Chapter no 3 – ‌‌‌Simba‌

Going Solo

About a month after the black mamba incident, I set out on a safari upcountry in the old Shell station-wagon with Mdisho and our first stop was the small town of Bagomoyo. I mention this only because the name of the Indian trader I had to go and see in Bagomoyo was so wonderful I have never been able to get it out of my mind. He was a tiny little man with an immense low-slung protuberant belly of the kind that women have when they are eight and a half months pregnant, and he carried this great ball in front of him very proudly, as if it were a special medal or a coat of arms. He called himself Mister Shankerbai Ganderbai, and across the top of his business notepaper was printed in red capital letters the full title he had conferred upon himself, MISTER SHANKERBAI GANDERBAI OF BAGOMOYO, SELLER OF DECORTICATORS. A

decorticator is a huge clanking piece of machinery that converts the leaves of the sisal plant into fibres for making rope, and if you wanted to buy one, the man to go and see was Mister Shankerbai Ganderbai of Bagomoyo.

After three more days of dusty travelling and visiting customers, Mdisho and I came to the town of Tabora. Tabora is some 450 miles inland from Dar es Salaam, and in 1939 it was not much of a town, just a scattering of houses and a few streets where the Indian traders had their shops. But because by Tanganyikan standards it was a sizeable place, it was honoured by the presence of a British District Officer.

The District Officers in Tanganyika were a breed I admired. Admittedly they were sunburnt and sinewy, but they were not gophers. They were all university graduates with good degrees, and in their lonely outposts they had to be all things to all men. They were the judges whose decisions settled both tribal and personal disputes. They were the advisers to tribal chiefs. They were often the givers of medicines and the saviours of the sick. They administered their own vast districts by keeping law and order under the most difficult circumstances. And wherever there was a District Officer, the Shell man on safari was welcome to stay the night at his house.

The DO in Tabora was called Robert Sanford, a man in his early thirties

who had a wife and three very small children, a boy of six, a girl of four and a baby.

That evening I was sitting on the veranda having a sundowner with Robert Sanford and his wife Mary, while two of the children were playing out on the grass in front of the house under the watchful eye of their black nurse. The heat of the day was becoming less intense as the sun went down, and the first whisky and soda was tasting good.

‘So what’s been going on in Dar?’ Robert Sanford asked me. ‘Anything exciting?’

I told him about the black mamba and Salimu. When I had finished, Mary Sanford said, ‘That’s the one thing I’m always frightened of in this country, those beastly snakes.’

‘Damn lucky you happened to see it behind him,’ Robert Sanford said. ‘He was certain to have been killed.’

‘We had a spitting cobra near our back door not long ago,’ Mary Sanford said. ‘Robert shot it.’

The Sanford house was on a hill outside the town. It was a white wooden two-storey building with a roof of green tiles. The eaves of the house projected far out beyond the walls to provide extra shade, and this gave the building a sort of Japanese pagoda appearance. The surrounding countryside was to me a very pleasant sight. It was a vast brown plain with many quite large knolls and hummocks dotted all over it, and although the plain itself was mostly burnt-up scrubland, the hills were covered with all sorts of huge jungle trees, and their dense foliage made little emerald-green dots all over the plain. On the burnt-up plain itself there grew nothing but those bare spiky thorn trees that you find all over East Africa, and there were about six huge vultures sitting quite motionless on every thorn tree in sight. The vultures were brown with curved orange beaks and orange feet, and they spent their whole lives sitting and watching and waiting for some animal to die so they could pick its bones.

‘Do you like this sort of life?’ I said to Robert Sanford.

‘I love the freedom,’ he said. ‘I administer about two thousand square miles of territory and I can go where I want and do more or less exactly as I please. That part of it is marvellous. But I do miss the company of other white men.

There aren’t many even moderately intelligent Europeans in the town.’

We sat there watching the sun go down behind the flat brown plain that was covered with thorn trees, and we could see the sinister vultures waiting like feathered undertakers for death to come along and give them something to work on.



‘Keep the children a bit closer to the house!’ Mary Sanford called out to the nurse. ‘Bring them closer, please!’

Robert Sanford said, ‘My mother sent me out Beethoven’s Third Symphony from England last week. HMV, two records, four sides in all, Toscanini conducting. I’m using a thorn needle instead of a steel one so as not to wear out the grooves. It seems to work.’

‘Don’t you find the records warp a lot out here?’ I asked.

‘I keep them lying flat with a pile of books on top of them,’ he said. ‘What I’m terrified of is dropping one and breaking it.’

The sun had gone down now and a lovely soft light was spreading over the landscape. I could see a group of zebra grazing among the thorn trees about half a mile away. Robert Sanford was also watching the zebras.

‘I keep wondering,’ he said, ‘if it wouldn’t be possible to catch a young zebra and break it in for riding, just like a horse. After all, they are only wild

horses with stripes on.’

