My Roommate Was a Totem

By Ira Rabois

We all have things we fear. For several people I know, spiders are high on their list. For me, it was only big, hairy ones. There is something so primal about them.

In 1969, I served in the Peace Corps in a small village in the jungle of Sierra Leone, which is on the equator in West Africa. My home was the guesthouse of the local paramount chief, one of the more powerful men in the country. It was a large cement block structure, one of the few in the village that wasn’t made of mud. He preferred the traditional mud hut to a cement building. And I grew to understand his reasoning. On the many days the temperature reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more, his mud home was much cooler than mine made of cement. And my roommate was a Mende spider.

The spider was light brown and big. Bigger than any tarantula I have seen in the U.S. The only name the villagers used for the spider was from the predominant tribe in the area, the Mende. Shortly after I first arrived in the village, I tried out the toilet—a seat on a wood platform with a bucket underneath it. After sitting down, I heard something behind me. I turned around and saw the spider on the wall, watching me.  I jumped up and ran to my bedroom to get an ax handle that had been left by a previous resident. I tried to smash the spider, but couldn’t. It leaped maybe three or four feet at me. I ran from the room.

Leaping was one of its many startling abilities. One night, a battle took place on the ceiling of my living room. A big lizard faced off with the spider. It attacked, but the spider was too smart and quick and jumped down from the ceiling. The lizard tried to follow it, but couldn’t seem to find it. A short time later, the spider quickly came up behind the lizard’s tail. The lizard ran from the ceiling and out of the house.

A few days later, the chief came to visit. He said he had heard of my attempts to kill the spider. The spider was the tribe’s totem and must not be killed. He took me outside, to the porch where I had strung a hammock that I slept in on many afternoons. The hammock was tied to a post on one end, and on the other end, to a hook I had embedded in the wall. On the post and underneath the hammock were several colorful spiders.

“Do you see any of those spiders in the house?”

“No,” I replied.

“Do you see anything in the house that is living, aside from some flying insects, you and the spider?”

“No.” The house was very clean.

“Who do you think cleaned out the house?”

I didn’t answer.

“And those spiders on the porch—they are poisonous. They could kill you. The Mende spider is not. Which spider would you want in the house?”

Sierra Leone bridge 18.40.01

I decided to come to peace with the spider. And when I did, it began to sleep each night on the wall above the door to my bedroom. I don’t know if this signaled the acceptance of a pact, or it was just keeping an eye or two on me, or something akin to affection had developed. I can’t say I ever came to understand what drove it, but my fear almost disappeared—almost. When passing through the bedroom doorway, I would warily check to see if he was there, and actually feel reassured if he was. I never attacked it again and it never attacked me.

Fears, even primal ones, can be faced. Doing so, with a soft appreciation even for one’s own limitations, allows us to look at the world more directly, face to face, and thus perceive it with more clarity and brightness. One’s one-time object of fear can become one’s totem.


Featured image: Pixabay and not an actual Mende spider!  But they could be cousins.


I Rabois spring image


Ira began practicing Zen meditation in 1968. He taught English, philosophy, drama, history, karate and psychology for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY. His book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, was published in October 2016, by Rowman & Littlefield. He is semi-retired. When not leading classes in Karate he is writing blogs on education and mindfulness, or sitting with his cats in the maple forest near his home. His website is:

8 thoughts on “My Roommate Was a Totem

  1. I can’t begin to tell you how difficult this was for me to read. I have an unholy fear of spiders. Like heart palpitations, short of breath, freaking out kind of fear. So the photo knocked me out to begin with. And the rest? Well, let’s just say every hair on my body is standing on end. But I got through it and I’m glad – because the final message hear about facing our fears, accepting life as it is, accepting others for their differences and particular talents – was worth it. Probably. Still pretty creeped out. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this story! I grew up in Africa and we had several spiders in our house that we made sure not to kill. One would come out and watch me wash dishes every night and there was a sort of friendship that developed, We had another spider in our bathroom and one day an American visitor got scared and killed it! My mom and I about cried! Thank you for sharing this story. It is very lovely and revealing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, what a great story — and well told. I used to be completely freaked out by spiders but as I age and learn more about them, I’m less frightened. Also, learning about biology has made me less fearful of all things creepy-crawly. There are so many stories of how humanity has destroyed the earth and made species go extinct, but there are also many stories of how we have learned to live in harmony and with respect with earth’s other creatures — even the ones that scare the heck out of us! Thanks Ira

    Liked by 1 person

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