In which I am accused of witchcraft, which is Serious Business

There are no photos associated with this story, for reasons that will become apparent. Therefore, I've paired the story with pictures of giraffes. 

 In 2008 I was doing herpetofauna surveys in rural Congo. An important part of doing herp surveys is wandering around at night with a torch looking for critters that only come out after dark. The first day we got to our field site, despite having confirmed our arrival the day prior, we found our local guide completely drunk. He was clearly in no condition to guide us anywhere.

Portrait of giraffe. Nairobi National Park, Kenya, 2013.

The trip leader, a Congolese herpetologist, resigned not to do any surveying that night. I, young and enthusiastic, had other ideas. We had been to this village several times before. If we stayed within the village itself, and didn't wander into the surrounding countryside, what did we need a guide for? Time in the field is precious, and I didn't want to waste a second. I convinced the Congolese Master's student with us to wander with me, just around the village. 

The result of this was two young guys wandering slowly through a rural village, shining flashlights into every nook and cranny along the outsides of mud huts looking for snakes, geckos, and other things that go slither in the night.  Imagine how alien flashlights look in a place with no electricity. Nonetheless, all of this would have been fine if we had been with our local guide. Without him, I quickly learned just how creative the answer to the question "what could possibly go wrong?" can be.

Giraffe feeding. Nairobi National Park, Kenya, 2013.

An older man, also very drunk, came stumbling towards us, yelling and waving his hands. He quickly started arguing in a local language with the Congolese student. This happens sometimes, and it's usually quickly resolved. This time it was different. The man was adamant. The Congolese student explained to me that this man was accusing me of witchcraft. Particularly, of sneaking around trying to steal people's possessions and hair to use for my own nefarious purposes. I'm pretty sure a response of "we're just looking for lizards, snakes and frogs" would only have reinforced his suspicions. Clearly only witches have uses for snakes, lizards and frogs.

Witches are Serious Business in Central Africa. It's from this area that the religion of Voodoo originates and is still widely practiced (though now it's usually combined with Christianity). The drunk man ended up taking me and the poor Congolese student to the village chief, who reassured the man of our humanness. We were supremely embarrassed and most definitely done surveying for the night.  

Giraffe mocking the Sydney skyline. Sydney, New South Wales, 2012.

It's not difficult to offend local sensibilities when the culture and religion are completely foreign, and language barriers make it difficult to pick things up from the people around you. However, on that same trip, our Congolese trip leader managed to get himself accused of witchcraft as well. At the end of the trip, while we were waiting for the bus back to the city, our trip leader was showing me pictures he had taken during our trip on his digital camera. Unfortunately, he wasn't paying attention to where he was pointing the camera and someone thought he was recording her. 

Voodoo has not adapted well to modern technology. One of the ways this has manifested is in the way some people treat photographs. They believe that by taking a picture of them, you are stealing their soul, or that you could use their picture to manipulate them like you would use a Voodoo doll. This is a good example of why it's important to always ask someone if you can take their picture before doing so, especially when travelling. You could be stealing their soul.

Giraffe with oxpeckers. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, 2008.

Our trip leader ended up in a shouting match with about a half-dozen people standing in a semi-circle in front of him. They were yelling so close to each other's faces I was worried it would devolve into an actual fistfight. It was after dark and there was no electrical lighting in the area, so the whole scene was illuminated from below by the eery green glow of the camera screen. Combine this with the thunderstorm that was raging around us and the occasional bolt of lighting that would over-illuminate everything for a split second, and it was a rather unpleasant and spooky situation. One that might make you believe in witches. Thankfully a pickup truck finally arrived to take us back to the city, and we got out of there before anything serious happened.

As far as I know those two situations had nothing to do with each other. On subsequent visits we had no problems, though we were careful to have our local guide with us at all times.

Giraffe with calf. Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya, 2008.