The mention of the name David Chumba at the University of Eastern African, Baraton in Nandi County in the Rift Valley region of Kenya, elicits mixed feelings of fear and respect. Chumba is a snake handler.
Nicknamed Manyoka, Swahili for “snakeman,” the 55-year old man is known for his love for snakes and commitment to their preservation.
But Chumba has not always been a snakeman. He once worked as a cook.
He recalls that his fascination for the reptiles goes back to when he was 10 years old, and a pupil at Kapkangani Primary School in Nandi County. He was naturally interested in snakes and could catch them easily.
“I had no physical protection against venom, but I could catch snakes by their heads and tails with my bare hands using a small wedged stick to push their heads away from my body. I have survived bites, though,” he says.
As word got around that he was an “expert” snake catcher, he says; “The local residents started seeking my assistance to fish out snakes that had wandered into their homes. I helped, at a small fee, and would later release the reptiles back into the wild.”
A secondary school dropout, Chumba lacks the scientific knowledge of snake handling but has learnt how to expertly use a wooden stick and a gunny bag to immobilise and catch the reptiles.
His biggest break as a snake catcher came in 2003 when a group of international students from the Philippines arrived for studies at Baraton university’s Department of Biological Sciences.
The university needed a full time handler to work as a curator at their snake park and assist the students to conduct their studies on the reptiles. Chumba was the obvious choice. His skills and passion for snakes were well known and his adventures of taming and capturing snakes were common lore.
Chumba’s passion paid off when the university offered him permanent employment as their official snake handler. His job entails catching and transporting venomous snakes to the Baraton university snake park where they are kept for educational purposes.
“I would accompany the students from the Philippines on missions to hunt down dangerous snakes in different forests in the region, and I felt really appreciated in my role as a snake handler. My passion had become a full time job,” he says.
He has traversed East Africa on educational tours across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, where his main role is to handle dangerous snakes in their natural habitat and make them available to learners in controlled and safe surroundings.
“My job is special, unique and lacking in competition. I am the only known snake handler across the western region of Kenya, which makes me love my job even more,” he says with a smile.
Caring for snakes
He has been to all forests in the greater Nandi region and Kakamega in Western Kenya to return “lost” snakes to their habitat. He also has a passion for collecting and preserving the bones of dead snakes for his students’ studies.
Chumba says he has mastered the art of caring for snakes despite the minimal snake handling education he has received from scientific experts, and that he ensures the reptiles are well fed and watered without incident. He knows the specific types of snakes by their local, English and scientific names, knowledge he has acquired over the years he has handled the snakes and from his personal effort to learn.
“Here at the snake park, I can name each snake, its age and the number of years it has lived at the park,” he said.
In his zeal to learn more about snakes, Chumba lived with the forest community of the Ndorobos in the Mau Forest for six years.
The Baraton snake park charges one dollar to visitors to see their snake collection. Among them are black mambas, which Chumba captured in Kilifi County at the Coast. Others are a boom slag from the south Coast, a rock python from Baringo, a rhinoceros viper from Nandi North Forest and a Gabon viper from Kakamega Forest.
Even with a full time job, Chumba is still called upon by the larger community in Chesumei, where Baraton University is located, to assist in catching poisonous snakes that have ventured into human habitats.
Despite being an expert handler, the snake man says he has survived 10 snake bites. He showed this writer about 10 scars on his hands and legs of the said bites. He says these bites happened because the snakes were aggressively resisting being captured.
Surprisingly, Chumba says he only uses traditional herbs to treat the bites and insists “his beloved snakes” have never caused him any serious harm. Some of the snakes he has captured are black mambas (Dendroaspis polylepis) one of the most venomous snakes found in sub-Saharan Africa. Other types are the Jameson mamba, also a highly venomous snake common in forests across the region.
“An attack from the Jameson mamba can be fatal because its venom can kill a grown man or animal in 20 minutes,” he explains.
The biggest challenge to Chumba’s job is removing venom through a process known as “milking.” He describes it as a tedious and dangerous procedure.
Chumba says he has captured and handled more than 300 different types of snakes. He compliments snake handling with catching other wild animals such as baboons and monkeys.
Chumba was born in Kombe village in Nandi in 1962. He dropped out of secondary school in 1982 while in Form Two due to lack of fees. He joined Kaptel Youth Polytechnic to try his hand in masonry but abandoned the apprenticeship for snake handling that came naturally to him and was already earning him money.
He is married with eight children, and says his current job caters for his large family comfortably.
“I know that my job is feared and even hated by some, but it has been a blessing to me. The snakes ensure my family is well fed, housed and educated,” he says.
Chumba is a legend in his community as his nickname, Manyoka, is used both in jokes and to instil fear in wayward children. The sight of him walking down the village path is enough to send children scampering in different directions screaming his name.
It is evident that snake handling will be passed down to the next generation, as one of Chumba’s four sons, Obed Kipchumba, a secondary school leaver has followed in his footsteps.
“He has already captured 20 poisonous snakes and milked two hostile ones,” Chumba said.
Chumba is not yet thinking of retirement and is now looking for financial sponsorship to enable him learn more about snakes’ behaviour and how to handle them better. He is also seeking to acquire modern snake handling equipment.
On the side, Chumba raises rabbits that he sells to the university snake park as food for the reptiles.
In African folklore, snakes are associated with evil mystical powers practised by wizards and witches. For this, Chumba’s social life is not easy although he says he does his best to impart knowledge and sensitisation on the role of snakes in the ecosystem.
“Snakes should not be feared, they are very docile and only attack when threatened. I also would like to demystify the myth that snake handlers are wizards,” he says.