
That's not to say animals in the bush pose no danger. I've heard plenty of stories of hyenas making off with goats and baboons trying to intimidate campers. However, I have never heard of anyone, Peace Corps or native, who has been injured by these animals. It's about the same threat that wolves pose in the states. Sure, they have sharp teeth and could do a lot of damage, but unless they're sick or feel threatened, they generally leave people alone.
The threat in the bush that most gives me pause is that of snakes, which would have to make an impressive display of timing and athleticism to hit someone on a bike. Spitting cobras, green mambas, and puff adders are among the more poisonous snakes in The Gambia--any of them could put you in a very serious condition if they tagged you. Gambians are terrified of snakes, and will gather a mob to beat the last vestiges of live from any snake or snake-like animal they see, no matter how serious a threat it actually is. The prevailing wisdom is that if one snake can kill you, and you're not exactly sure which, why take chances? Not exactly an eco-friendly or humane view, but certainly a pragmatic one.
But these fears extend to animals whose danger would seem much less plausible. Owls, for instance, are believed by some to be witches, and should be killed on sight. Chameleons have two teeth with which they can bite victims. One brings everlasting luck, the other everlasting misfortune. The risk of being bitten is generally seen as one not worth taking. If a toad gets angry it will puff up to several times its size and bite your chest, staying there until you die, unless you go to a blacksmith who then scalds the toad with a red-hot poker. These beliefs are fading as more people are receiving at least some type of education, but I often am witness to something of a "better safe than sorry" attitude among even those who have been to school.
In my current situation, lack of really dangerous animals non-withstanding, riding through the bush at night is not safe, and a decent bike and sense of direction is all that's keeping me on the road home. I finally merge back onto the main road into my village and make out the tall, lonely palm tree rising from the village center, and I resolve to be a bit more responsible in the future. Thankfully, it's a lesson I've learned without any harsh consequences.