This North West family share their home with 18 snakes - including a 40 kg python!

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The Lengwasa family - son Tshiamo, dad Collen and mom Lidia - want to educate people about the importance of snakes in the ecosystem. (PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi)
The Lengwasa family - son Tshiamo, dad Collen and mom Lidia - want to educate people about the importance of snakes in the ecosystem. (PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi)

They’ve been called witches, evil, stupid and “unAfrican” and it’s hard to get anyone – even their own families – to visit them at home.

But Collen Lengwasa and his wife, Lidia Baptista-­Lengwasa, are unfazed by the slurs and snubs. They’re on a mission to educate the community about the creatures that inhabit their home in Potchefstroom, North West, and if people think they’re crazy, so be it.

Collen, Lidia and their 11-year-old son, Tshiamo, own 60 snakes altogether and have no fewer than 18 living in their house. And when the family curl up on the couch at night to watch TV, a python is likely be draped over their necks as they tuck into the popcorn.

“We’ve heard things about ourselves, but a lot of that comes from not understanding snakes,” Collen says. “We want to raise awareness about the role snakes play in the ecosystem and how we can live peacefully alongside them.” 

The snake sign hanging on the gate outside the family home warns you this is no ordinary suburban dwelling. As we walk into the house, we find Lucy, an albino Burmese python, chilling in a corner in the lounge while a boa relaxes in its glass cage.

We’re not there for long when Collen gets a call from his commander at the local army base, where he works as an instructor: there’s a snake on the loose and Collen is needed pronto.

We dash over to the base where we find a crowd of soldiers gesticulating and shouting at a snake lurking in a tree. One onlooker wonders whether somebody practising witchcraft has sent the snake.

Collen, who’s donned his protective glasses, moves pot plants aside and inches closer to the snake, prising it out of the branches with his snake-handling hook. Once it’s lying on his arm, there’s a sense of relief from the crowd and many step forward to take pics.

“It’s a short-snouted grass snake,” explains Collen (40), a lieutenant. “They’re harmless but they’re quick. The only reason it’s so calm is because I’m calm. It can relax knowing I’m not a threat.”

Snakes, family, pets
Tshiamo and his mom Lidia, with Custard, one of the family’s two pythons. (PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi)

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Collen’s affinity for snakes began when he was a boy growing up in Mmakau village near Brits.

“My father taught me what to do around snakes but I never paid attention. We had wild fruit trees and were taught to shake the tree before picking the fruit. But being kids, we did as we pleased. One day when I was about nine, my friends and I sat under the tree eating fruit when they suddenly screamed, ‘Snake!’

“They fled in all directions, leaving me alone. When I looked down, I saw a brown house snake lying across my feet. I froze. It was while I was waiting for the snake to move that I thought I should’ve listened to my father. I stood there for 15 minutes until it slithered away.”

From that moment, Collen became fascinated by snakes and learnt as much as he could about them. His knowledge of these reptiles later came in handy when, working as a field officer for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), he’d regularly encounter the creatures.

In 2018, egged on by his son, Collen decided to get a snake of his own.

Lidia (36) recalls how it happened. “We went to a reptile expo and I sat down and let the guys go ahead. After about 20 minutes, they came back and Collen told me, ‘The child is crying for a snake.’ He knew this was how he was going to soften me up. He assured me it was a harmless corn snake, so I agreed.”

They called it Emmet and before long, Emmet produced two eggs and the Lengwasas’ snake family went from one to three. Slowly their collection grew.

Lidia was okay with it for a while. “But when I found out we also had a python in the garage, I started packing my bags.”

Collen realised he’d better do something fast if he was going to hold onto his wife and ran to the shop to buy a lock for the garage, where he and Tshiamo spent most of their time.

“That’s when I decided to give them a chance. It was me against the guys. I started learning about snakes and next thing I knew, I’d fallen in love with them,” says Lidia, who’s a major in the SANDF.

The two albino pythons are her favourites as they’re calm and easy to get along with. One of the giants, a 40kg reticulated python, is called Custard because of her colouring, and the other is Lucy because a snake this sweet deserves a cute name.

Tshiamo, who’s in Grade 6, is an avid snake lover too. “My favourite snake is the green mamba because green is my favourite colour and the snake itself is calm and shy, just like me,” he says.

Snakes, family, pets
At 40kg, Custard is the family’s biggest pet. (PHOTO: Fani Mahuntsi) m

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The family feed their snakes a diet of frozen rats and rabbits every 10 days and make sure their enclosures are clean.

While Collen, Lidia and Tshiamo love sharing their space with their reptiles, family and friends are wary of visiting. “We live a lonely life. My in-laws stayed away for more than three years,” Lidia says. “Last Christmas was the first time they’d come to the house. We had to put the snakes away because they were scared.”

The slithery creatures go for a check-up at the vet every six months at a cost of about R400 a snake and the Lengwasas have permits to keep and relocate their snakes. Some are bought from breeders and some were rescued and couldn’t be returned to the wild because they were used to living in captivity.

Collen says he decided to do formal courses in snake education after reading a report from the World Health Organisation on how snake bites are the most neglected tropical disease and how black people in rural areas are most at risk.

“I also wanted to eradicate the myths we grew up hearing,” says Collen, who uses some of his snakes for training and in exhibitions.

The family also have a company, African Indigenous Reptiles, through which they hope to eradicate conflict between humans and wildlife.

“We want to teach our people that snakes aren’t evil. We link up with organisations like orphanages and teach people the dos and don’ts around snakes,” Collen says.

Their dream is to have their own snake park one day. “I wish to own every single snake in the world and have the biggest park. They’re so beautiful and so cheeky, especially the venomous ones,” Lidia says.

“When we have our own centre, we’ll bring them all together under one roof.”

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