“The Reluctant Hero” by Jim Dunning

Having recently succeeded in passing the Lower Language examination in Chinyanja, I was promptly transferred to another area where the African population spoke another language. We moved from Broken Hill to Serenje in January, 1956. My task was to set up a new office and take over a number of bush schools from the Church of Scotland missionaries. They had wisely decided to concentrate their efforts on church work. Although my headquarters were still in the Central Province, some of the schools being surrendered to local education authority control were in the Mpika District of the Northern Province. After familiarising myself with the Serenje District, I undertook a tour of Mpika schools.

On the way to the first school I passed quite close to the site of Chief Chitambo’s old village. It was here that David Livingstone died on the 1st of May, 1873. When I saw the simple sign by the roadside – Livingstone Memorial – the temptation was too great. It was, after all, only 30 miles down a rough track. No distance at all in that vast country. Deciding that a glimpse of it constituted a legitimate and necessary part of my own education, I turned off in the Land Rover and was there within the hour.

The memorial consisted of a simple stone plinth set up in a bleak clearing. The old village had long since disappeared. As I walked across the clearing and stood in front of the stone I was completely alone. The memorial contrasted strangely with the huge statue of Livingstone which overlooks the Victoria Falls, and which is almost always surrounded by crowds of sightseers and tourists. Here, to one side, was a tree at the foot of which Livingstone’s heart and entrails were buried by his followers, who then carried his body nearly two thousand miles to the east coast for transportation to the land of his birth.

What struck me most was the temperature. This part of Africa is on a plateau six thousand feet above sea level. At night, in the dry season, it can be freezing. As a child listening to stories of David Livingstone, the great missionary explorer, I had imagined him dying painfully of Blackwater fever in extremes of heat and bathed in sweat. In reality, he must have been shivering uncontrollably in the cold. Strange how one’s misconceptions can be corrected. A Church of Scotland missionary at Chitambo Mission some fifty miles away spoke scathingly of Livingstone, reflecting that he had forced his sick wife to endure utter misery while following her husband faithfully through rough country in appalling conditions. Whereas he now has a fine tomb in Westminster Abbey, Mary Moffat’s remains lie in a forgotten and uncared-for grave in the African bush. It makes one wonder.

The highlight of this tour was a visit to a small primary school where there was a grave of a different kind. The headteacher was a grizzled old man who must have been nearing retirement. He tool me over to a large mound of earth and said : ‘This is where we buried the lion’. The previous year the school had received a visit one night from a prowling lion. Many of the pupils were weekly boarders since their villages were too far away to allow of daily travel. Their dormitories were simple, thatched constructions of pole and dagga – a kind of dried mud. The lion stalked into one of these and attacked the sleeping children. Their screams aroused the head, who lived in one of two teachers’ houses on the school site. He rushed over to the dormitory in an effort to rescue the children, but the lion came out, turning on him and fastening its jaws around his arm. While he was wishing heartily that he had followed another profession, his wife came to his aid. Being a practical sort, she had had the good sense to arm herself with a sturdy African hoe and she used this to beat the lion until it released her husband and retreated into the dormitory where it commenced eating the body of a dead child. By this time the other children had fled to the safety of other buildings.

The headteacher was bleeding badly and in a state of shock, but he was determined to win the battle. Pulling the rough door closed, he sent his wife for some matches before setting fire to the thatched roof. Within a minute the hut was an inferno. The lion’s roars were terrible to hear and the air was filled with the stench of burning flesh. Two days later, after the local villagers had streamed in to witness the scene, the lion was buried.

The head rolled up his sleeve and showed me the massive scars covering the whole of his arm and shoulder. He seemed quite proud of them, as well he might be. After inspecting his arm I was free to inspect the school. Then he took me over to his new home. As a reward for his bravery in defending his pupils, the authorities had presented him with the sum of £25, almost three months’ salary. He had promptly used this to build a new house of sun-dried bricks with a corrugated iron roof. There was not a single window in the house ! In answer to my amazed query, he explained, somewhat apologetically I thought, that he had no wish to meet any more lions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s