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Martin T. Walsh

Natural Resources Institute, Chatham, and School of African and Asian Studies, University of Sussex, U.K.

corrected version of a paper originally published in

East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin, 26 (2): 18-22

June 1996

{NB: the page numbers in this version do not follow those of the published text}

current address:

EANHS Bulletin 26 (2), June 1996




The following notes are intended to supplement the ethnoherpetological data included in R. H. W. Pakenham’s study (1983) of the reptiles and amphibians of Zanzibar, in particular the Swahili names of snakes and other reptiles he recorded for Unguja (formerly Zanzibar) island. The notes are based upon information provided by a young man (aged in his mid- 20s) at Mseweni in central Unguja on 24 May 1995. The hamlet of Mseweni (or Ndijani Mseweni, as it is often called) lies in the centre of the island, south of the main Zanzibar-Chwaka road and less than 10 km north-west of the Jozani Forest. This is currently one of the most rapidly developing agricultural areas of Unguja: in recent years many farmers have moved from the nearby plantation areas to settle and cultivate a wide variety of crops (including orange trees) on the semi-coral rag uwanda land which was formerly used for shifting cultivation and largely covered with bush. Nonetheless, some patches of forest remain in the Ndijani area, and the large “rice valley” of Cheju, just to the south of Mseweni, adds to the diversity of local habitats. My informant, like other inhabitants of Mseweni, spoke the standard Unguja dialect of Swahili, though some influence from the southern and eastern dialects of the island is apparent in the local terminologies for flora and fauna. The ethnoherpetological information presented here was recorded in the course of an informal discussion about the fauna of the Mseweni area and only later (sometime after my stay in Mseweni) compared with the data provided by Pakenham. While this is not an ideal procedure for research of this kind, it was the only one which time and other tasks allowed. Ideally I would also have interviewed other, and perhaps more knowledgeable, informants. However, given the general paucity of published

material of this kind - Pakenham’s careful recording of local names being the exception rather than the rule - I hope that the following will be of some use, if only to encourage more thorough research by others.


Pakenham recognised the presence of 23 species of snake on Unguja, though it is difficult to tell from his account how many of these might be found in the Mseweni area. In addition to the general term for snakes my informant recalled seven named varieties and also referred to an eighth which he was unable to put a name to. These are listed below, together with his observations and my own comments. In this and subsequent sections I have mostly followed the nomenclature in Pakenham (1983), adding his subspecies names in parenthesis (assuming that these in particular are liable to change). Alternative English names are taken from Branch


nyoka: the general term for a snake and any member of the suborder Serpentes.

chatu: this is the common Swahili name for the African Rock Python, Python sebae, also recorded by Pakenham. My informant described this as the only snake without a poisonous bite, although it can swallow chickens, goats, calves and even humans. He also stated that it can live in a hole underground for a whole year, only coming out on just one day to feed. Reports from other farmers in the area indicate that pythons are most often encountered in the well-watered Cheju valley, where irrigated and rain-fed rice are cultivated.

ukuti: this was described as a relatively small green snake. Pakenham gives nyoka- kuti and nyoka-ukuti as Unguja names for

EANHS Bulletin 26 (2), June 1996


the Spotted Bush (or Wood) Snake, Philothamnus semivariegatus (ssp. semivariegatus). In the Standard Swahili dictionary (Johnson, 1939) it is suggested that this name for the snake is derived from the Swahili term for the side frond of a coconut leaf (also ukuti; plural kuti): when on the tree these are similar in colour and length to the snake (or at least green variants thereof).

mtunguu: described as a larger version of the ukuti, yellow or bright green in colour. Pakenham was given this name at Muyuni, in southern Unguja, for average-sized specimens of the Green Mamba, Dendroaspis angusticeps: the largest ones were called shangauka. Given the suggested botanical derivation of the name ukuti, an analogous etymology can be posited for mtunguu: this also being the local name of the Wild Cardamom, Afromomum angustifolium, which has long green stems similar in length to the Green Mamba (for a description and illustration of this plant, which is common in the Jozani Forest, see Williams, 1949).

peku (plural mapeku): according to my informant a grey-coloured snake which is particularly fond of (hen’s) eggs and is most commonly found in the ‘home garden’ areas (viamboni), where there are many tall plantation trees. At Jambiani, in south-east Unguja, Pakenham was given this as the name of the Boomslang, Dispholidus typus, a snake which may vary considerably in colour.

jangasa, or jangasa-kima: described as a large version of the peku, which is black in colour and is found in the larger forests and areas of thick bush. My informant said that the name jangasa-kima refers to the fact that they are apt to attack monkeys by jumping up or flying through the air at them: kima is the Unguja name for the White-throated Guenon or Sykes’ Monkey, Cercopithecus mitis (ssp. albogularis), which is very common on the island (Pakenham, 1984). Pakenham did not record these names, but at Chwaka and

