Anyone who has ever known me will know of my phobia of spiders, my nervousness of small insects and basically any insect type creature with more than 2 legs, yes, that means most crawlers. You can imagine the utter shock within my family and friend circle when I announced, back in 2003, that I was embarking on a Voluntary Overseas Services (VSO) assignment for 2 years in Africa! This is where one literally puts a complete hold on their day-to-day life and existence to embark on a volunteer programme, earning a stipend, a small living allowance,and sharing whatever your area of professional expertise is. In my case, I was selected for my Business and Management skills in order to make strategic, operational and capacity building programmes which deliver sustainable positive impact within local communities.
As part of my preparation, I decided to do something about my fear, so, I attended a series of discussion groups conducted at Bristol Zoo Arachnophobia Course, where experts at the Zoo help people with extreme arachnophobia to overcome their fear of spiders through a combination of discussion, relaxation, hypnotherapy and education (learning about spiders). I can bear witness to the fact that I went from a hysterical screaming banshee to a very relaxed, and comfortable ‘with spiders’ person. At the end of the course, I was one of the many participants on the course who were eagerly waiting to hold, yes, you heard me ‘eagerly awaiting’ and ‘to hold’, a Tarantula. It is a memory I still hold today. My first surprise, aside from having one in my hand, was how furry and soft it was, in fact, it was beautiful. They are fascinating creatures and I remember the education process of the course replacing my absolute and irrational fear, with complete respect for the intriguing and complex biology of the arachnid. My journey to and from that course, which was conducted over a few sessions, involved me travelling some 3 hours and a stay with relatives, as I lived a way away. Believe me, it was worth every mile journeyed.
For me, it was an essential part of my preparation to move over to Africa for a period of time. My daily existence prior to that was having to live within a quick telephone dash of someone who would be able to simply drop everything just to respond to a regular hysterical phone call from a gibbering me as I screamed down the phone that I was about to be dragged out of the house, by my ankles, from the biggest, blackest, 8-legged beast I had ever seen my entire life, and, it was wearing Doc Martens! Yes, my preparation for my ‘African’ experience was life-saving. Most of my anticipation was in fear of the creepy, crawly things. Actually, it completely overwhelmed my thoughts of the mental preparation of some of the real issues. Fortunately, the VSO organisation provided a very comprehensive training and preparation process over a period of months to ensure everyone is physically and mentally prepared for the environment they were about to enter and the complex, diverse and challenging issues of working, living and coping in regions of dire poverty, deprivation, exploitation and in some cases civil unrest.
Preparation complete, I can honestly say, nothing and I mean absolutely nothing prepared me for all the other aspects of my experience. My destination remained undisclosed until the final weeks of my pending exit. My assignment was to work in the field of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. This was my dream assignment, I considered myself so completely blessed to be given such an opportunity. This is because as a Black person born in the UK in the 1960’s and cutting my professional ‘teeth’ in the UK in the Insurance & Finance Industry and later in the field of Media, Publishing and Senior Executive Management; I had a keen interest in cultural and race related issues facing the diaspora of Black people throughout the world, from slavery to modern days. I had clear memories of the apartheid era of South Africa from all the media coverage we received in the UK and the extent of pure propaganda of both sides of the issues. Anyway, that is a completely different story for another time. Additonally, my relief was that they were not sending me to a ‘rain forest’ area as my imagination kept drifting off to that scene from Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart was hauling the ‘African Queen’ through leech dense waters in tropical heat, and he was covered in leeches!
Initially, I spent a lot of time in urban environments, this is where I experienced the ‘urban’ crawlers, things like Rain Spiders, Parktown Prawns and the like. For the first 6 months I was fine and considered myself completely healed of any phobias (although, I still believe that Parktown Prawns are still one of the ‘ugliest’ things I have ever seen, and that smell, gross)! I soon discovered my phobia had returned when I conducted rural project work in the various Provinces of the Country. So, for many years, as my 2-year assignment became 5 years. I simply learnt to ‘cope’ with my phobia. It most certainly did not stop me from going out to my very first safari in the Kruger National Park, an experience that was beyond words and something that stimulated many safari visits since. Ironically, I now live part-time in the ‘Bush’, which is the Lowveld area of Limpopo and the safari gateway of South Africa. My way of coping with both urban and rural living was to take the view of anything outside was fine, that was their space, and I was the visitor. However, anything within my home space was a ‘non-rent paying intruder’ and, had to be dealt with accordingly. I soon mastered the art of a near complete ‘creepy free living’ over the many years of my time in Africa. I found a way to strike a balance with nature, and some coping mechanisms, so that I could still enjoy the amazing and simply stunning beauty of the land, whilst not being exposed to venomous reptile or harmful arachnids. Living in the Bush took a while as I soon learnt that each season brought new experiences and climate swings (wet seasons and then droughts) bought with them various insect swarms. Whilst initially a being quite overwhelming, I soon learnt and understood the purpose of these things are all part of our existence on this earth, and, I educated myself of the role that each and every living thing has to play on this planet.
So far, I have spent over 10 years living in Africa, it is a Country I adore. I have learnt to embrace the amazing experiences of its wildlife, safari is and will remain one of the most wonderful and exhilarating experiences I have ever enjoyed, hence my choice to have a home and business in that environment. Having lived all my life with arachnophobia I recently embarked on a series of counselling sessions to breakdown why I have a phobia. This involved a process through ‘multi-level processing’ (MLP), which taught me how to identify my fear triggers, how to hold and process my fear, and, through that process, I learnt how to embrace and absorb that fear. I no longer hyper-ventilate when I come across large arachnids, or any of the creepies. I will never like the look of some of them though, simply because ‘I do not like the look of them’, not because they grip me with fear, because they no longer do. I will always apply caution around most of them, especially in hot or tropical climates, simply because some of them can bite, sting, or penetrate your skin/body and cause pain, suffering, or, in some extreme cases, death. So, common-sense prevails, I found myself yet again with a spider in my hand. Not a tarantula, but a nice big meaty black one and it was OK.
I now live my life in the knowledge that to some things, it is me that is really scary, I must be, because they hurry off and scuttle away as soon as they see me. No, I am not talking of my fellow humans (although saying that, there may be one of two who still do)! I am talking of my fellow earth creatures, the ones I have learned to live with, to put outside and not squash, vacuum or spray them. I have earnt an immense respect for most things that crawl around and because of that, my life is enriched by being able to live between two very rural and stunningly beautiful parts of the world in both Scotland and in South Africa, embracing nature, its wonderment, and its glory in both.
Maxine Smith – Director – Nyumbani Estate Bush Lodge, South Africa.