Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to others (Pro12:15)
One Saturday morning about 15 years ago, when we were still living in our African village, I was doing some routine maintenance on the group of eight 12-volt batteries of our solar panel system I had set up 10 years earlier, the only source of power we had for lighting and for running our computers, since there was no electricity or water in the village. The batteries were on the outside of the house, inside a brick enclosure I had built. Opening the metal lid of this enclosure was never a pleasant experience, as lizards, geckos and other creepy crawlies found it an excellent place to hide - and to leave their foul-smelling droppings. But it had to be done. I started removing the sturdy cable connectors which combined the eight batteries into one massive 12-volt bank, wiping off the vaseline I had daubed on months before to protect the terminals from dust and dampness, and sanding off the corrosion which had nevertheless found its way there. As I worked systematically through the connectors, I observed a couple of things out of the corner of my eye, without really giving them much thought. Firstly, I saw chunks of what I took to be lizard skin lying on the cement floor of the enclosure, beside the batteries. Secondly, in the corner of the enclosure, at the juncture with the house wall, I saw some mud “termite tunnels”. Termites are a real threat to the woodwork of any house in Africa, but we had up till then been blessedly spared their intrusion into our abode. The termite barriers I had incorporated into the walls when building the house were obviously effective, forcing the destructive critters to climb on the outside of the walls, thereby exposing themselves. When they were forced into the open in this way, they constructed these mud tunnels to protect themselves. I had to prevent the termites getting any further, so I made a mental note that, once I had finished my battery maintenance, I would destroy their construction work.
Now, our village cook, Simon Pierre, worked for us on Saturday mornings, and was present that day, standing observing what I was doing, rather than getting on with the labour-intensive kitchen work we paid him for. Pierre is a very practical man and he had the disconcerting habit of always coming and watching every practical thing I attempted when I wasn’t at my desk. But more, he was also very liberal in giving me advice about how I could do better whatever I was doing. That morning he couldn’t resist coming out of the kitchen and standing close by. Feeling his eyes following my every move, I waited for his wise counsel about my electrical work. I often felt like saying to him “Pierre, what do you know about this?” After all, what match was he for me with my multiple degrees since he had not even completed primary school? But only too often I had observed that his practical wisdom trumped my book learning and I had gained too much respect for him to think of addressing him in such a way.
After a few minutes he spoke. But it wasn’t to offer me his thoughts about how I was managing with the electrical system.
“There’s been a məkisiwiɗ (a snake) in your battery enclosure.”
“Hah? What makes you think that?” I enquired.
“Simple, there’s its skin,” he replied, pointing to the sheddings I had half observed.
“Hmm, I would say that’s lizard skin” I maintained, as if I, the foreigner, would know such a thing better than the local man who had been brought up with all manner of reptilian wildlife inside his house.
Pierre parried my thrust with the obvious “Lizards don’t shed their skin in large pieces like that,” and repeated, “there’s been a snake in there.”
I tried to ignore him and continue with my work, but, pointing to the corner with the termite tunnels that I was intending to clear out once I had finished my maintenance, he went on. “In fact, there’s the hole where it may have been hiding”.
Drawing breath through clenched teeth I reluctantly turned my head and observed that there was indeed an orifice hardly an inch across, right at the base of the tunnels. “Hmmm”, I reluctantly conceded, “But it’s a good thing it’s gone”. Pierre was silent for a moment, staring at the hole intently, then he said “No it hasn’t, I can see its eyes in the hole!”
This was almost too much for me and I nearly said to him, “Look, will you just leave me in peace!?” But he suddenly sprang into action, grabbed a long, thin stick and plunged it several times into the tiny hole. Then he pulled out a two-foot long grey snake - a young but now very mangled and very dead cobra. Even I knew that, although it was a youngster, without the characteristic hood of the adult male, it still carried lethal venom and was just as deadly as the mature snake.
I looked with horror, thinking about how I had been intending to clear away the termite tunnels with my bare hands, only inches away from those cobra eyes and fangs. And also when I thought about how I had wanted to tell Pierre to get back into the kitchen and mind his own business.
His duty completed, and without any “Didn’t I tell you?”, Pierre went quietly back to mincing the meat, washing the vegetables and sifting the weevils out of the flour to bake bread. Very shaken, I resumed my battery maintenance, humbled by the experience and impressed once more of the need to at least listen to others, however much it might cost and however much we might think we know better.
Later, I was able to bring myself to tell Pierre (and others) that he had probably saved my life. And I also let him know that I had initially wanted to tell him to clear off!