Muyuni was told about a big black tree snake called nyoka-kima, reputed to be very aggressive, and which he suggested might be identified as either the Green Mamba, Dendroaspis angusticeps, or the Boomslang, Dispholidus typus. Given the similarity of names and descriptions, there seems little doubt that jangasa-kima and nyoka-kima have the same referent(s).

mkufu, or nyoka-mkufu: this snake, said to be very poisonous and therefore dangerous, was described as having black and white stripes on its body like a mjusi (a gecko or skink, see below). The Swahili name presumably refers to this pattern and coloration, mkufu being a metal chain. Pakenham does not record this name. It appears, however, in cognate form in the Rabai dialect of Mijikenda, spoken in the hinterland of Mombasa on the Kenya coast (Mijikenda and Swahili being closely related languages). The Rabai nyoka- mukufu is glossed as “the chain-snake”, and described as having a body like an iron chain (Krapf and Rebmann, 1887). In the absence of more precise information it is difficult to say which species either the Unguja or the Rabai name might refer to.

kobra: this name was used for a snake which my informant described as black in colour, possessing a hood and capable of standing up. He did not know of any other name for this snake nor, apparently, was aware that this was a loan-word from English. Pakenham records the presence of two species of cobra on Unguja, the Forest or Black-lipped Cobra, Naja melanoleuca, and the Mozambique Spitting Cobra, Naja mossambica (ssp. mossambica). He does not, however, give a Swahili name for them. The lack of an indigenous name - or at least one that was known to our informants -may well be a function of the fact that these snakes are comparatively rare on the island.

[unnamed]: another snake, which my informant had seen once in a nearby forest, was described as being long and thin and having a mixed pattern of different colours, including khaki and black. He did not know

EANHS Bulletin 26 (2), June 1996


a Swahili name for this snake, which did not fit into any of the above categories. Again, without more precise information, it is difficult to suggest an identification.

The above list is interesting for a number of reasons. It includes more than half of the Unguja snake names recorded by Pakenham, and adds two which are not:

jangasa or jangasa-kima (apparently equivalent to his nyoka-kima) and nyoka- mkufu. It does not include the following:

nyoka-mwale, given to Pakenham at Muyuni for the (Northern) Stripe- bellied Sand Snake, Psammophis subtaeniatus (ssp. sudanensis);

mtumia-kuwili (literally ‘the one that goes both ways’, because of the superficial similarity between head and tail), applied to the four species of Blind Snake, family Typhlopidae;

kipilili, recorded for the Snouted Night Adder, Causus defilippi, which is apparently quite rare.

The apparent absence of names in either of our lists for some of the quite common snakes of Unguja, such as the Brown or Common House Snake, Lamprophis (Boaedon) fuliginosus, suggests that they may be subsumed under some of the same terms. Further research on the referents of the Swahili terms is required to establish this for certain. There is evidently a bias in Unguja Swahili taxonomy towards more specific identification of the snakes which are dangerous to people and their livestock. All of the snakes which my informant named were considered by him to be poisonous or (in the case of the python) harmful in some other way. Although the Spotted Bush Snake, Philothamnus variegatus, is not poisonous, its Swahili name, ukuti, is probably also extended to immature or small Green Mambas, Dendroaspis angusticeps, the larger specimens of which are called mtunguu. Indeed my informant

stated his belief that ukuti and mtunguu are names for the same snake in different stages of growth, and from this point of view it is quite reasonable that both of them should be feared. Likewise he considered peku (which Pakenham was given as a name for the Boomslang, Dispholidus typus) and jangasa-kima to be size variants of the same snake, the former growing into the latter, and it is quite likely that one or both of these names also refer to more than one zoological species. From a linguistic point of view it is interesting to note that many of the names of snakes are descriptive in some way, especially of the snake’s colour and/or appearance. Three of the Unguja names appear to be derived from the names for common plants or parts thereof: ukuti from Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera) fronds, mtunguu from the Wild Cardamom (Afromomum angustifolium) and Pakenham’s nyoka-mwale (the Stripe- bellied Sand Snake, Psammophis subtaeniatus) from the Raffia Palm (Raphia farinifera), called mwale in Unguja Swahili.


Pakenham admitted 12 species of lizard (including five geckos, four skinks and one chameleon) to his list of those normally occurring on Unguja. My informant provided the following five Swahili names:

mjusi: this was the only name for skinks and geckos which my informant knew, though he recognised three different kinds of mjusi, which he said he could distinguish by colour but not by name. A young man from Bumbwini in northern Unguja, joining in our conversation, volunteered the additional names mjusi-kafiri and gonda. As Pakenham notes, mjusi-kafiri (the ‘pagan’ mjusi) is applied to geckos, family Gekkonidae, in general, in contrast to mjusi- Islam (the ‘Muslim’ mjusi), referring to the reputedly more handsome and devout skinks, family Scincidae. Pakenham records gonda as a generic name for Mabuya maculilabris, the Speckle-lipped Skink, and M. striata, the Striped or Common Two-striped Skink. He reports

