I lived in a little shanty-like neighbourhood called Kiwafu while in uni in Kampala, with a roommate, Gasirigwa, who was from Tanzania. A room. One window. A mango tree outside the window. The adjoining door – permanently locked – led to the living room of our landlady, a lovely Muslim woman with pretty-ish daughters that we made a pact never to touch because she was a darling to us, a mother to us, and that made them our sisters from another mother. The bathroom was outside. The toilets were outside. We lived on a shoestring budget; rolex, beans, chapos, groundnut sauce, sweet potatoes. Repeat. Drinking water was from kavera, water in branded polythene sachets. We were having the time of our lives.
One evening, at about 7pm, I was going to… okay, I don’t know where I was going but I had left our little cave when a panicked lady suddenly ran into the street. She startled me. She had a leso around her wide hips. Actually she looked like one of those market women in those oil paintings you see in Java. Only that she was light-skinned, very light-skinned even in that semi-darkness. She anxiously curled her hand around my biceps (not all the way, though, I had big guns) and spoke Kiganda and I told her I didn’t understand. She then spoke terrible Kiswahili and from her accent I realised she was Congolese.
There was a snake in her house, she said.
My biceps tensed, making them appear bigger than they were. I think it is a natural protective instinct for a man when a woman is in danger. I was there to save her. It was going to be all right. Only there was one small problem. I was scared shitless. Okay, it wasn’t a small problem, it was a big problem. Bigger than my biceps.
I absolutely fear snakes. I’d rather be eaten by a crocodile than by a snake. Put me in a cage with any animal but not a snake. The very sight of a snake makes me want to pee my pants. I cautiously approached her open door. Orange light spilled out. It was a small two-room hovel with cheap furniture in the sitting room, a small television set on a stool, some boxes in the corner, a stove and utensils in another corner, and a doorway that led into a darkened bedroom. I didn’t see a snake.
“Pengine ametoroka.” I told her hopefully. My throat was so dry I was surprised I could even get a word out without bruising my throat. She was cowering behind me and I was worried that she could hear my loud heartbeat.
“Hapana, bado bameingia ndani kule!”she said, pointing at the boxes in the corner with a multi-coloured finger. She seemed to have bleached her skin and somehow the knuckles hadn’t absorbed the bleach and so they remained black while the rest of the hand became light. Her hands looked like the hands of a colobus monkey. Ahh, Batoto ba, Brazzaville.
She said she couldn’t sleep in that house until she was sure the snake was gone. I wondered why I hadn’t left my house sooner, if I had I wouldn’t have walked into this madness. Now I had to find the damned serpent. I was shitting bricks. I fetched a long stick and standing very far, used it to part the debris at the corner of that house, ready to bolt at first sighting. Her house was a mess, strewn with things that didn’t make sense. She struck me as a hoarder. I saw an old iron metal box with a wooden handle that looked older than me. She had clothes all over, glittery clothes, a favourite of Ugandans, it seemed.
I asked her how big this snake was and she looked at her hand said “nusu ya mikono.” I stared at her hand. Did she mean the length or the width? It didn’t matter, it was a snake and I hate and fear all of them. I hate their vacant eyes and how flat their heads are and how they never blink. Anything that doesn’t blink is scary; like when a woman asks you, “Who did you say you were with yesterday again?” and then she just looks at you without blinking.
Anyway, you will be happy to learn that I managed to “arrest” that situation, saving that Congolese girl in the process. She was profuse in her gratitude. At the end of the ordeal I had so much adrenaline in my system all the hairs on my head seemed to standing straight at the roots. Have you ever been so fearful you feel all the H-pylori in your stomach actually move?
I don’t remember that incident with pride, I remember it with a great deal of embarrassment. Because I was so shamefully fearful, holding that stick with clammy hands, completely devoid of confidence or dignity. The only reason I did it was because she was a woman. Had she been a man I would have told him, “Chief, we both have sticks, use yours,” and left him to it.