‘Has anyone ever tried?’ I asked.

‘Not that I know,’ he said. ‘Mary’s a good rider. What do you think, darling? How would you like to have a private zebra to ride on?’

‘It might be fun,’ she said. Even though she had a bit of a jaw, she was a handsome woman. I didn’t mind the jaw. The shape of it gave her the look of a fighter.

‘Perhaps we could cross one with a horse,’ Robert Sanford said, ‘and call it a zorse.’

‘Or a hebra,’ Mary Sanford said. ‘Right,’ her husband said, smiling.

‘Shall we try it?’ Mary Sanford said. ‘It would be rather splendid to have a baby zorse or hebra. Oh darling, shall we try it?’

‘The children could ride it,’ he said. ‘A black zorse with white stripes all over it.’

‘Please can we play your Beethoven after supper?’ I said.

‘Absolutely,’ Robert Sanford said. ‘I’ll put the gramophone out here on the veranda and then those tremendous chords can go booming out through the night over the plain. It’s terrific. The only trouble is I have to wind the thing up twice for each side.’

‘I’ll wind it for you,’ I said.

Suddenly, the voice of a man yelling in Swahili exploded into the quiet of the evening. It was my boy, Mdisho. ‘Bwana! Bwana! Bwana!’ he was yelling from somewhere behind the house. ‘Simba, bwana! Simba! Simba!’

Simba is Swahili for lion. All three of us leapt to our feet, and the next moment Mdisho came tearing round the corner of the house yelling at us in Swahili, ‘Come quick, bwana! Come quick! Come quick! A huge lion is eating the wife of the cook!’

That sounds pretty funny when you put it on paper back here in England, but to us, standing on a veranda in the middle of East Africa, it was not funny at all.

Robert Sanford flew into the house and came out again in five seconds flat holding a powerful rifle and ramming a cartridge into the breech. ‘Get those children indoors!’ he shouted to his wife as he ran down off the veranda with me behind him.

Mdisho was dancing about and pointing towards the back of the house and yelling in Swahili, ‘The lion has taken the wife of the cook and the lion is eating her and the cook is chasing the lion and trying to save his wife!’

The servants lived in a series of low whitewashed outbuildings at the back of the house, and as we came running round the corner we saw four or five

house-boys leaping about and pointing and shrieking, ‘Simba! Simba! Simba!’ The boys were all clothed in spotless white cotton robes that looked like long night-shirts, and each had a fine scarlet tarboosh on his head. The tarboosh is a sort of top-hat without a brim, and there is often a black tassel on it. The women had come out of their huts as well and were standing in a separate group, silent, immobile and staring.

‘Where is it?’ Robert Sanford shouted, but he had no need to ask, for we very quickly spotted the massive sandy-coloured lion not more than eighty or ninety yards off and trotting away from the house. He had a fine bushy collar of fur around his neck, and in his jaws he was holding the wife of the cook.

The lion had the woman by the waist so that her head and arms hung down on one side and her legs on the other, and I could see that she was wearing a red and white spotted dress. The lion, so startlingly close, was loping away from us in the calmest possible manner with a slow, long-striding, springy lope, and behind the lion, not more than the length of a tennis court behind, ran the cook himself in his white cotton robe and with his red hat on his head, running most bravely and waving his arms like a whirlwind, leaping, clapping his hands, screaming, shouting, shouting, shouting, ‘Simba! Simba! Simba!

Simba! Let go of my wife! Let go of my wife!’

Oh, it was a scene of great tragedy and comedy both mixed up together, and now Robert Sanford was running full speed after the cook who was running after the lion. He was holding his rifle in both hands and shouting to the cook, ‘Pingo! Pingo! Get out of the way, Pingo! Lie down on the ground so I can shoot the simba! You are in my way! You are in my way, Pingo!’

But the cook ignored him and kept on running, and the lion ignored everybody, not altering his pace at all but continuing to lope along with slow springy strides and with the head held high and carrying the woman proudly in his jaws, rather like a dog who is trotting off with a good bone.

Both the cook and Robert Sanford were travelling faster than the lion who really didn’t seem to care about his pursuers at all. And as for me, I didn’t know what to do to help them so I ran after Robert Sanford. It was an awkward situation because there was no way that Robert Sanford could take a shot at the lion without risking a hit on the cook’s wife, let alone on the cook himself who was still right in his line of fire.

The lion was heading for one of those hillocks that was densely covered with jungle trees and we all knew that once he got in there, we would never be able to get at him. The incredibly brave cook was actually catching up on the lion and was now not more than ten yards behind him, and Robert Sanford was thirty or forty yards behind the cook. ‘Ayee!’ the cook was shouting. ‘Simba! Simba! Simba! Let go my wife! I am coming after you, simba!’

