Many years ago, there was a boy who lived on a Mission Station in a small village in Zambia—where the cheetah and hyena roamed at night, and he breathed in the dust and dirt from the land from the moment he woke up until the moment he fell asleep…when the land settled under the African skies.
Every Sunday morning the boy on the Mission Station went with his family to church. On this particular day, he dressed in his best clothes, as he did every Sunday, and upon his arrival sat neatly on his stool at the back (as he did every Sunday) in between his mom and his big sister, Joy—who sat next to his next biggest sister Beryl.
As he sat absentmindedly on his stool, the boy could almost catch a glimpse outside—there was no glass in the large windows that were dug into the walls of the red brick and mud, which allowed the air to circulate inside. But his view was blocked by a woman’s head that was of a rather large persuasion. The ladies always sat in the wings of the cross-shaped church; the men in the middle. The boy and his family at the back. The boy new that it was going to be a dull three hours—he didn’t speak Mbunda, the language of the people. His dad did—perhaps he should sit behind the lady with the big head.
But the boy was in for a surprise
On this morning, as the minister stood up in front of the congregation, there was a murmur of excitement in church—that the boy forgot about his lost view. Something was afoot.
The boy’s mom bent her head low and whispered in his ear…
The minister had asked the congregation to be very careful because there was a ndumba in the district. A ndumba! A lion. But not just lion. A man-eating lion.
The ndumba was not hunting as it normally would—the beast had already nabbed a couple of people and was likely to target more. Maybe it was hungry. The boy wondered if a lion had a big enough stomach to hold an entire human—maybe a child but surely not a grown man, like dad or like Chesiwe. Sometimes Chesiwe, who was as tall as Jack’s beanstalk, would peer in at the boy and his sisters through the kitchen window that stood high above the sink—the whites of his eyes like great moons casting light on a multitude of minor sins; the boy wilted under the force of that glare. No, surely not Chesiwe. A child—maybe. A small child. A 4-year-old child? Entirely possible, the boy thought. In fact, he thought all the way back from church.
A couple of days after the Minister’s announcement – it was a hot day and everyone was still being careful – the boy’s play was interrupted by a group of frantic villagers who descended upon the house gesticulating wildly, “Come and see! Come and see!” The boy and his dad followed them to the outer fence of the hospital compound on the mission station. The fence was tall, taller than Chesiwe (but only a tiny bit) and made of grass and sticks. The sick people stayed in grass huts on the inside of the fence. The villagers pointed to the ground—lion spore, circling round and round the fence. The ndumba wanted to eat the sick people! (Better than a 4-year-old although the boy didn’t think they’d be as tasty—too thin, too sick.)
There were no guns in the village. The people had come to the boy’s dad for help. So, he poisoned some meat and left it out, near the hospital, hoping the man-eating ndumba would be enticed.
The next morning, the meat was gone. The villagers followed the lion’s tracks and eventually, a long way away, they found it dead. The men tied the beast to a branch and carried it home. There was much celebrating. Word spread and people congregated. They gathered in the middle of the mission station and built a bonfire to the heavens, ready to consecrate the death of the man-eater.
The boy did not yet know that the lion was dead. His dad came to him and took his hand, leading him towards a very big fire. This fire was much bigger than Chesiwe. Why was there a fire, the boy wondered? As father and son approached, hand in hand, the villagers parted, like Moses and the Red Sea. The boy turned around, looking back…just in case. No lion. The heat got closer and as the way forward opened up, the boy noticed what looked like a large brown shape in front of him. He grasped his dad’s hand tighter, another quick glance behind him, and then looked on with gunner vision…quite suddenly, the shape jumped. The ndumba! Right there in front of him. “Dad! Dad! There it is!” His first taste of fear. It was sour in his mouth. Had nobody else seen it move?
Sensing his son’s terror, the boy’s father bent down and, looking reassuringly at his son, said; “The lion is dead”.
Somebody had stood on the branch to which the lion was still tethered, turning the creature into an effigy of its former self—noticed only by a small boy who didn’t know any better, if only for just a few seconds.
Storyteller: Noel Huntingford
Author: Andrea Zanin
Noel Huntingford (aka “the boy”) was born in London. From the age of 6 weeks, he lived in Zambia with his missionary parents and two older sisters. When he was 14, he moved with his family to South Africa. Noel has been living in the UK for the last couple of years (to spend time with his three children and ten grandchildren) but plans to return to Africa, where he left his heart.