By EXPENDITO CHIPALO –
MANY Zambians who originate from Luwingu district of the Northern Province are often heard boasting that they come from a country where lions drive buses, leopards are the conductors and hyenas are the indicators on the vehicles.
This boast is not a literal truth, but it is a summation of the legendary stories of the lions of Luwingu.
The Northern Province of Zambia is a region of mythical stories about lions that terrorised the area for many decades.
Although their story is little told, the Legendary Lions of Luwingu were the most notorious and their impact is reflected in the name of the district.
The most well known story of the lions of the Northern Province is that of Namweleu Inkalamo ya mu Kalundu (Namweleu the Lion of Kalundu). Kalundu is the Bemba territory governed by Chief Munkonge in Kasama district.
This lion was reputedly the spirit of a woman who was wronged by the royal family and rose to terrorise the people of Kalundu until it was eventually killed by the colonial District Commissioner from Kasama.
But before Namweleu and just before the advent of colonialism, there were other lions that exacted terror just like Namweleu and they had their own names and myths beyond their rise.
There was Nanshitina Milongo (the one who is not afraid of crowds). This lion used to attack people in groups and would kill many people without eating them.
Normally lions fear crowds of people and kill to eat, but not in the case of this particular lion.
Then there was Nanshila Ikampa (the road will give me). This lion would way lay people travelling between villages at any time of the day.
And then there was Namwinshi (the door hunter) which used to wait for people outside the door.
Some elders say that this lion was the same but it was given these three names as it changed tactics each time the residents planned to hunt it down.
The story of this particular lion is that Chitimukulu used to trade with chief Nsama of the Tabwa tribe in Mpolokoso district also in Northern Province. The Chitimukulu would send cloth to Nsama in exchange for salt. Then one trade expedition went awry.
The salt was not delivered to Chitimukulu. When Chitimukulu complained to Nsama, the Tabwa chief decided to punish the dishonest servants who stole the salt by sending lions after them.
The lions were instructed to kill the dishonest servants and every one of their customers who had tasted the stolen salt.
Thus both the thieves and innocent people who bought the salt from them became victims of the lion/s. These lions terrorised a large area which included Kasama and Luwingu districts and parts of Mporokoso district.
The stories of the many episodes of the Legendary Lions of Luwingu follow the same line as that of Nanshila Ikampa, Nanshitina Milongo and Namwinshi.
It’s in many cases people sending the lions to revenge against their enemies, real or perceived.
The original settlers of Luwingu were the Chishinga and Bisa people and their matriclan was Bena Ng’oma (the drum clan), and they called the place Chulu Ng’oma (the hill of the Bena Ng’oma people) because the place is built on a hill and miles and miles of forest spread out below.
On clear days, one can see up to 400 kilometres and Lake Bangweulu is about the same distance away.
The Bembas conquered the Chishinga and Bisa people at the beginning of the 19th Century and pushed the original settlers into the Bangweulu swamps and westwards into present day Kawambwa and installed chiefs Chipalo, Shimumbi, Tungati, Mucheleka, Kasonka, Chibanda and Njoko.
The Bena Ng’oma was not very happy to be displaced and decided to punish the Bembas by unleashing their lions on them.
With its forests, rivers, streams and wetlands, the area was very reach in game. But instead the lions went for the people. There were stories of lions snatching children from their mothers’ arms, people failing to go to their fields for fear of lions, people going to sleep as early as 1600 hours.
The lions caused so much terror that the Bembas changed the name of the place from Chulu Ng’oma to Lubingu Lwa Nsase Uwatumpa Lwamocha (The sparking flame which burns the foolish one).
When the British colonised Northern Rhodesia, they could not pronounce the word Lubîngu properly.
So they called it Luwingu. The lion terror continued even in the post-colonial error and in January 1923, District Commissioner Philip Jelf was almost killed in his sleep by a lion which broke into his official residence and he wrote thus of the incidence in the Northern Rhodesia Journal.
“In January 1923, I was DC at Luwingu. During that month, my wife took our infant daughter down to Fort Rosebery (Mansa), as she needed medical advice, and the M.O. there was unable to travel owing to a weak heart.
My assistant, Collcutt, and his wife went off district travelling. For the last weekend of the month, I invited George Middleton, Yule’s recruiting agent in the district, to come and stay with me.
On the Sunday morning, there was talk of lions being seen near the Boma cattle kraal, but by the time we arrived on the scene, they had cleared off.
“Middleton had intended to return to his station, some thirty miles away, that same afternoon – he had a motorbike – but I persuaded him to stay over till the next day to help me check some Government cash.
The DC’s house at Luwingu was a three-roomed bungalow, raised off the ground about three feet – dining room, sitting room and bedroom in a row, a small porch in front, a six foot verandah in the front and on the bedroom end.
Behind the bedroom through an archway was a tiny dressing room with door opening to the back, and behind the dining room was s tore room, and a small verandah between store and dressing room.
“I had fixed up a temporary bedroom with mats for Middleton on the side verandah behind the side window of the bedroom. This window was fixed open and wire netting was fixed into the frame.
