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Day ‘brave men’ turned cowards

Life: What a journeyCHARLES CHISALA
LAST Sunday I told you how a stray hippo ‘patrolled’ our area for close to a month spreading fear and anxiety across the villages along its range.
Our village, Shimalama, is on the northern shore of the picturesque Lake Chifunabuli in Samfya District, Luapula Province.
The animal must have been a weak young bull that could have failed to secure a permanent position in the herd and ended up being ‘expelled’ by its stronger rivals.
Or an old male that had outlived its prime and could no longer defend itself against assertive and excessively showy youngsters.
I told you last week how the elders from several villages met one day to explore ways of banishing the fearsome hippo before it plunged half of the Chitembo chiefdom into rat-eat-rat hunger.
For your information a hungry hippo is the last guest you would want to pay your cassava, maize or groundnut field an unsolicited visit in the night.
The scene of a single night’s feeding would make Zambeef Products Plc’s monstrous combine harvester machine look like a children’s toy car.
The sulky loner that roamed our shoreline between Lubwe Mission and Ndoba village was therefore nobody’s pet. It was a source of serious anxiety.
After several futile attempts to drive it away the elders came up with what they celebrated as a clever idea, but which we the children and the youth derided and sniggered at as not only reckless but also hair-brained.
We wondered whether the old guys were looking for a spectacular and memorable end, for all our pleas to abort the crazy, suicidal adventure fell on deaf ears.
The undaunted men mobilised every object capable of carrying a grownup human being and floating on the lake.
Every canoe and boat was thoroughly inspected to see if it was lake-worthy and fit for the grand mission.
They marshalled not less than 10 dugout canoes and three banana boats, some of them so small and narrow that they could only accommodate one paddler at a time; or indeed two who wanted to commit suicide by drowning.
We the water people, BenaNg’umbo, held then and still hold this dangerous myth that hippos detest noise and will run away from it.
There was an aura of excitement across the villages. That day people returned from their cassava fields early so that they could witness the ‘operation’ with their own eyes rather than hear from others.
As the canoes and boats set off from the shore there was a mixture of cheers and protests from the spectators.
But the ‘dare devils’ were undaunted. The 15 or so paddlers, bristling with misguided bravado, formed a flotilla and stated paddling towards the hippo while shouting and hitting hard objects against the sides of their canoes and boats.
They also used akatule or akaoma, carved from soft wood and shaped like a huge man’s fist with a long, slender handle. Its blunt end was used to repeatedly hit the surface of the water.
Each full strike sent water flying into the air with a sound of an explosion. The successive ‘explosions’ would send the fish crazy with fear causing them to flee and unwittingly swim straight into the waiting nets.
This destructive fishing method is called ukusakila umukombo.
The ‘brave men’ paddled in a semi-circle towards the hippo, which was lulling in the shallow waters at Pa Kachinka Habour on the edge of Masowe village.
The hippo was looking towards the distant Nsombwela village in the west while the paddlers were facing Ifunge Peninsular in the south.
Despite its comical, grotesque look the hippopotamus is an intelligent animal with an excellent intuition.
With unflinching interest it was closely watching with its right eye the unusual activity from the shore.
As the noise increased it glided farther away into the deep waters, hoping that its detractors would back off.
But its friendly gesture only emboldened them. They chased after it.
The brain-numbing cacophony they were producing by shouting and relentlessly hitting the sides of their vessels was becoming unbearable.
Then euphoria turned into terror. The hippo, which had looked indifferent and stupid all along, suddenly swung its huge head round with a splash and faced the audacious ‘drummers’.
And they froze in their tracks, now almost two football pitches’ distance from the shore. There was total silence amid the unexpected standoff.
We breathlessly waited for the beast’s second move. Something nasty was about to happen. Death was in the air.
The hippo was twitching its small ears constantly. For minutes it was just staring at them without flinching. No paddler made a move, as the team leader had commanded them.
No sane Ng’umbo born man facing an angry, exiled hippo in the middle of the water would want to do something that would startle it. It would be suicide.
Then, without warning, the dark-brown monster dived and disappeared under the surface of the water.
There was panic. Everyone believed that it had dived to prepare for its trade mark attack.
We all braced ourselves, expecting to see one of the canoes or a boat suddenly go up into the air in pieces and spill its terrified, screaming human occupants into the hippo’s waiting mouth with its deathly, razor-sharp tusks.
Some women and girls huddled together and started sobbing.
“We had told him, but he couldn’t listen,” cried one beautiful girl referring to her father, one of the now trembling paddlers.
One minute passed without anything happening. The hippo was still under the surface, out of sight.
You should have seen for yourself how the ‘brave men’ out-paddled one another as they made for the shore, looking over their shoulders all the time amid shouts and gestures of encouragement from the shore.
Minutes later the hippo broke the surface of the water and re-emerged at the same spot, sending a jet of water into the air. It was enough warning.
It was by God’s grace that the reckless mission had not ended in tragedy. Dare not the hippo, buddy.

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