Creature from the pit
I was visited by a census taker today as I was trying to prepare lunch without electricity. I worked for the American census so I kind of knew what to expect, but there were some aspects of this census that were uniquely South African. For instance, the lady wanted to know what kind of toilet I had. When she asked I pointed fearfully to the path leading to a pit latrine downhill. Little did she know what horrors lurked at the end of that path.
The spiders don’t bother me. The lizards and salamanders that crawl along the walls are just there to keep me safe as far as I’m concerned. Even the ants that pour out of the cracks around the seats, though mysterious in their motivation, aren’t that daunting or painful when they bite. It’s what lurks within that makes me want to buy a spade and dig a new latrine.
Not too long ago I learned that my village has bats when I saw one at night, swooping over the latrine. I considered this a good thing because the bats will eat mosquitoes and make it that much less likely I’ll get malaria. Now, I’ve had a bit of experience with pit latrines in South Africa (I’ve heard this video is relevant but i haven’t been able to see it yet), and this is one of the less impressive ones, largely because of the ants that seem to live in the concrete under the seat, and aimlessly crawl around for no other reason than to make my life miserable. The thing isn’t well-ventilated either, with a simple PVC pipe leading up from the back. Well, one night I heard some rustling from underneath the latrine, which can happen in well-ventilated pits on windy days. When I heard the rustling again, and I was sure that it wasn’t windy, my next thought was “That noise better not be what I think it is.”
I stood up and peered down the hole (never a good idea under any circumstances) and sure enough, a bat flew out. I’m not sure where it went because I was busy ducking and covering. It may have flown out the door, which I sometimes leave open because it faces the mountains, or it may have been as scared as I was and dived back inside.
The bat had caught me with my pants down, but once I was sure it was gone or at least out of sight, I got out of there and finished my business under the cover of darkness. I had some toilet paper I wanted to throw in, but as soon as I took a step toward the latrine or shined my flashlight on it, the sound of bat wings flapping would send me back. Once I had finally managed to do it, I sealed the door and went back to the house.
When I saw my host mother again, I told her there was a bat in the latrine. Of course, she didn’t understand me, as no one here speaks English that well. “You know, a bat… A hairy flying mammal…” So I went to my room and got my tshivenda-english dictionary, and showed her the entry for bat: “nyamulemalema”. That didn’t seem to help; she kept poring over the entry, reading the English parts out loud. “Bat. Not ~ an eyelid.” My host sister came in and joined her and together they read the entry, seemingly mystified.
Fininally, my host mother acted like she understood. “Yes, nyamulemalema.” I didn’t understand what she said next, but I heard the word for bird and saw her make flying motions so I assume she got it. “Yeah, it’s like that,” I said. “There’s one living in the toilet.”
“Yes”, my host mother and sister said in Tshivenda, smiling as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And that was that. Except I still don’t know where I can safely go to the toilet. Nothing against bats. I still like them but I don’t think humans and bats should cohabitate. I guess I’m just not African enough to feel comfortable pooping when a creature is flapping its wings beneath me.