The window facing the front, half French type, was always left open and had no netting on it. (as events were to prove, this was unwise). The head of my bed was close to the side window, the bed sticking out into the room. We turned in at about 10 o’clock that (Sunday) night.
“At about 03:00 hours, I was awakened by a terrific blow to the side of my face, and the realisation that some heavy beast was on top of me. Somehow, I struggled out from under my assailant shouting out loudly to Middleton the while.
Pursued by the lion, I crashed about the room, dodging round furniture, and eventually through the archway into the dressing room, where I collapsed on the floor; face down, with the lion on top of me chewing my right shoulder.
Then I heard shots fired and the lion left me. I had just sufficient strength left to get up, open the door and stagger round to the store room where I shut myself in and sat down on a box.”
According to Mr Jelf, his friend Mr. Middleton initially thought the DC was having a nightmare when he shouted for help.
But when the shouting continued, Mr Middleton lit a candle, rushed to the room and saw what was happening.
He had no weapon but quickly dashed around the house then yelled to the waders at the prison which is about 100 yards away to bring their rifles quickly.
“They dashed up and at his order fired, but at to which direction they aimed, I have never been clear. Anyway, this had the desired effect. It was surmised that the lion went back into the bed room and then sprang clean through the wire netted window and away.”
Mr Middleton then helped the DC to a table and that night washed his wounds with a very strong solution of permanganate and bandaged the wounds as best he could. Soon after day break, Mr Middleton sent a messenger to Fort Rosebery (Mansa) to go and inform Ms Jelf about the attack.
He also sent another messenger to Kasama to inform the Provincial Commissioner and the Provincial Medical Officer Dr Kinghorn.
The Assistant District Commissioner Mr Collcuts and his wife also arrived back at the station from their ulendo, (tour on tax collection), and joined Mr Middleton in nursing the DC.
On Monday night according to Mr Jelf, the lion came back the same Monday.
“That same Monday evening, Ms Collcut was sitting in the dining room when there was a sudden splintering of glass behind her – the lion had poked his nose through the side window and left some whiskers behind! Ms Collcut retired hastily into my room.
That night Collcut and Middleton mounted guard me over in turns, but nothing further happened,” Mr Jelf narrated.
The following Tuesday, the doctor arrived from Kasama, while Ms Jelf arrived the next day from Fort Rosebery (Mansa).
The doctor decided that Mr Jelf would be nursed at Luwingu for a few days more before he could be moved through the bush on a hammock to Kasama hospital.
Despite the increased number of people at the house everyone was scared and the lion continued coming back.
“In view of the lion being around, it was considered necessry to erect stout barricades for all the windows at night. For some nights we were literally in a state of siege.
Our servants were scared stiff and would not come near the house after sunset.
I had very restless nights and my wife had the greatest difficulty in keeping me in bed. Whilst preparing hot drinks for me on the night duty, my wife declared that the lion came and snuffled at the dressing room door.
“Every night poisoned bait was put out, and at least once a hyena was found dead beside it, whilst the lion continued to prowl, and one morning the doctor said that it must have taken his hat from the verandah – candid friends remarked that that only showed the state of the hat! When after a fortnight the lion took the bait, it proved to be a mangy old lioness with worn down teeth.”
In Luwingu the legend of the lions goes with myths and even this attack on a muzungu (white man) had a story behing it and the DC was told of the cause of the attack.
“The local Africans were firmly of the opinion that I had nominated the wrong man as successor to a chief who had died lately, and so the spirit of the deceased had taken the form of a lion to mark his disapproval. All the same, as soon as it was learned that the lion had been killed by the white man’s medicine, the people all rushed up from the village and danced around the corpse hilarously.”
It took six weeks for Mr Jelf to gain enough strength to be able to travel to Kasama where he was admitted into hospital.
After his discharge from the hospital, he did not go back to Luwingu, but went on to retire from the service His Majesty the King of England.
The lion experience of DC, Mr Jelf was never forgotten and every expatriate who went to work in the area took extra precautions Gervas Charles Robert Clay, a 23 year old cadet who was posted to Luwingu in August 1929 talks a lot about the incident in letters that he wrote back to England.
Clay occupied the same house in which the lion incident took place and wrting to his mother on July 22 1930, he made extensive reference to the incident.
Luwingu, 22 July 1930: “This house is quite a nice one though I hear it gets very hot in the summer through having a corrugated iron roof.
There’s a dining room, sitting room, bedroom and bathroom, also a pantry and store at the back. The cook-house is about 20 yards away also at the back. I have engaged a cook and also two small boys for various jobs.
There’s a very good nine-hole golf course just in the front of the house and also a tennis court.
The Wickins’s house is about 200 yards off down the road. The other night after dinner at their house I was just setting out for home when Wickins, who had come out with me spotted a pair of eyes just opposite my house. The torch was lighting them up.
He thought it might be a leopard and went and got his revolver for me to take with me. When I got quite close to my house the eyes appeared again quite close, and it gave me a great fright till I found it was only a cat!
“Next morning I went up for breakfast and found they (Wickinses) had had 4 lions all round their house roaring and making a great noise.
