JOHANNESBURG – Tourists have long flocked to the home-turned-museum of former President Nelson Mandela on Vilakazi Street, a lively strip of restaurants, curio sellers and street performers in the South African township of Soweto. Now the area has a growing attraction: big snakes, and lots of them.
Resident Lindiwe Mngomezulu allows curiosity-seekers to get a close-up look at the non-venomous snakes she keeps in her home, and she drapes them over tourists' shoulders for a small fee. She and her 19-year-old daughter, Nolwandle Duma, started raising snakes three years ago after going to see a snake show and coming away impressed.
Mngomezulu, 55, has two albino pythons, a Burmese python, a boa constrictor, an anaconda and a corn snake. It costs about $30 a week to feed them. She and Duma also own a bearded dragon lizard and two spiders.
They show off their snakes in their Vilakazi Street home, where tourists and local schoolchildren have become regulars. Mngomezulu said many have since overcome their fear of reptiles, which she described as harmless if handled with care. She urged people not to think of snakes as a menace.
"People are killing snakes every day," Mngomezulu said. "That's not right."
Her smallest snake, the corn snake, measures 1.2 meters (3.9 feet). The Burmese python is 3 meters (9.8 feet) long and, at 30 kilograms (66 pounds), is her heaviest snake.
Mngomezulu said her goal is to expand her snake show beyond Soweto. She is awaiting a permit that would allow her to take her snakes to non-residential areas and hopes money raised can help her to buy more snakes and get formal training from a recognized association. She is registered with the West Rand Herpetological Association, a local club for reptile lovers.
Andre Lourens, the association's chairman, said Mngomezulu's show has been instrumental in dispelling the false notion that all snakes are dangerous.
"They are no more dangerous than any dogs running down the streets, if you take into consideration the amount of dog bites here in South Africa or number of people hit by lightning," Lourens said.
Duma is saving money for university, where she plans to study zoology or psychology. She said she hopes her experience interacting with the reptiles and educating people about them could lead to a long-term career working with animals.