Then Robert Sanford stopped and raised his rifle and took aim, and I thought surely he is not risking a shot at a moving lion when it’s got a woman in its jaws. There was an almighty crack as the big gun went off and I saw a spurt of dust just ahead of the lion. The lion stopped dead and turned his head, still holding the woman in his jaws. He saw the arm-waving shouting cook and he saw Robert Sanford and he saw me and he had certainly heard the rifle shot and seen the spurt of dust. He must have thought an army was coming after him because instantaneously he dropped the cook’s wife on to the ground and broke for cover. I have never seen anything accelerate so fast from a standing start. With great leaping bounding strides he was in among the jungle trees on the hillock before Robert Sanford could ram another cartridge into his gun.

The cook reached the wife first, then Robert Sanford, then me. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I was certain that the grip of those terrible jaws would have ripped the woman’s waist and stomach almost in two, but there she was sitting up on the ground and smiling at the cook, her husband.

‘Where are you hurt?’ shouted Robert Sanford, rushing up.

The cook’s wife looked up at him and kept smiling, and she said in Swahili, ‘That old lion he couldn’t scare me. I just lay there in his mouth pretending I was dead and he didn’t even bite through my clothes.’ She stood up and smoothed down her red and white spotted dress which was wet with the lion’s saliva, and the cook embraced her and the two of them did a little dance of joy in the twilight out there on the great brown African plain.

Robert Sanford just stood there gaping at the cook’s wife. So, for that matter, did I.

‘Are you absolutely sure the simba didn’t hurt you?’ he asked her. ‘Did not his teeth go into your body?’

‘No, bwana,’ the woman said, laughing. ‘He carried me as gently as if I had been one of his own cubs. But now I shall have to wash my dress.’

We walked slowly back to the group of astonished onlookers. ‘Tonight’, Robert Sanford said, addressing them all, ‘nobody is to go far from the house, you understand me?’

‘Yes, bwana,’ they said. ‘Yes, yes, we understand you.’

‘That old simba is hiding over there in the wood and he may come back,’ Robert Sanford said. ‘So be very careful. And Pingo, please continue to cook our dinner. I am getting hungry.’

The cook ran into the kitchen, clapping his hands and leaping for joy. We walked over to where Mary Sanford was standing. She had come round to the back of the house soon after us and had witnessed the whole scene. The three of us then returned to the veranda and fresh drinks were poured.

Dar es Salaam 5 June 1939

Dear Mama,

It’s pleasant lying back and listening to and at the same time watching the antics of Hitler and Mussolini who are invariably on the ceiling catching flys and mosquitoes. Hitler & Mussolini are 2 lizards which live in our sitting room. They’re always here, and apart from being very useful about the house they are exciting to watch. You can see Hitler (who is smaller than Musso and not so fat) fixing his unfortunate victim – often a small moth – with a very hypnotic eye. The moth, terrified, stays stock still, then suddenly, so quickly that you can hardly see the movement at all, he darts his neck forward, shoots out a long tongue, and that’s the end of the moth. They’re quite small only about 10 inches long, and they’ve taken on the colour of the walls & ceiling which are yellow & become quite transparent. You can see their appendixes, at least we think we can …

‘I don’t believe anything like this has ever happened before,’ Robert Sanford said as he sat down once again in his cane armchair. There was a little round slot in one of the arms of the chair to carry his glass and he put the whisky and soda carefully into it. ‘In the first place,’ he went on, ‘lions do not attack people around here unless you go near their cubs. They can get all the food they want. There’s plenty of game on the plain.’

‘Perhaps he’s got a family in that patch of wood on the hill,’ Mary Sanford said.

‘That could be,’ Robert Sanford said. ‘But if he had thought the woman was threatening his family, he would have killed her on the spot. Instead of that, he carries her off as soft and gentle as a good gun-dog with a partridge. If you want my opinion, I do not believe he ever meant to hurt her.’

We sat there sipping our drinks and trying to find some sort of an explanation for the astonishing behaviour of the lion.

‘Normally,’ Robert Sanford said, ‘I would get together a bunch of hunters first thing tomorrow morning and we’d flush out that old lion and kill him. But I don’t want to do it. He doesn’t deserve it. In fact, I’m not going to do it.’

‘Good for you, darling,’ his wife said.

The story of this strange happening with the lion spread in the end all over East Africa and it became a bit of a legend. And when I got back to Dar es Salaam about two weeks later, there was a letter waiting for me from the East African Standard (I think it was called) up in Nairobi asking if I would write my own eye-witness description of the incident. This I did and in time I received a cheque for five pounds from the newspaper for my first published work.

There followed a long correspondence in the columns of the paper from the white hunters and other experts all over Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika, each offering his or her different and often bizarre explanation. But none of them made any sense. The matter has remained a mystery ever since.

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