Friday, November 4, 2011

The Bosom Serpent

"There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne." 
- Karen Blixen
There are very few man-eaters left in the African wilderness. Gone is the Golden Age of Adventure, when big game hunters like Hemingway and Roosevelt commanded the wilds in intimate pursuit of such dangerous, elusive creatures. It was with wonder and dread, therefore, that we approached one particularly insidious man-eater that still roams the savannahs of East Africa.
“C’mon,” she whispered, as we lay in wait for the beast to reappear.  I couldn’t be sure if Kigongo was talking to me, nor where precisely our hunt had taken us. I was flat on my belly while she crouched at my side. The day was very hot now before the wind had gotten up, and we knew he would have gone back deep to rest out the heat. The shelterless equatorial sky informed our location as somewhere in the center of Africa. We had been stalking the beast for hours, trying to anticipate when he might reveal himself again. Caution and prudence prevailed, as he himself was a man-hunter.  
“Can you get a shot at him?” I asked, but she said nothing, narrowing her eyes. She had seen him five times, and believed she had him a couple of times, only for him to slip from her grasp at the decisive moment. All I knew was that he was nesting somewhere near the crevice...  
There was little I could do but wait. He was her mark, and she was determined to bag a prize this time. Kigongo was becoming an expert hunter, having bagged three of these beasts already. But each of her previous trophies had been small compared to this one. She readied herself, knowing he would be forced to come out at any moment. Forget the Big Five, she had her sights set on just one elusive beast.
“OK,” she gasped, “here he comes. Here he comes!” 
Suddenly, I could feel him moving.. She clamped down hard on his little black head with her tweezers and tugged and tugged, but he was still not ready to be evicted. This was one fat, well nourished creature. He should have been; he’d been feasting on the right cheek of my buttocks for a fortnight. Once again, he withdrew back into my gluteus maximus, not to resurface again that day. Such is the unyielding tenacity of the Tumbu fly larva.
Most people disregard stories of insects which lay their eggs in a human hosts as nothing more than urban myths. As the Myth of the Spider Bite goes, a young woman from an ordinary, northern location is on vacation in an exotic, southern location, and while sunbathing on the beach, is bitten on the cheek (the one on her face) by a spider. The bite swells into a large boil and she rushes home to seek medical treatment. When the boil is lanced hundreds of tiny spiders come running out of her cheek, and the woman then goes insane from the whole horrifying experience. This myth echoes Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, The Bosom Serpent, published in 1843, where all sorts of creatures enter the body and reproduce there. The term bosom-serpent is now used to generalize any legend in which living creatures enter the human body, and usually have to be removed surgically, though sometimes depart on their own, or even burst from the skin.
But the Tumbu fly is no urban myth. According to Wikepedia, “Cordylobia anthropophaga, the mango fly, tumbu fly, tumba fly, putzi fly or skin maggot fly, is a species of blow-fly common in East and Central Africa. Its specific epithet anthropophaga derives from the Greek word anthropophagus, ‘eater of men’." I should know, I had one in my derrière. And I can confirm, there’s no other bush experience quite like having one or more of its larvae burrowing into your subcutaneous tissue, as you gaze across the wide open spaces at herds of roaming wildebeest. 
But how did it get there? Remember that safari suit you asked the lodge staff to express launder in time for your sunrise game drive? Well, while your outfit was hanging out to dry in a service area behind the kitchen, as you sipped sundowners on the lodge veranda, along came a Tumbu fly who laid eggs in your khaki. Albeit you may have been in a hurry to get your clothes back from the laundry (especially if you only had one safari suit). But if they weren’t properly ironed, the next morning, while you were out enjoying your game drive, and your egg-infested clothing came into close contact with your skin, the larvae would have hatched and burrowed into your flesh. The insect can lay up to 300 eggs at the start of a cycle - so you can only pray the damn fly doesn’t choose your underwear for this season’s Tumbu nursery.
In Geary, Hudson, Russell and Hardy’s paper. "Exotic myiasis with Lund's fly (Cordylobia rodhaini)", published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1999, they describe the presentation of cutaneous myiasis caused by the Tumbu fly: "At the site of penetration, a red papule forms and gradually enlarges. At first the host may experience only intermittent, slight itching, but pain develops and increases in frequency and intensity as the lesions develop into a furuncle. The furuncle's aperture opens, permitting fluids containing blood and waste products of the maggot to drain." 
It’s not the kind of wildlife experience anyone comes to East Africa to encounter, though some people do find it quite intriguing. I recently took John Paterson, an amiable dentist from Queensland, on a safari with his wife Margot and brother-in-law William, visiting ten superb game parks across East Africa. While lounging in the pool at a remote lodge in Serengeti (although he probably picked it up a few days previous), he discovered a pair of boil-like contusions on his side. I recognized them immediately as Tumbu fly larvae nesting in his torso, though the lodge doctor was at first perplexed. Only after looking it up on the web (through the lodge’s high-speed connection), did he decide to apply vaseline. A couple of hours later the larvae, starved of air, burst through their suffocating shields and were promptly removed with tweezers. 
After returning to Brisbane, Paterson reported, “the most interest generated by far has been the Tumbu fly story. I will dine out on it for many years, and I heartily recommend it to any other prospective travelers! It was well worth the inconvenience.”
Not everyone will be so good natured as John about it. In fact most won’t and, as the urban legend goes, some may even be driven mad by the experience. But if you come back from Africa with unusual ulcers and boils, go and see a doctor, as it might be cutaneous myiasis caused by the Tumbu fly. You might want to mention the simple treatment before he puts you under the knife, or before you wind up on a psychiatrist’s couch.
It remains to be said, the safari lodge industry needs to clean up its act. To be sure the Tumbu fly isn’t the most enduring wildlife experience visitors take away with them from East Africa, lodge managers must make sure their staff properly iron all laundry. It’s usually included in the bill, but all the more criminal when the lodge charges you for egg-infested laundry. In all seriousness, if they want the numbers of visitors to East Africa’s game parks and lodges to increase, they must deny the Tumbu fly.
Kigongo eventually removed mine from my ass, and I was myself again. My man-eating hitchhiker met his end being burned alive and then flushed down the toilet (although, they do recommend your doctor keeps the larva alive to identify what type of blow fly it becomes, as there are several different species which behave in this way). Suffice to say Kigongo was just happy to have the beast out of our home, and I simply chalked it up as another lesson from the wild. 
But I must end with a warning, my fellow travelers. You best beware, while on safari, of all wildlife - both seen and unseen. You never know what bosom serpents may be lurking in your boxer shorts. 

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