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This is the most famous true story of Africa. It happened a hundred years ago, but even now, when children ask about it, you do not tell them at night.’ - William Goldman in the script for ‘The Ghost and The Darkness’
‘The whole of the works were put a stop to for three weeks because a party of man-eating lions appeared in the locality and conceived a most unfortunate taste for our porters.’ - Lord Salisbury, British Prime Minister (1895-1902).
‘I think that the incident of the Uganda man-eating lions, described in those two articles you sent me, is the most remarkable account of which we have any record.’ – Theodore Roosevelt, US president (1901-1909).
I am going to tell you a story about lions and men,
About life and death, grave danger and uncommon valour.
Strange incidents abound so stick with me to the very end.
I call upon the all-seeing Ngai who created this veritable Eden,
Painting the leopard and sculpting the mountain,
To gauge the truth of this narrative and hold me accountable
Should I lead my listeners down the path of the Deception Garden.
I call upon the spirits of my ancestors who were here when
The first sun rose and who continue to live through me,
Nor shall we leave this sacred land even though here be monsters.
May the spirits of my forbears help me narrate this incredible tale
And may Ngai save me from embarrassing gaffes
As generously as He made my uncle as tall as a giraffe.
Now in Africa is a country named ‘Kenya’ that borders the sea
And next to this is ‘Uganda’ - a smaller, landlocked territory.
A hundred years ago, both nations were under the British flag
And it was decided that a railway should link the two countries.
Several railway engineers were ordered to pack their bags,
One of them being a brilliant young man named Col. J. Patterson.
As young Patterson – mark him well - prepared to leave England
He was giddily excited about the experiences close at hand
But little did he know that in his designated part of Africa,
Huge man-eating lions were patrolling the thorn-bush land
Like the Devil looking for souls to devour.
On arrival, a most agreeable sight greeted the visitor:
Arabian dhows sliced the ocean’s surface like the dorsal fins of sharks;
Bone-white coral reefs jutted out of glassy emerald waters;
Palm trees appeared to be green fireworks going off over white sands;
In the narrow streets, ebony-skinned men exchanged salaams;
Jewelled women carried baskets overflowing with fruits and spices
And the just and the unjust alike were warmed by a tropical sun.
Still, nobody informed Patterson that in this very paradise
There lived nine-foot lions with fire in their eyes…
Patterson’s workforce consisted not of Africans but Indians
Who were specially shipped in to lay the railway tracks
And they were equally struck by this side of the Indian Ocean
Where certain flightless birds grew taller than men,
Where elephant families were as commonplace as chicken
Where the ocean teemed with everything from turtles to spotted sharks,
Where summer was the only known season…
And where stealthy giant cats hunted in the dark.
Shortly after work commenced, the chilling nightmare began:
Night after night, coolies would mysteriously disappear
And it soon emerged that lions were the mystery’s authors.
Two maneless lions were especially notorious -
Never before had wild animals shown such contempt for man.
They lived in a den and hunted down people for food and fun.
One of their first victims was Ungan Singh, Patterson’s foreman,
Who was dragged away patently screaming and grabbing earth.
Bwana Patterson grabbed his .303 and 12-bore shotgun,
Fully determined to turn the two brutes into carrion.
At every opportunity, he fired round after round of ammunition
But he may as well have been shooting blanks
For none touched the beasts which exhibited no fear.
‘They are not lions but devils!’ concluded the workmen
And to Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful, they prayed,
Asking for clemency from Him and His messenger, Mohammed.
In spite of urgent prayers, the reign of terror continued unabated.
Thorn bushes were thrown around the workmen’s tents for protection
But the devils burst through them as if they were matchsticks.
Traps were laid but the beasts enigmatically broke out of them.
Fires were kept burning and overnight sentries posted
But the body count steadily climbed into the hundreds.
Shots, firebrands and shouts all left the brutes unaffected.
Admitting defeat, most of the coolies packed their bags and fled!
But Patterson was more determined than ever to succeed.
The Pyramids of Giza were not built by a single man
Nor could Patterson eliminate the problem by his own hand.
He assembled a few good men and the hunt of the century began.
Even under the dark circumstances, there were flashes of fun:
A lion burst into a tent and made off with a sack of rice,
Dropping it in disgust when it realized it wasn’t a plump human!
One of Patterson’s men stumbled over a dead lion’s body
And, adrenalin pumping, shot to the top of the nearest tree
And wouldn’t come down for love or money!
Another one got such a fright after being spat on by a snake
That he immediately stripped himself completely naked,
Never mind that venom outside the body is as harmless a teardrop!
And Patterson had to flee after a rhino he shot failed to drop –
Can you imagine an Englishman being chased around by a RHINO?
Eventually – thank Heaven! – the man-eaters ran out of luck:
Bwana Patterson found them and shot them one after the other.
Carrying the carcasses back to camp was no mean task
But such was the jubilation following the brutes’ departure
That all the coolies who had deserted gladly came back
And work was successfully completed on the railway track!
So there ends my story, and may I grow as tall as my mother’s brother.
Ngai / Allah = God
Coolies = Indians
Bwana = Mister