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Mean and Lowly Things

Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo

Kate Jackson
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Mean and Lowly Things
    Book Description:

    In 2005 Jackson ventured into the remote swamp forests of the northern Congo to collect reptiles and amphibians. This book is Jackson's unvarnished account of her research on the front lines of the global biodiversity crisis-coping with interminable delays in obtaining permits, learning to outrun advancing army ants, subsisting on a diet of Spam and manioc, and ultimately falling in love with the strangely beautiful flooded forest.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-03902-5
    Subjects: History, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. prologue
    (pp. 1-2)

    I went to the Congo for the snakes mostly, though for the frogs and lizards and toads as well. When I set out to spend two rainy seasons camped in the swamp forest of northern Congo, I had nothing in mind except documenting the species diversity of animals neglected by science, in a part of the world where they had never been studied before.

    But what I found there were a lot of things I hadn’t counted on. Reconstructed from the mud-spattered pages of the journals I kept, this is the story of what went into producing a brief report...

  4. chapter 1 how it all started
    (pp. 3-13)

    It is my fifth day in the Republic of Congo. The war broke out yesterday, the beginning of my first independent expedition to collect amphibians and reptiles for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where I am a student. Yesterday morning I was on a plane taking off from Brazzaville, the capital, en route to Ouesso, in the forested northern part of the country. I had no idea that at the same time a coup was taking place which was to throw the country into a brutal civil war. This morning, in Brazzaville, dead bodies line the streets. Buildings that I...

  5. chapter 2 back to the congo
    (pp. 14-37)

    Seven years fly by. I complete my dissertation on snake anatomy, and follow it up with a postdoctoral fellowship studying crocodile physiology. But soon my thoughts drift back to that vast central African forest that drains into the Congo River. The amphibians and reptiles in that forest are still among the most poorly known in the world. The Congo, less stable and more dangerous than Cameroon or Gabon where other scientists are working, is an empty niche. My postdoctoral fellowship ends and I have no job. It is time to return to Africa.

    I should explain here that there are...

  6. chapter 3 in limbo
    (pp. 38-54)

    Impfondo is a dusty town centered on the asphalt road that passes through it. The sun beats down on a network of small, packed-dirt streets that spread out on either side. Its most notable feature is a sizable market, a warren of narrow, muddy alleyways between stalls selling everything from soap to spaghetti to dried caterpillars (a popular snack) to plastic sandals. My wealthy friends in Pointe Noire call these 1,500cfa sandalssouliers à jeter(shoes to throw away). Here they are the shoes worn by everyone—everyone who has shoes that is.

    Hugo Rainey, the director of WCS Lac...

  7. chapter 4 the flooded forest
    (pp. 55-76)

    On Saturday morning the villagers are ready for me at Ganganya Brousse. On a second visit the place doesn’t seem quite as squalid as I remembered it. Not quite. I greet everyone with “Mbote,” and a handshake, as I pass through the village. Some people have their hands wet or dirty from whatever work they are in the middle of. Rather than be so rude as not to shake hands, these people, as is the custom, politely extend the right arm, hand hanging down, offering the wrist to shake. I hardly realize it when the person I am being reintroduced...

  8. chapter 5 neighbors, nets, and nothing
    (pp. 77-100)

    With Emmanuel gone, Etienne and Florence and I settle into a routine. Life in the camp is not at all as I had imagined it would be, but I am happy. Two people could hardly be more different than Florence and Etienne but we make a very contented trio. Etienne tells us that he sees me as an older sister and Florence as a mother, which, though well meant, seems to please me more than it does Florence. One day Etienne returns from a rare visit to the village with four precious photographs of his wife and baby to show...

  9. chapter 6 the red snake
    (pp. 101-123)

    Etienne doesn’t come back until it is almost dark, but when he arrives he is triumphantly carrying a plastic bag containing two specimens of the lizard I missed on the roof of the payotte that first day. I am ecstatic. Where did he catch them? “My wife caught them, Madame, in the village this afternoon.”

    “Using the noose I gave you?”

    “No, Madame, she just caught them with her hands.” Yes, I notice that they are missing their tails, but I’m in no position to be fussy. Lizards’ tails break off easily if you handle them roughly. It’s a defense...

  10. chapter 7 a bottle of snakes
    (pp. 124-134)

    Etienne and I are on our way back from the swamp one night, along the trail that leads from the road to the camp. Etienne is always greatly relieved when the work in the swamp is over, and rushes back to the camp making as much noise as possible. I am trying to break him of this habit, since my idea of the return from the swamp is that it is the last chance of the evening to catch something. Anyway, this night I am prevailing and he is fairly restrained. Suddenly we both stop. Something is moving in the...

  11. chapter 8 a day of monsters
    (pp. 135-147)

    A mamba! Shit!

    When Nicole turned up this morning carrying a large, plastic jug, this is not what I expected to find inside. But with the cap unscrewed I can just make out a thick coil of green body with smooth scales. I hastily screw the cap back on. Held up to the light, the white plastic is slightly translucent. I shake the jug from side to side, and estimate that the snake is a good meter and a half long.

    This is going to be tricky work. I really don’t want an audience, but I’ve got one: Patience, being...