EANHS Bulletin 26 (2), June 1996



kigorong’ondwa and gonda-mjusi at Muyuni in southern Unguja, but did not record any other Swahili names for skinks or geckos on the island.






kenge: described as a large lizard which grows up to one pima in length, the distance between a man’s outstretched arms. This is the common Swahili name for the Nile Monitor, Varanus niloticus (ssp. niloticus), also recorded by Pakenham. While working in Mseweni I saw a dead juvenile on a path close to the house in which I was staying, this being in the midst of the area of dispersed settlement and orange cultivation.

guruguru: this was described as similar to kenge, the Nile Monitor, but much shorter in length, around one foot. Pakenham records this as the name of the Great or Rough-scaled Plated Lizard, Gerrhosaurus major (ssp. major, the Zanzibar Great Plated Lizard), which is usually 30-40 cm in length and the only lizard on Unguja which fits the description given. In the Makunduchi dialect of southern Unguja it is called by the cognate term guuguu (Chum, 1994). The distinctive size of this species, and likewise that of the larger Nile Monitor, presumably explains why they are clearly distinguished from smaller lizards by name.

kimalele, or kimbaumbau: these were given as the local names for chameleons, though my informant was not sure whether they referred to different varieties or were alternative names for a single kind of chameleon. The scientific classification of chameleons on Unguja is similarly uncertain. Pakenham notes that although most authorities recognise a single species, Chamaeleo dilepis, the Flap-necked Chameleon, some distinguish between two subspecies (C. d. dilepis and C. d. quilensis), while one author describes the second of these as a full species (C. quilensis). Pakenham records that he heard both of these Swahili names in southern Unguja, and they also appear in Chum’s vocabulary of the Makunduchi dialect (1994): otherwise the most widespread

name for chameleons on the island was and is kinyonga. My informant noted that some chameleons have a ‘crest’ (a noticeable feature of the Flap-necked Chameleon) and speculated that the presence or absence of this may distinguish between males and females. He also described chameleon saliva as being poisonous and liable to cause ukoma, leprosy, in humans who are unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. It is not clear how this belief, which has widespread correlates in Africa, might have arisen: although Flap-necked Chameleons are known to bite, there is no scientific evidence for their saliva being harmful in any way.

Other Reptiles and Amphibians

For the sake of completeness it can be noted that there are no indigenous land tortoises or terrapins on Unguja island. Mseweni lies in the centre of the island and its inhabitants do not fish in the sea or are otherwise familiar with the different species of turtle which frequent Unguja’s coasts. I did, however, also ask about amphibians. Pakenham recognised 22 species of frog and toad as occurring on Unguja (one not confirmed) but my informant only knew one Swahili name for these, chura (plural vyura), although he recognised that there was some difference between the larger terrestrial varieties and the smaller ones which climb trees.


Although Swahili is the best-known and most widely spoken language in East Africa, comparatively little research has been undertaken on Swahili ethnozoology (including ethnoherpetology). Published dictionaries and compilations like that by Maimu (1982) generally fail to record the regional and local dialect variations which are an essential feature of Swahili ethnography. Pakenham’s work on Zanzibar forms an important exception, though, as the above notes indicate, there is still a lot of work remaining to be done. I hope that these notes will encourage others to take up this task.

EANHS Bulletin 26 (2), June 1996



Fieldwork in Mseweni (22-26 May 1995) was undertaken as a part of a study of Ndijani Farmers’ Research Group by the Zanzibar Cash Crops Farming Systems Project in collaboration with other sections of the Zanzibar Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources. I am grateful to my hosts and colleagues in Mseweni, and especially to my principal informant, whose name I refrain from publishing out of respect for his privacy.


Branch, B. (1988). Field Guide to the Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. London: New Holland.

Chum, H. (1994). Msamiati wa Pekee wa Kikae: Kae Specific Vocabulary. Uppsala: Nordic Association of African Studies.







Swahili-English Dictionary. Oxford:

Oxford University Press.

Krapf, L. and Rebmann, J. (1887). A Nika- English Dictionary (edited by T. H. Sparshott). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Maimu, M. (1982). Kamusi ya Wanyama na Nyoka wa Tanzania: A Glossary of Animals and Snakes of Tanzania. Dar es Salaam: Tanzania Publishing House.

Pakenham, R. H. W. (1983). ‘The Reptiles and Amphibians of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands (with a Note on the Freshwater Fishes)’, Journal of the East Africa Natural History Society and National Museum, No.177.

Pakenham, R. H. W. (1984). The Mammals of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands. Harpenden: privately published.

Williams, R. O. (1949). The Useful and Ornamental Plants of Zanzibar and Pemba. Zanzibar: Zanzibar Protectorate.

Martin T. Walsh, Natural Resources Institute, Chatham, and School of African and Asian Studies, University of Sussex, U.K. (current [1996] address: Zanzibar Cash Crops Farming Systems Project, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources, Forodhani, P.O.Box 2283, Zanzibar, Tanzania).