Lesson No. 1: Appreciating Africa's creepy crawlies

The day after I got married, I trod on a tree frog. It was crouching on the cool stone floor beside the bed in the cottage we'd rented on the outskirts of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare. I thought of fairy tales, handsome princes, and frogs and managed a chuckle.

Later, I thought my brand-new husband might have given me a bit more credit for not screaming.

Brought up on a farm in eastern Zimbabwe, he barely bats an eyelid at the frogs, toads, lizards, ants, and myriad other creepy-crawlies that throng our days (and nights) here.

Me? I'm an English girl, born and bred. My country upbringing didn't entail anything more multilegged than brown spiders in the bath.

And even those I thought were horrid.

"Dad!" my sisters and I would yell. A few minutes later, Dad would plod to the bathroom. Armed with a dustpan, he'd gently remove the offending intruder from our toffee-colored tub.

Dad always maintained that he loved having three daughters. But maybe he had moments - spider-catching moments, say - when the odd son might have been welcome.

My cottage here in Zimbabwe has spiders galore. Only now there's no Dad near at hand.

The beams holding up our thatched roof are spattered with white spider nests, bright blotches against the darkened wood. You can peel away the paper-thin shell to reveal hundreds of little black spider eggs.

I counted the nests the other day from my favorite vantage point: reclining on the sofa. I can now inform you that we have 93 spider nests in our living room alone.

I'm not complaining. Wall spiders are good spiders, my husband assures me. They eat the mosquitoes that whine beyond the net at night.

Never, ever, may I - in a burst of nesting frenzy - zap spider eggs with insect spray, he says. We need those spiders, especially now that the kitten has torn mosquito-size holes in our bed net in a futile but oft-repeated attempt to climb it.

I'll take his word for it.

There are less friendly spiders of course. In the past week, we've had two rain spiders venture inside, attracted by the light. Gray with yellowish stripes and fatter than harmless wall spiders, rain spiders can give you a nasty bite, I'm warned.

But even these visitors have their good points: Rain spiders are harbingers of the life-giving showers here. In the oppressive heat of late November in this part of Africa, rain spiders are (almost) welcome.

Spiders aren't the only uninvited guests. "My Husband the Oleander Hawk Stalker" would be a good title for a personal account of my first three years in Zimbabwe.

For those who don't know what an oleander hawk is - and I didn't - they are bottle-green creatures the size of small sparrows. Strictly speaking, they're moths. And they flutter around at head level - just as you are about to get into the shower. That is when husbands come in very handy.

Then there are the geckos. When my parents first visited Zimbabwe 2-1/2 years ago, Mum discovered she had a fear of geckos. Every night of their stay, Dad was forced to leap over the hotel bed to chase out a gecko dozing peaceably behind the picture frame. Mum refused to go to sleep until That Lizard had vacated her room.

A nice little gecko won't hurt you, Mum, I coaxed, already feeling superior after just three months in Africa.

My mother rescued me from snappy Jack Russell dogs, Auntie Christine's scratching cat, adders in Bardney Woods, and all manner of animal threats when I was growing up. This time she scowled.

We also have ants. Snaking up my rough stone walls are labyrinthine red mud tunnels, quietly built by armies of ants. Those tiny tunnels are nature's own wall art - and I haven't the heart to chisel them down.

Chongororos are the ponderous black millipedes that squiggle across our floor. They curl up into tight snail balls when handled. Braver than I ever imagined I would be, I now have no qualms about picking them up and depositing them outside.

Just as innocent are the jewel-like moths that spangle my kitchen wall. Victoria emeralds they're called. They're a softer, more pastel green than oleanders and altogether much less threatening.

When the first rains come, I'll be ready, too, for a barrage of flying ants with their lacy, long wings. Fried, they're a delicacy in Zimbabwe's rural areas.

Appreciating nonfluffy creatures wasn't one of the lessons I anticipated learning when I moved to Africa.

But I guess it's a good one.

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