They had then gone to the cattle kraal behind my house and the herdsmen had fired three rounds (all duds!) at them and they had then sheered off.
The cattle kraal was for cattle which belonging to the Northern Rhodesia government. It was the practice of the colonial government to keep cattle at all the Bomas to ensure a reliable supply of beef and for research.
I had slept through it all. I am now dining here, and taking jolly good care not to go out when it’s dark. This evening a boy came in at 7.30 to report a lion down at the office which is 100 yards beyond the Wickins’ house. I don’t mind confessing I’m horribly frightened and didn’t sleep a wink last night though the doors were locked and all windows are heavily barred with wooden slats. The story about the lion jumping through the window is perfectly true and happened in 1923 and the bars had been put up ever since!
“I want Daddy to get me a revolver and send it out at once – a cheap one will do – it should not be an automatic, but something with a heavy pull. Wickins says that it is essential to have one, as when one goes on ulendo (collecting taxes etc:) and sleeps in a tent, a rifle would be useless if a lion sprang on to you in the tent, but a revolver handy might do the trick! The swamps round the lake are swarming with lions and they come right round the tents at night. To my mind this constant night scare of lions is the one crab to an otherwise perfect place. I like the people, I like the work, I like the place, but I loathe the night funk of lions! I suppose my nerves haven’t recovered properly from that diphtheria!”
The terror of the lions continued in Luwingu into the early 1950s and each time a human being was attacked or killed, there was a story of a misdeed followed by revenge. In 1947, a messenger named Mr Mapulanga was killed at Nakampembya headwaters just three kilometres from the town. The story was that he had crooked some road construction workers out of part of their wages.
In anger, the workers consulted a medicine man who sent a lion after the ‘errant’ messenger. Mr Mapulanga was killed in the evening while cycling to his second wife’s home in Chief Chipalo’s palace. The DC at the time had heard the gossip about the wages and told Chief Chipalo that one of the messengers would be killed by a lion within a very short time.
During this period, the legendary lions were even snatching people embarking from buses. Travel was only safe during the day time and the transport companies arranged their time tables in such a way that the buses arrived in Luwingu before sunset. The travellers all slept in the Chelata, a huge transit hall, and used chamber pots in the night to relieve themselves. No one was allowed to go out at night.
Chief Chipalo was terrorised by the lions. He had a herd of cattle and due to the threat of lions, he built a semi roofed kraal.
One night the lions attacked and tried to dig a tunnel to get into the kraal.
Fortunately, for the chief, his head kapaso heard the noise and fired at the lions. The attacks did not however stop.
The lions went for goats, dogs, and sheep in and around the chief’s palace. Dogs were locked indoors after dark.
As usual, there was suspected revenge. The story was that there was one village headman who was not happy with the appointment of the chief and he decided to revenge by sending lions after the chief, his property, and subjects.
One day, the lions killed one of the chief’s animals, they were disturbed before they could eat the meat and the DC took advantage of the situation to set a boob trap for the lions.
A coked gun was set at the level of a lion’s shoulders and a string was tied to the trigger, then a piece of meat was tied to the other end of the string a few meters from the barrel of the gun.
The trick worked, the lions came back for the meat and one of them pulled the meat at the end of the string. The gun went off but unfortunately only injured the beast. The following day, the village went after the injured lion in the company of armed messengers from the Boma as well as the chief’s kapaso, who also had a gun. Confusion ensued when the hunting party encountered the lion and village headman Njeke was attacked by the beast. An experienced and brave hunter, headman Njeke managed to crawl from under the lion and one of the messengers reacted quickly and shot the lion dead. Headman Njeke ended up with serious injuries and was ferried to Kasama hospital 100 miles away.
The lion terror continued until the late 1950s when the vengeful headman died. Sometimes, the headman reputedly carried his magical lions in a reed. At times he walked with them as a park of dogs. His great friend, Chief Tukula used to turn into a lion (chisanguka) at night when he would kill unsuspecting travellers.
But and end eventually came. In 1956, the Chief Chipalo’s first wife (my grandmother), went to work in her Chifwani (Bemba name for a garden in the second and third years of the Chitemene system), with my elder sister. On the way back home, the old lady collected a bundle of firewood which she carried on her head. She then told my sister to carry akalonde (small hoe used for sowing).
When the two of them joined the road leading to the village, they came face to face with a lion. The old lady knelt down to pray with the bundle of firewood on her head, my sister was about five and half years at the time and she did not recognize the lion. She mistook it for the chief’s huge brown dog called Shikuka (wake up) and they and she told grandmother that Shikuka had followed them and started walking towards the beast. The lion then walked away towards the bushes, posed to urinate and then disappeared. When grandmother got back to the village and told the
story, the elders said the beast was Nkalamo ya Mipashi (a lion of the spirits). Since that day, no lion has ever attacked a human being in the Luwingu area of Chief Chipalo.
This is the story of the Legendary Lions of Luwingu and how they influenced the renaming of the district from Chulu Ng’oma to Lubingu Lwa Nsase uwatumpa lwa mocha (the sparking flame that burns the foolish one). And the lions no longer drive the buses.