Snakebite Insurance

5th October 1974 |

On the road to Mombasa, in Kenya, I fell in with three amiable African friends. Pius was a plump insurance salesman. Samson was a big policeman. Paul was the small, nervous manager of the BP gas station at Kibwezi. As we sat together after dark, drinking Tusker ale in the courtyard of the Currypot Hotel, Pius was trying to sell Paul a policy he couldn’t afford.


What is this insurance you are selling?” I asked Pius, lapsing involuntarily into the dialect.
“Persons are looking to me for protection of life and property,” he replied proudly.
I wondered what kind of accident was most common.
“Snakebite is a common matter. My policies are not covering for snakebite,” he added, as though this were a point in their favor.
I saw that Samson was moved by this information. He stirred and said in a surprised tone:
“What is this? You are selling accident insurance and you are not covering for snakebite?”
I was astonished myself.
“The snakebite is not an accident,” said Pius. “How can you say it is? The snake is not biting by accident. It is wanting to bite,” and to our gathering amazement he went on to state his triumphant conclusion.
“Where it is the agency of a living thing, this is not accident. That is the policy of my company.”
We all thought this outrageous.
“What about the man who was killed by a pig falling?” I cried. “The pig was kept on a balcony in Naples, and the balcony broke, and the pig fell on a pedestrian and killed him. That was an accident!”
“This was caused by persons putting pig on a balcony,” he said smugly. “Definitely this was not an accidental happening. It is all the same whether it may be a pig or a lion or a snake or what and what.”
“Well,” said Paul, “when the pig was hitting the man it may be already dead from heart attack, isn’t it. So to be killed by a dead pig is an accident.”
“There will be an inquest on the pig also, and a certificate showing time of death,” Samson contributed darkly from the shadow.
“I am not insuring for pig falls or snakebites in the Kibwezi region,” Pius said wildly. “Definitely.”
“I hope you explain all this to your clients,” I said.
“Absolutely. They like it very much,” he said.
The silliness stopped and we sank back into the peace of the Kenyan night. More Tuskers came. It seemed possible to drink any amount of beer without much effect. The table was almost invisible now under the empties, but I felt only a comfortable affection for the company and a frequent urge to visit the charcoal bed.