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by David Cabela
As the hours passed, the weight of the heat pushed my head down as I fought to keep my eyes fixed on the underbrush. The constant rumble of the diesel engine and rocking of the two-track trail hindered my efforts. We had not seen any game since a few impalas leaped across the trail early that morning. Not a kudu, a wildebeest, or even a baboon. Just the sun and the rumble and the rocking and the dust. Only the occasional tsetse fly stinging right through my shirt kept me from dozing off.
We left that morning hoping to find a buffalo track, but would have been content to find an eland or kudu or even fresh sign of a lion. The previous five days, game had been plentiful and so many fresh tracks littered the ground around the salt pans or water holes that we sometimes had to choose whether to follow big kudu tracks or a buffalo herd. The first five days seemed as if we had been emerged into a big-game hunter’s paradise.
On the sixth day, every water hole held only tracks too old to follow and the salt pans seemed as if they had not been visited in weeks. So we pressed on to the next one often more than an hour away. At one point, we walked a dry, but shaded, creek bed for a few miles without any luck. At lease it had been an respite from the constant rumbling and rocking.
Where had all the game gone? The silence of the savanna had this desolate sense to it that seemed to dry up hope whenever it tried to peek through. Even the few vultures we saw perched in dead tree limbs seemed to have given up finding any carrion. They merely stared at us as we passed by.
So after a dry sandwich, a mushy banana, and a bottle of water for lunch, we slumped back into the open-aired Land Cruiser and pressed on for an afternoon that promised only heat and inaction. But as hunters, as humans, we live on hope even when it does not seem to exist. Without hope, we are unable to move forward. Without hope, we fail to exist.
“There is a village not far from here,” Nick, our professional hunter, said. “We will stop and ask if they have seen any game and promise to bring them fresh meat if we have any success.” Nick, a native of Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe, had one of those southern African accents hinting at British ancestors that had since been forgotten because Africa and not Europe had been the only home he had ever known. He accepted where he was and who he was without question, remorse, or arrogance. Though he no longer called Rhodesia home, he considered himself an African.
A village sounded like a great way to reenergize the day. Young children would run out to greet our vehicle as is approached, dancing and laughing and chattering. We always carried a bag of candy to hand out to them. We did not deserve the pure joy on their faces from this simple and inadequate gift of sweets, but we accepted it nonetheless. In fact, we ate it up. As I reflect on my hunting travels, it is the happy faces of children too innocent to care about what someone else has, which are imprinted most clearly in my memories.
I grabbed the bag of candy, eager to experience the beauty of a small gift joyfully received. Ten to twelve small grass huts, spaced fifteen to twenty yards apart came into view. I marveled at the fact that these structures, no bigger than a backyard shed, were homes. Families lived in them. They gathered around them. They slept on the dirt floors. I marveled that every time we entered one of these small villages, the people, especially the children appeared highly content. They had almost no worldly possessions, yet they seemed to want for very little. In my own sheltered world, we have far more than we need and still can never get enough. I admired the villagers in many ways.
I do not pretend to know anything intimate about the local tribes of Zambia’s Luangwa River Valley. I suspect all of them I met have long since forgotten me, but my brief encounter with them has left a lasting impression. They taught me the difference between needs and wants and, simply by being who they were, forced me to take an honest look inside of myself and see how little I deserved the blessings in my life.
As our vehicle rattled closer to the village, something seemed amiss. Where were the running and dancing and chattering children who always came out to meet us from every other village we had visited? Where were the two or three goats usually tethered nearby? When we finally pulled up and stopped, the dust from our tires rose slowly past us and drifted by one of the lonely huts. We listened to a haunting silence.
Nick had a blank look on his face that I could not read. The trackers seemed indifferent.
The village had been abandoned. It actually looked as if nobody had lived there for some time. Nobody spoke. Nobody attempted to leave the vehicle. And once I realized Nick may not offer any kind of explanation, I asked him.
Nick turned to speak with the trackers, most of whom were from nearby villages. After a lengthy conversation in one of the local dialects, he turned to me. “A lion killed a man here.”
He paused as if to let the reality of it sink in. I stared at him waiting for more.
“It is an omen to stay in the village after lion attack.” He was more looking past me than at me. “That’s unbelievable,” I said in little more than a whisper.
“It is tragic.,” Nick said. “Far worse than you can imagine. This man’s wife was then considered cursed and prohibited from moving with the tribe. The lion came back the next night and took her as well.”
A prideful anger rose in my belly—as if I had been a member of the village, subjected to the same upbringing, fears, and legends, I would have made a different choice. “So that’s it? A man is killed and his wife is condemned?” My life circumstances had at one moment allowed me to admire the villagers and in another moment disdain them, as if my many sins entitled me to judge them.
Nick seemed to sense the fear and anger and pride and horror and sorrow and confusion. “It is Africa.” He finally said as if it explained all the good and all the bad of a particular place. I, for my part, accepted the explanation—yet I would never understand it.
We spent the rest of the day half-heartedly searching for game or tracks mostly in silence. I wish I could say I prayed for the poor victims that day, but I mostly just thought about how horrible that would be for me or someone I loved. I thought about it in selfish terms. How small and pitiful we too often make the world when we fail to see beyond “me”.
I think about them now. Especially the woman sitting there in her lonely hut—abandoned—listening to the darkness. Alone except for the sound of a man-eating lion returning, proving to her that she was cursed. Abandoned and cursed. And as I think about them, my heart is flooded with questions—most of them beginning with why. I expect few of them to be answered in this life. But I have come to believe our honest questions are part of the journey. Without them, how can we discover truth?
Most of us will never know that kind of abandonment nor will ever feel that literally cursed and nothing I can write will ever honor those two villagers. But I will try to remember them in my prayers and try to remember that it is during those moments when the lion lurks in the inescapable darkness, when we feel there is no escape, when we feel cursed, when we are most helpless, that our only recourse is to turn to God. It often is only then when we are humble enough to be strong.