Face- to-face with Omieri again

Above: Omieri the African rock python in her new glass cage. Notice the burn mark on exreme right that she received in 1987 – which led to her death.
Copyrigt Rupi Mangat

Published: Saturday Magazine Nation newspaper 14 April 2018

In 1987 l went to see Omieri the she-python who suddenly shot to fame on account of having being caught in a fire that left her in very bad health. She was coiled lethargic in her glass cage and succumbed to her wounds on 25th June 1987. In the passage of time, l forgot about her.

Fast forward to 27th March 2018.

Thirty years later l’m face-to-face with Omieri again. This time though she’s dead, her long beautifully patterned body in a special glass case and preserved in ethanol. Her burn wound is visible but she’s now a national celebrity on permanent exhibition at the Nairobi Snake Park thanks to a young woman called Diana Injendi.

“She’s a young employee who joined that snake park in 2017,” tells Eileen Musundi who worked on the exhibition design. “When Injendi was shown around the stored collection in the snake park, she was fascinated by Omieri and it was her idea to have Omieri on display instead of her being stored away, hidden from all.”

Musundi continues with the makings of the exhibition. “It was a delicate operation because Omieri had been preserved in alcohol for thirty years and we did not want her body to be damaged while taking her out of her old cage and into this new one.

“This new cage is specially designed for her. It’s three layers of laminated glass, each 15mm thick – so in total it’s 15mm thick and very strong.”

The story of Omieri, reading the illustrated panels around her tells of this revered python by the Luo in Nyanza who got burnt during a man-made bush-fire on 27th February 1987. She became a national cause even then. Omieri was a stately snake weighing 58 kilograms and 5.3 meters long (heavier and taller than me). She was taken to Kisumu Museum but as her condition worsened she was brought to Nairobi Snake Park for treatment. Suffering from mouth rot, she became weaker and weaker and died.

Omieri during her time was regularly given a goat to eat because the people believed that every time she passed (or rather slithered) past their land, it rained. She was a harbinger of good tidings. After her death, there was a drought with the community wanting her body returned.

The snake park has been a favourite haunt of mine since childhood. Opened in the 1961, it was a first encounter for many urbanites to see such a collection of amazing reptiles.

The sign in the iconic snake pit on entering never fails to amuse me ‘Trespassers will be poisoned’. Copyright Rupi Mangat

A boomslang, a mildly venomous snake slithers above it and l shoot it (with my camera).  I had only intended to spend a few minutes to see Omieri but got carried away by the rest – snakes, crocodiles, eels and fish.

Rare sighting – Mt Kenya Bush Viper Copyright Rupi Mangat.

It’s an active morning for the cold-blooded reptiles warmed by the sun. Another long python (this time alive) uncoils, slithers across the water pond and up the rocks and across, its long body stretched from head to tail.

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Mount Kenya Bush Viper at rest at Nairobi Snake Park’ Copyright Rupi Mangat

The green mambas and the black mambas, the cobras including the really rare ones like the Mount Kenya carpet viper are in clean cages and well fed unlike when l visited in 2011 and wrote a scathing article about the terrible condition of the poor snakes.

The aquarium is exciting with the many species of lung fish and cat fish swimming gracefully including the increasingly rare indigenous and threatened cichlids in lakes like Victoria.

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The Nile crocodile sunning itself at Nairobi Snake Park’. Copyright Rupi Magat

The enormous Nile crocodile slowly slithers into the pond. “Reptiles have an interesting lifestyle compared to birds or other mammals,” tells Asger Slothkorrel a young intern from Denmark here to learn all about snakes because in his country there are only two species but many in captivity as exotic pets. “These crocodiles are my favourite because they don’t have to eat often. They lie in the sun to charge energy and use it suddenly with lightning speed when they strike giving the mammals no time to react. Crocodiles have been on Earth for millions of years and still survive.”

Take a leisurely stroll through Nairobi Snake Park. It’s fascinating. Serpents have been revered since antiquity in many religions but equally misunderstood by many. Just remember the golden rule of seeing snake in the wild. “Stop, turn around and walk away. The snake will be happy to see you do that,” said the late James Ashe, the park’s second curator. He raised the profile of the snakes and celebrities came to watch him milk venomous cobras. One day, Ashe got into a long interesting conversation about snakes with a young lad. The following day in the newspaper he read that he had been talking to Paul McCartney of the Beatles.

For more: www.museums.or.ke