Just another day in Tanganyika
DURING THE 1950S ,i n rural Tanganyika (Tanzania), a handful of colonial officials were responsible for vast tracts of wilderness, including all the many wild animals, tribal people and settler-farmers. Contact between ma n and beast was unavoidable, and seldom wo uld a d ay pass without some sort of drama – sometimes serious; other times not without humour. Road trips were seldom completed without incident.
We farmed on the Mwese Highlands, west of Mpanda. A few times a year, I would make trips to Tabora to buy supplies or to have major repair work done on one of our vehicles by a Chinese family who ran a garage. I usually stopped to deliver fresh produce to the Mpanda mine, stayed the night with my friend, Jack Carlyon, and left early next morning for Tabora. The trip was only 220 miles, but depending on road conditions, could take anything from five to ten hours.
On one trip I took with me a farmhand named Funga Mesa whom I employed to scout for elephants for me on the Highlands. Grinding along in the vehicle, I was constantly braking and changing gears due to the deplorable road conditions. As we rounded a bend, a fellow sitting at the roadside suddenly leapt up and stood in the middle of the road with both arms raised, one hand grasping a single shoe, the other frantically signalling me to stop. He was dressed in khaki shorts and what would have been a neat white shirt were it not soaked transparent with sweat and clinging to his skin. He came around to my window, his heavily perspiring face contorted with anguish. He was so distraught he gave no customary greeting; all he could manage was, “Sadia, Bwana!” (Help, sir!)
Contact between man and beast was unavoidable, and seldom would a day pass without some sort of drama
IT TRANSPIRED HE had just been chased by an elephant. I asked him to explain but the poor fellow was almost incoherent. Eventually I got out of him that he had been riding his bicycle along the road when he came across a big bull elephant feeding at the roadside. As the elephant appeared calm and took no notice of him, he thought he would just quietly sneak past and be on his way. However, as he neared the bull, it suddenly swung around and, trumpeting with rage, charged straight at him. Now a strangled silence followed, so I said, “And then?” Suddenly breaking into English, he shrilled, “I drop the bicycle and run up the road at great speed!” I couldn’t help laughing, which left him staring at me, bewildered.
I told the man to get into the cab. He ran around the front, climbed in next to Funga Mesa and slammed the door shut. Pointing down the road, I asked him, “How far?” “Mbali kidogo,” he assured me – just a little bit far. His ‘little bit far’ turned out to be three miles. No wonder he was sweating if he’d run three miles, I thought to myself. This part of the road was also sandy, which would have made his run even harder.
Then we saw elephant tracks ahead, and signs that a commotion had taken place in the road. We carefully looked all around to see if the elephant was still about, as this was fairly open miombo country, but saw no sign of him. The bull had tramped all over a patch in the road. Now I noticed that bicycle tracks led along the road to this point then ceased, but strangely, there was no sign of any bicycle. That’s odd, I thought. There were no fresh human footprints or vehicle tracks which might indicate that the bicycle had been taken. Only this man’s other shoe lay in the road.
AT A LOSS for any other course of action, I told Funga Mesa to take up the bull’s spoor, which was easy to track. We followed for about 70 yards, then came upon a mound of freshly broken green leafy branches piled up to a height of about three feet. I was a bit startled now, as I’d heard that some elephants, after killing a human, had been known to cover the corpse in this manner. Had some passing local picked up the bicycle and made off across the veld, only to be attacked by the elephant? Unlikely, but even if so, where then was the bicycle? There was still no sign of it. We scouted about the spot looking for any spoor that might solve the mystery. Then Funga Mesa spotted something glinting beneath the pile of leafy branches. He pulled
away some of the foliage, and there lay the mangled remains of… the bicycle!
I’d heard that elephants can take a dislike to motor vehicles, especially if the hooter is blown, but a bicycle? Could it be that this old bull had just had enough of the creaking, tika-tika-tika sounds of these infernal machines disturbing his peace? I couldn’t help laughing as I drew a mental picture of the angry bull chasing off the rider then returning to furiously tusk the bicycle, pick it up and carry it off into the bush, where he stomped it into a mangled wreck before covering the remains with branches. Funga Mesa started to tease the man, but he was still in shock; all he wanted was for me to drive him to his home 60 miles up the road. He vowed to never try another trip like that.
