BY PASCAL MWANDAMBO
The Tsavo National Park, Kenya’s largest game conservancy covering over 21,000 square kilometres is arguably one of the country’s major tourism resources.
The park which is divided into East and West, holds the prime wildlife attractions called the big five namely leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo and lions.
However, the lions of Tsavo are remarkably different from those from other parts of the country in that the males have virtually no mane, which is usually one of the key features that distinguish the males from the females.
All this notwithstanding, the maneless lions of Tsavo have found a permanent place in the history of Kenya, and indeed the whole world, notably the infamous “Man Eaters” of Tsavo. This later gave rise to the name of that location which to date bears the same name. Man Eaters is about forty kilometers from Voi township.
The Man Eaters area is characterised by thorny acacia trees, tufts of course savannah grass and rocky outcrops which together combine to form the bewitching beauty of the area.
The Man Eaters camp located near the Tsavo bridge is one of the key tourist attractions in the area. The lodge which comprises 30 luxury en suite tents has provided a “home away from home” sort of experience, where both local and foreign visitors spend their holidays and while their time away, but probably unaware of the poignant history from which the hotel’s name derives.
One might even conjecture that the area is haunted by strange ghosts throughout the last one century, judging from the events that continue to unfold in the area to date.
A couple of years back, renowned singer and composer –cum politician, Boniface Mghanga died on the spot after his vehicle was involved in a fatal road accident with a trailer at Man Eaters.
Some years back, celebrated Coast scholar Prof Katama Mkangi died on the spot at the same area when his car was involved in a grisly road accident.
About three years ago, the body of controversial Muslim cleric, Sheikh Samir Khan was found dumped at Man Eaters. Preliminary investigations had indicated that Khan, who had earlier on been reported missing, had been killed elsewhere and the body dumped at the notorious black spot ostensibly to be devoured by wild animals from Tsavo.
Recently the body of a key ICC witness Meshack Yebei was also found dumped in the area.
With the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway(SGR) now on course, reports filtering from the area indicate that some railway workers have been attacked by lions in the same location. Even though these reports have not been independently verified, the fears of workers been attacked by wild animals might not be farfetched.
Generally, the Man Eaters area is a notorious black spot, where hundreds of travelers using the Nairobi-Mombasa highway lose their lives, while others suffer critical injuries. This is despite the fact that this section of the highway is the smoothest as it falls along the well-maintained Mtito Andei- Bachuma stretch.
While the cause of the accidents have been blamed largely on careless driving and human error, those who know the history of the place believe otherwise. They insinuate that the area bears a powerful curse and is haunted by powerful charms called fighi in the Taita traditional community which local seers and elders had planted in the area as a way of safeguarding the boundary between the Taita and their neighbours from Ukambani.
“Traditionally Taita elders and seers usually demarcated boundaries using powerful charms called fighi. One of these are at the Man Eaters area. During those days of yore, elders used to perform regular rituals at the scene to appease the spirits so that they could safeguard Taita land from aggressive neighbours. This included the slaughter of a black sheep at the location of these fighi charms. I cannot say for certain but I suspect one reason why accidents continue to occur at the area is because the fighi fetishes and charms have been abandoned and the Taita ancestors are angry over this neglect,” Mzee Ronald Mwangura, 67 says.
Mzee Mwangura said that there are several potent fighi spots in Taita-Taita county, one notable area being near Maungu township along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway. Coincidentally, this is another notorious black spot. Other fighi spots along the road where accidents regularly occur are said to be at Josa on the way to Wundanyi and Mariwenyi on the way to Mwatate.
Some traditionalists believe that the historical infamy of the two Man Eaters of Tsavo were actually demonic creatures let loose by Taita seers to forestall the construction of the Mombasa- Kisumu Railway line at the turn of the century.
Legend has it that a powerful seer from Taita called Mwakishaluwa had prophesied that a giant “iron snake” would cross Taita land from the Coast and had to be stopped because the local elders had not been consulted.
Mwakishaluwa, the story goes, possessed charms and spiritual powers to summon wild animals from Tsavo and direct them to harm his enemies or destroy their crops. After accomplishing their assignment, the wild animals would safely troop back into Tsavo.
The two male man -eater lions which form the backdrop of the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” held a reign of terror at the Tsavo bridge where they are reported to have killed over 130 railway workers.
If the Mwakishalua legend is to be believed, the lions did actually spell real horror to the railway builders, who were usually picked from their camps at night and turned to dinner by the angry canines.
These events occurred in 1898 when the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River(Currently a new SGR railway bridge is undergoing construction at the same spot). The project was led by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson. During the next nine months of construction, the two beasts stalked the campsite, dragging Indian workers( usually referred to as coolies) from their tents at night and devouring them.
It is reported that the workers tried to scare off the lions by putting up campfires and thorn fences to keep the two lions out but to no avail.
The beasts reportedly leaped over the fire or crawled through the thorn fences. After a series of attacks, hundreds of workers fled from Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge.
Patterson set traps and tried several times to ambush the lions at night from a tree. After repeated unsuccessful endeavors, he shot the first lion on 9 December 1898. Twenty days later, the second lion was found and killed. The first lion killed measured nine feet, eight inches (3 m) from nose to tip of tail. It took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp. The construction crew returned and completed the bridge in February 1899.
However, there are conflicting figures on the exact number of railway workers killed by the two beasts.
Some reports indicate that Patterson inflated the figures for his personal glory, and that the actual number of those killed was about 45.
After about twenty five years being used as Patterson's floor rugs, the lions' skins were sold to the Chicago Filed Museum in the US in 1924 for a sum of $5,000.
The lions, christened “Ghost” and “Darkness” have since been reconstructed and are now on permanent display at the museum .Some Kenyan conservationists and historians have been calling for the repatriation of the Man Eaters remains back to the National Museums of Kenya(NMK) as part of the country’s rich historical and aesthetic heritage.