18. The Mamba

By Peter Fraenkel

The twice-daily roll call at my boarding school always started with the Ashworthies.

“Ashworthy B.” “Present”, “Ashworthy F.”“Present”

There followed Butler and Combrinck and all the rest of us, lower down in the order of the alphabet.

Ashworthy B. was tall and broad shouldered and powerful. In the dorm, at night, he sometimes entertained us with stories – stories that we thought improbable – highly improbable. But it would have been unwise to call him a fibber, a liar, a fantasist. When annoyed, he would show his fist and warn that one of his blows would send the offender to “kingdom come.” And anyway, we enjoyed his stories.

His father was a recruiter for Wenela, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association. They found their recruits in remote places. The Ashworthy family house, the son told us, was in one of the remotest and wildest parts of Africa – or at least it was remote and wild in the 1940s.  It was on the Caprivi Strip – that curious pedicle on the map of Africa thrusting through lands now called Namibia and Botswana to Zambia until it touches the great river Zambezi.

Their garden, he told us, faced the river and occasionally crocodiles emerged to sun themselves on their front lawn. He himself had once had to jump fast to avoid becoming the dinner for a hungry reptile. He said he had taken refuge up a tree and had watched helplessly as one of the beast grabbed his favourite dog, dragged it into the river and devoured it. He had yelled for his father to bring the .303, but in vain.

Of course we did not believe him but neither did we challenge his story.

The following term he came back with a story even more improbable – ‘over the top’, we thought. His father, he told us, had been bitten by a mamba while sitting by a camp fire somewhere remote in the bush. He had survived.

This time we dared to express disbelief. The mamba, as all of us knew, was the most venomous of our snakes. Once bitten you had a mere five minutes to live – unless, by some remote chance, you happened to have a syringe filled with serum ready by your side – an unlikely eventuality.

No, Ashworthy B. insisted, his father did not have a syringe at hand and the nearest hospital was a day’s march away. His father was, however, very experienced in bush craft. He had immediately seized a burning brand from the fire and had thrust it into his leg – into the site of the bite.  This had made him bleed profusely and had washed out most of the poison. His cook had killed the serpent to identify it. It was indeed a mamba, but of the green variety, not the black. These have venom slightly less fast-acting than the black ones. A victim usually had some eight or ten minutes of agonising life left.

“Not enough to write one’s will?” joked someone. Once out of his earshot we decided that this time Ashworthy B. had really overdone it. Surviving a mamba bite? Impossible!

Many years later, when I was visiting an outlying mission station in what is now called Zambia, I met the mission’s doctor. He mentioned that he had spent his formative years at a mission on the Caprivi Strip.

Had he ever come across a man called Ashworthy? I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “I even published a medical paper on him: the only recorded incident of anyone surviving a mamba bite. Or at least – surviving without serum. He had been in a bad state when they brought him to us. Very bad. But he did survive.”

All this happened a very long time ago but if, by any chance, his son, Ashworthy B, has not yet answered the roll call at the gates of heaven: My apologies. My sincerest apologies for what we said about you behind your back!