Sometime later, I did a trip on this same dreadful road between Mpanda and Tabora, after an Indian trader’s driver had told me that, since I did not have a heavy load, and I had tyrechains, I shouldn’t have too much trouble.
Again, Funga Mesa accompanied me. We left Jack Carlyon’s house about daybreak and were doing pretty well without using the chains. A Public Works Department (PWD) road gang had to be constantly fixing this road, and their shacks were about 60 miles from Mpanda. The gang was in residence at the time, and of course, they stopped me to ask if I would buy them a few items in Tabora, tobacco always topping the list. It always amused me that they had picks, spades, crowbars, axes and hoes, but not a wheelbarrow in sight. Asked why, they’d reply that all the wheelbarrows stood broken at the depot. Of the gang of about twelve, I never found more than six working.
THREE DAYS LATER, on our return trip, we arrived at the road gang’s camp to find the whole crowd standing in the road, frantically waving for us to stop. Funga Mesa said, “Maybe there is hardship.” The headman approached me with the usual greeting, “Jambo, Bwana.” At my polite “Habani gani?” he gravely replied, “The news is very bad…” He said that many lions had attacked them in the night. When I expressed scepticism about this story, they all shouted, “It is true, come and see!”
We walked to their sleeping hut where I saw lion tracks all around. The headman then dourly informed me that he had killed one of the lions early that morning. Knowing they’d have no firearms, I again expressed scepticism. Beckoning me, he led us around the side of the hut, where I was astonished to see the back and hind quarters of a lioness protruding from a hole at the foot of the hut wall, her head and shoulders out of sight. The headman explained that the lioness had burrowed under the wall to enter the hut. He then invited me inside, where I saw the lioness’s head and neck protruding into the hut’s interior. The headman explained that he had waited for her to get this far and then struck with his axe. I could see that he had almost severed the head from the neck. I had to eat my words. This was rural life in Tanganyika…
The road gang then told me that their overdue food supply had not arrived; there was no food in the camp and they begged me to take them back to Mpanda. We loaded all their tools and kit, and as an afterthought, I told them to load the lioness on the truck as well. A few strongly objected, saying it’s a shetani (devil) and what if it wakes up in the truck? However, I insisted, and they loaded the cat.
Arriving at the PWD depot in Mpanda, I drove through the open gates, parked a little way from the offices and told everyone to offload but to leave the lioness on the back. Recalling my own initial scepticism on being told the lion story, and well knowing how dismissive government officials could be of the workers’ problems, I wanted the Italian supervisor to see for himself, then I would take the carcass away.
His office door was open so I knocked and walked in. I attempted to describe the workers’ problem with lions, and told him their food had run out. Angrily, he strode to the door and started to berate the gang, shouting that they always talk nonsense about lions. As for the food delivery, his truck was broken down, what was he supposed to do? Besides, it was only a few days late. I could see there was no point in trying to reason with him; he had worked himself up into a state and was angrily jabbering in Italian, English and kiswahili. But with this outburst of his, and after what I had witnessed back at the hut, my sympathies lay with the gang.
I walked back to my truck and told Funga Mesa to close the upper doors, leave the tailgate down and climb into the back of the truck via the open tailgate. I then quietly told him of my intentions, climbed into the cab and drove up to the office entrance. A grinning Funga Mesa heaved the lion carcass through the open tailgate to land with a thud on the ground outside the office door, and I hastily drove off. The supervisor was a big bloke with a matching temper, so I didn’t want to hang around.
I drove down to the shops, where Funga Mesa climbed out and closed the tailgate. I topped the tank up with petrol then had something to drink. By now it was after office hours, so I drove to the home of the District Officer. I explained what had transpired and told him I had dropped off the lioness at the office. He roared with laughter. Most colonials saw humour as the best remedy for the many dramatic episodes of… just another day in Tanganyika.
The headman approached me with the usual greeting, “Jambo, Bwana.” At my polite “Habani gani?” he gravely replied, “The news is very bad…”