  12. chapter 9 time to go
    (pp. 148-159)

    Taking down the nets is much less time-consuming than I had expected. I hadn’t realized that all the work of untangling them and removing leaves and twigs is done on land. It will be something for Etienne to work on over the next few days. But when we return with the nets, Etienne informs me sullenly that he’s going off to look for worms for fishing. He doesn’t say when he will be back, but when I put my foot down he sulkily agrees to 1:00 p.m.

    The camp is actually a much more agreeable place once he is gone,...

  13. chapter 10 red tape revisited
    (pp. 160-170)

    Hugo tells me to go and get washed up and that I’m staying in the same place as last time. Mitch is inside the house trying to say hello, but Hugo is planted firmly in the doorway to make sure I don’t track mud indoors. “I’m too dirty to come into the house,” I shout to Mitch through the screen door. Then I fill buckets from the well and have a really good wash.

    Mitch is leaving tomorrow morning for the field and the evening spent with him and Hugo is one of great luxury after the forest. The cook...

  14. chapter 11 planning my return
    (pp. 171-190)

    “That’s what fieldwork in these countries is like,” says George, the kind senior curator of herpetology at the Smithsonian, when I return from the Congo. “There’s nothing you could have done differently that would have avoided the problems.” The immediate problem, of course, is that my collection is stranded in Pointe Noire. But when I talk of shipping the collection to the United States, George is not optimistic. “We had to ship a collection from Cameroon once, and what with air freight and broker’s fees and so on it came to a couple of thousand dollars.” Clearly he is not...

  15. chapter 12 back to the likouala
    (pp. 191-208)


    “Ange!” He is short and stout with a friendly, easy-going face that is entirely out of keeping with the mayhem of the Brazzaville airport. I am enormously relieved to see him. After months of organizing by e-mail, my first meeting with my students is going to be a short one. I have only minutes to negotiate the chaos and get onto my connecting flight to Pointe Noire, and I am going to leave my big equipment boxes with them, as arranged.

    A slight, slender figure darts out of the crowd toward me. Lise! I have a fleeting impression of...

  16. chapter 13 this is impongui
    (pp. 209-235)

    As the nose of our pirogue approaches the little landing spot I start to worry. Can you do this? Just show up unannounced at somebody’s village with a whole lot of equipment and inform everybody that you are staying for a month? What if the people at Impongui turn us away? We have no backup plan. The first people we see are a group of children who come rushing down the steep bank to greet us. They immediately start unloading our pirogue, as though motorized pirogues full of strangers and their equipment arrive at Impongui every day. I struggle to...

  17. chapter 14 snake medicine
    (pp. 236-260)

    Lise and Ange soon learn how to formalin-fix specimens, to take tissue samples, and to write catalogue entries. They seem to think that they’ve just about mastered herpetology. But I am supposed to be training scientists, not technicians. Of course they need to know these basic techniques, but last year Etienne, a villager with no education whatsoever, learned how to do most of this. I am expecting considerably more from graduate students in biology. They need to learn to recognize the species they are collecting, or at least to be able to tell the genus of the most common and...

  18. chapter 15 making herpetologists
    (pp. 261-272)

    Time is going by, and I have to come up with thesis projects for Lise and for Ange. It is quite a challenge to come up with a project which will be an original contribution to science, and which they can carry out without access to a museum collection, or even a library, while at the same time making the most of the resource they do have: access at their doorstep to field sites never before studied by herpetologists. The project I had planned for Lise, catching, measuring, and releasingGrayiafrom the nets, is clearly not going to work...

  19. chapter 16 the home stretch
    (pp. 273-288)

    Life in the camp gets harder as the end of the project approaches. Ange does yet another inventory of the food and concludes that we are going to have to ration it carefully if it is going to see us through. We’ve got into the extravagant habit of preparing two meals a day. From now on there will be no more breakfast unless there happen to be leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. “Well, what shall we have for dinner?” Ange asks cheerfully that evening.

    “Of all the choices we have? How about escargots, followed by filet mignon, and finishing...

  20. chapter 17 a stressful day
    (pp. 289-303)

    I wake up early on the morning of our third-to-last day. The air is still cool at dawn when I strip off my clothes and dive off the end of the pirogue. Mist is rising off the surface of the cold water around my head, and the place looks somehow prehistoric, the first sunlight of the day barely reaching the black surface of the water. I think I would be only mildly surprised to encounter Mokele-Mbembe. The cool water feels wonderful now that I am in it. Only two more mornings like this left, I remind myself, then back to...

  21. chapter 18 kende malamu
    (pp. 304-314)

    The sun has already risen the morning I get up stiffly from the bed of branches and realize that I will never sleep on them again. Today is the day we take down the camp, and tomorrow is the day the boat is supposed to come to take us back to Epena.

    Yesterday, feeling completely recovered from the cobra incident, I figured out the trick to removing the maggots. I finally remembered learning about something like them in an entomology course I took as an undergraduate. The flies lay eggs in damp clothing hung out to dry. If you don’t...

  22. epilogue
    (pp. 315-318)

    It is another Thursday morning in October. Two alarm clocks only barely succeed in waking me up in time to get to my first class of the day. How did I manage to wake up with no alarm clock at all, 15 minutes before dawn every morning at our camp near Impongui? I am lying on one side of a recently purchased queen-size bed. The other side is occupied by piles of papers and textbooks that I must have fallen asleep studying. On the pillow beside me, Daisy yawns, stretches, and utters her one word of Lingala. I get up...

  23. acknowledgments
    (pp. 319-322)
  24. Index
    (pp. 323-328)