Recently I did something fearful, once again because of a woman. Or women, rather.
I was in South Africa earlier this month, for the World Animal Week, where World Animal Protection was launching a campaign asking people to sign a new wildlife selfie code (see it here https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/ ) to make people kinder to wild animals by ceasing to take selfies with them. Basically promising not to disrupt animals’ lives for the sake of Likes on social media. Because you and your cameras stress wild animals. Especially when you have to touch them to photograph them. They don’t say it but they feel violated. But one day they will say it. I’m sure. You wait.
Anyway, initially I was to fly down to the Amazon rainforest for the same thing on World Sloth Day (yes, there is such a thing), to see how sloths are stressed out by being held by tourists for selfies. I will now allow you a moment to Google a sloth. It’s okay. I will wait.
Did you see it?
I don’t know who would want to take a selfie with a sloth. That animal looks like a cobweb duster with bedroom eyes. But it’s all the rage in the Amazon, apparently. People pay money to carry a sloth and take selfies with it. It’s amazing the heights human beings will go to amuse themselves. Somehow (regrettably) I didn’t manage to go to the Amazon and meet a sloth, but I ended up in Johannesburg to experience walking with lions, which seems like a very romantic thing, that is, if the lion doesn’t change its mind and eat you.
The night before, I googled “lion eating humans” (1.7million results) and picked the one with graphic warning on it. In the video a lioness had held a man down by his neck and a male lion with a massive mane was standing over this (near) kill. The man was still struggling, but barely. There were bystander voices that sounded either punjabi or pashto or urdu. The comments on the video were morbid. Someone wrote, “throw in one more human, and get a better camera, can’t see shit.” Another said, “Mess with Israel and this is your fate, God bless the Lion of Judah.” I spent half hour reading the comments of people complaining about the quality of the camerawork. I should have given up on this darkness and stopped there, instead the devil egged me on and I searched for more videos of lions killing people; the darkest and the bleakest.
By the end of it, I was terrified. The very prospect of walking with the lions the next day filled me with horror.
So I did what you would have done, I went to this bar not too far from where we were staying in Sandton. There, I ordered whisky (Glenmorangie,no doubt) from a Zimbabwean barman whom I lied to that there are tons of very well-paying bartending jobs in Nairobi. When I told him that I would be walking with lions the next day he said in that accent of theirs, “Eeeei, my maaan! Err you white?” I kept ordering doubles because, well, Glenmorangie pays for my drinks now. But no matter how much I drunk, the fear would not leave. It squatted in the basement of my stomach, right above my bikini line. [He-he.]
The next morning I woke up sure that this was a bad idea and I needed to withdraw. What business did I have going to walk with a wild animal? A lion at that. Wasn’t it enough to have saved a distressed woman from a snake many years ago? My only consolation was that in all the videos I watched of the lions eating people, there was not a single one of a lion eating a black person. I didn’t know if that was a good sign or not. This meant that lions either didn’t like black people’s meat – which would make them racist – or black people had better things to do with their lives than find themselves in a space where they are eaten by lions.
We got to the park. I was with four ladies. One of them was Ugandan. Two were South African. One was Kenyan, Lucy, from World Animal Protection. Before we paid (the irony! Paying for a possibility of death) I mentioned that I was changing my mind and the ladies said, Oh no, you can’t, it’s going to be alright, nothing will happen. We are already here. I should have said, Oh sod it, I have two kids, I’m black, I won’t do this. Bite me. Instead I agreed, to save manly face. I then went to the washrooms to pee because fear provokes urination.
We signed Liability Waiver forms. You only sign Liability Waiver forms when there is a chance you might die.Nobody signs Liability Waiver forms in restaurants. Or when buying a phone. Or when buying a shawarma. We then drove into the park and shared the tour van with an American lady who, naturally, was excited. White people seem to live for the promise of death. We passed a giraffe on our way. The white lady leaned in to take a picture of the giraffe. I would never take a picture of a giraffe. I always wonder what people do with all the pictures they take of some things, like giraffes or tortoises. Do you on a hot Wednesday afternoon in the office, take a break from studying your spreadsheets to look at a picture of a giraffe you took on a safari?
