African Tales

Geckos Are Our FriendsGecko

The first night in Burkina Faso, I fell asleep with a baby gecko wandering around the ceiling over my bed. My cousin, Dorothy, with whom I traveled, assured me the creatures are harmless to people. They eat bugs in great quantities and have toes that enable them to them to stick to walls and ceilings. But this one was a baby and small – maybe an inch and a half long. I certainly hoped he’d developed his sticking expertise. Dorothy said there was nothing to fear. When she and her daughters lived in Swaziland, she said, they’d lie in bed and watch the geckos on the walls and ceilings devouring entire colonies of ants and other insects. Nevertheless, this night she suggested we stuff newspapers under the hotel room door to discourage any of our visitor’s family members to come calling. In the morning, the little fellow was nowhere to be seen.

The next night, however, when we returned to our room, there was a big gecko, six inches long at least, scurrying up and down the walls and behind one of the suitcases. Dorothy and I both screamed and stood on our beds until we decided we were going to need help getting rid of him. I stayed behind to keep an eye out for the intruder while Dorothy went outside to find the friendly waiter, Derra, and beg his assistance. He arrived with a broom. “Geckos are perfectly harmless,” he said. “They eat bugs.” “Yes, but we don’t want to sleep with them,” one of us replied. He stifled a smile and managed to sweep the critter out the door. No sooner had Derra left to return to his duties, than there appeared another large gecko in our room. Dorothy went back outside and asked Derra to return. This time, he brought an assistant. “Geckos are harmless,” the man said. “They eat bugs.”

The gecko hid himself under a large cloth wall hanging. Both men banged on the wall hanging to dislodge the gecko which then dropped to the floor and skittered under a bedside table. If only they wouldn’t move so fast. I think the skittering is the worst of it. The men moved the table and the second man grabbed the gecko with a piece of newspaper and threw him out the door. In the melee, the creature lost his tail, and Derra swept it out the door as well. (I recalled that salamanders in Northern California where I’d once lived lost their tails when frightened, presumably growing new ones as needed. Frequently one of the cats would appear with nothing but a salamander tail in its mouth.) The two men left, making no effort to hide their laughter at the silly American women. We quickly stuffed more newspapers under the door.

“So what was this story last night about lying in bed in Swaziland and watching the geckos clean out the insects?” I asked Dorothy. “I thought you said geckos are our friends.” “Yes,” she said, “but these are bordering on lizards, practically iguanas, in fact.” I didn’t argue.

I have since learned that geckos are indeed lizards, part of a family called gekkonidae, the largest bunch of lizards in the world with at least 2,000 different species. They are found in warm climates. Except for one subfamily of geckos, they have no eyelids and instead have a transparent membrane which they lick to clean. Hence that long tongue, I guess. Ick. They are unique among lizards in that they vocalize, making chirping sounds when they interact with other geckos. We missed that, thank goodness. Skittering and chirping – ye gods! And one more thing we missed: Some species, I read, can emit foul-smelling material and feces upon their aggressors. Had we known that was a possibility, we might have been more conciliatory toward our nighttime visitors. Or moved out.

The next night brought another visitor and another plea for help from the staff. This gecko got stabbed to death by a broom handle when he wouldn’t leave peaceably. I knew the entire staff was laughing at us for being such wimps. I really didn’t mind the geckos when I saw them outside, climbing walls and scurrying out of the way of your feet when you walked on the paths, or cavorting with the bats that swooped over the lighted swimming pool in the evening to compete with them for bugs. But the idea of sitting in a room trying to read while a six-inch lizard is running up and down the walls was difficult to accept. How did people here manage that? Or would that be the least of their worries in a largely impoverished country such as this? I determined to stop this nonsense.

And then Derra told us that the geckos actually live in the thatch of our building’s roof. Swell.

So when the owner of the hotel asked if we’d mind moving to another room since a guest who always stays in our room was arriving, we were happy to do so. The new room was larger and guess what? No geckos.

[2004]

One comment on “African Tales

  1. […] You can read about my entire trip to Timbuctu in African Tales on this […]

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