The lions were two.
Someone named them Rialda and Naledi. They were 10 months old but were those lions that don’t look their age. They looked 10 years old. They were in a cage drawn by a vehicle. The lions looked restless, like they had ants in their pants. I asked when they were last fed and the handler said a few months ago and laughed. I bet he tells everyone that joke. I bet he thought he was a real comedian. Even worse, I bet some people laugh at that joke. I didn’t. I found it sad. And inappropriate. Like fat people jokes.
What happens when they lose their minds and decide to attack us? I asked the big warden guy.
No, but what happens if they do?
We have done this for many years, they won’t. Trust me.
I was even more worried because the last person who asked to to trust them was this tattooist who I wanted to do a my son’s footprint on my arm and he said, trust me, it will come out the way you want it. Well, it didn’t. It doesn’t look anything like a footprint. It looks like a root. I look like a herbalist.
The warden had a bucketful of pieces of horse meat. Lions love textured meat because they don’t have toothpicks. They prowled the cage, staring at us. I avoided eye contact. I figured that when they are finally let loose and they want something to eat, they would start with the white lady because, well, white meat is healthier.
“Don’t touch their head or their tails.” The burly warden warned us and I wanted to ask, “What about their nipples?”
Their cage was opened.
They jumped out.
I could feel their weight as they landed on the ground soundlessly. Paws like cotton. A heaviness that displaced air. Their muscular shoulders heaved. The atmosphere changed; a lion charges the air molecules around you. Your body, your organs, recoil instinctively in their presence. You hold your breath because you are afraid they will hear you breathe and realise kumbe you are alive and eat you. Mostly you feel their energy, it’s primitive energy, one that can’t be governed. Look, I can’t explain it. Some things defy description, like the sun, or a lion. A lion is just a lion, it’s too visceral for words.
The man with horse meat threw some at our feet and they ran and gulped the meat and miraculously ignored our feet. I was just about ready to pee on my shoes. They rubbed themselves against our legs like cats, I could feel how muscular they were. And they smelled. Lions smell. It’s not a bad smell. It’s their fur. Their fur smelled like old carpet in the sun. A wild smell. A smell with texture.
My stomach churned.
Because I’m writing this they obviously didn’t eat us. Or the white lady, miraculously. Which means they weren’t real lions. You have to experience it yourself, but something happens to those lions when they keep getting touched and stroked and told that they are cute, which is what the white lady kept saying, “Oh these girls are so cute!” People shouldn’t tell lions that they are cute, it turns their temperaments into that of house dogs. I wanted to tell her that first, they are not girls, girls don’t smell of old carpets in the sun…at least not the girls I know. Secondly, they are not cute. Domestic cats are cute. Mickey Mouse is cute. A baby with a splotch of ice cream on the tip of the nose is cute. A lion is a killer. It’s not cute.
I once watched a very old and weak lioness at Meru National Park (you have to visit that park, it’s amazing). She had a million fleas on her body and she was lying under a shrub by a river, hungry, emaciated and with most of her teeth fallen off from old age. She was waiting for small animals to come to water so that she could kill and eat them. I was with some white folks from Brighton, England (read that with a posh British accent) and they wanted to go closer to it because it seemed harmless in it’s half dying state. Our tour guide warned us that should we dare step out of the van, that weak and almost dying lion would be on us in a flash and it would maul us even in its last desperate dance of death. “Because there is no such thing as a weak, sick, young or old lion, they are all killers,” he said.
But Rialda and Naledi? I don’t know. They were changed. If they went to a party in the wild with real lions they would not be let in. The bouncer lion with his massive mohawked mane, standing at the door of the jungle, legs apart, would say, “Sorry, ladies, you are not one of us; you have been touched by humans, you smell of them and of Bvlgari. Plus we hear you are cute. Now, beat it.”