A brush with death.


One late afternoon many years ago, my elder brother, three other young men (all brothers) from the village and I, after the days work collectively weeding our potato farms in  Ngando (a clearing under shamba system inside Mt Kenya forest) , trekked  to Thagara (another cleared forest land) deep into the National Reserve. Ngando is located approximately five kilometers from Kagochi town with Thagara coming a further six kilometres north of Ngando.

The stretch from Ngando to Thagara had indigenous forest ecosystem interspersed by pine plantations at different stages of growth.You were bound to meet all manner of animals in this stretch but the most feared were lone buffalos. The reason they are lone is to get a chance to smoke bhangi and just so that you didn’t rat  them out to the authorities, they made sure to kill you by goring the day light out of you. No one ever survived an encounter with a lone buffalo.

In Thagara, our friends owned a gìthùnù where we spent the nights during our stay in the forest. Gíthùnù is a poor man’s cabin built haphazardly with logs and thatch.

We arrived in Thagara at around 5.00pm hardly laying down our implements before hearing some hubbub of shouting and yelling near the perimeter fence separating the farms and the forest proper. We learnt quickly that a herd of elephants was lurking just a few meters from the farms waiting for the sun to sink behind Kihari hills  for them to invade the potato, carrot and maize crop. People were trying to drive the elephants away before nightfall because doing battle with the jumbos at night was a different ball game. 

The elephants were always very emboldened at night so much that leaving without eating a few tonnes of crop was not in their vocabulary. So, it didn’t matter how many people were drubbing empty debes, blowing whistles and brandishing ichùis (gìchùi is a torch made of a piece of cloth tied to a stick and dipped in diesel or used engine oil), the elephants normally left at their own pleasure. A guy would be running for his dear life, his knees touching his face and kisigino touching the back of his head, with an irritated jumbo in tow. All this time holding dearly to his burning gíchùi.

We joined the rest of the group to aid in making enough cacophony to drive the animals away before nightfall. There, too, were dogs barking and howling in solidarity. With time,  some young men in the group including yours truly became emboldened enough to scale the fence and confront (making noise and throwing our hands in the air) the elephants from within a stone’s throw.

We went down the slope of the  small V-shapped valley separating us from the elephants, crossed the stream, ascended the opposite slope using a narrow path that meandered through thick stinging nettle undergrowth and came into an open area with no trees but rush Kikuyu Grass and Thorny Nightshade (gìtùra). This brought us into direct view of the herd. The move was not so much throwing  caution to the wind, on our part, as hurling it forcibly into the path of a tropical cyclone.

The dogs, not to be outdone, took advanced positions moving gradually until they were breathing down the jumbos’ necks. Kanyeki, himself a permanent forest dweller unlike ourselves, took a forward position than all goading his dogs to attack the elephants. He was actually hitting the jumbos with stones as the rest of us took the cacophony a couple of decibels higher. 

One of the dogs went as far as weaving its way underneath the elephants nibbling at a leg here and there. The jumbos flapped their ears in frustration and stamped their feet hoping to catch and pulverize the offending dog. 

This went on for a while; noise, stone throwing, dogs barking and howling  and biting at the jumbos. The elephants didn’t budge an inch. They seemed to say, “you will shout yourselves hoarse and then keep quiet.”

Suddenly, the dominant male puffed himself up and kicked grass and  clods in all directions. He lifted his head higher, gave a high pitched trumpet sound that could impress guys like Hugh Masekela the renown brass player.  He made a dash towards us in a full frontal attack.

I won’t lie to you that I wasn’t  the first guy to run for dear life as soon as I saw the kicking of grass and soil clods into the air. This was despite Kinyua’s reassurance that the jumbo was not charging at us. “Tigai kùra ti njùku”, he said. (Stop running away, it us not coming our way.”We didn’t care stopping to ascertain his claim. Only a mad person, even under normal situations, would trust Kinyua. This was not even close to a normal situation.

It was now mguu niponye. We were in full flight.  “Uuuuii!, uuuui!, ìyo!… wùùii mwathani!..”This was coming from the  people, mostly women, whom we had left in the forest periphery. They were urging us to put foot to the floor in order to pull away from the charging jumbo.

You remember the thorny Nightshade I mentioned at some point? Good.

The escape path forked into a y-shape around a few intricately wooven nightshade shrubs and converged ten or so meters ahead. Being the first to emerge from one branch of the fork, I collided at full pelt with the first guy from the other arm. You remember the dense stinging nettle? Cool. 

The impact sent us flying into the nettle undergrowth. I think high adrenaline is an antidote to stinging nettle for, despite rolling for a couple of meters on that nettle-bush, I was not stung at all. A few milliseconds later, I was scrambling to my feet and so was the other guy. 

As we tried to get to our feet and resume the flight, the rest of the guys arrived at full tilt tripping and tumbling over our heads. They too went flying into the  bush – stinging nettle bush.

The ensuing melee ensured no one got to their feet. You try to take your head ‘above water’ and a knee lands squarely on your face or temple sending you back to the ground and the knee-owner, head first into the bush like a missile.

The 8,000 kilograms colossus arrived, at full pelt too, braking instantly in a manner you certainly couldn’t expect it to pull off. The braking could impress the guys at Bosch but it nearly buried us in the resultant avalanche. The sudden braking caused a mini-landslide that coalesced us into a doleful mass of human bodies,  nettle, soil and dead wood debris.

We were simply at the mercy of the Jumbo. There was no escaping the squashing. I feared for the worst and passed something that was not gas or solid the moment my eyes locked  to those of the avaricious beast hovering above the wretched pile of   hopeless humans. 

Feeling vanquished, I closed my eyes resignedly and waited for the inevitable. Everything turned quiet save for  the chirping of crickets coming from a land faraway.Tranquility. Absolute stillness. The forest became an oasis of serenity, a safe haven away from the vicious conflict between man and beasts. A land where people never left their villages to go and grow waru deep inside a National reserve.

Amidst the chirr of the crickets, I picked out a familiar voice. A  calm yet distressed voice. The voice of my mum. I could see her vividly as she washed utensils on the rack back at home while singing one of her favourite songs; a Mitha Mugikuyu song. ” 🎼🎻 ………Ndingìgwa hatìkainì we nduta kuoNdingìcingimanìrwo we he ùtheriNgai wakwa, Ngai wakwa Ndakaya nyamùkìra Mwene Nyaga🎻🎼.” (If I fall into wretchedness, Mwene Nyaga come kindly to my rescue)

When I opened my eyes, after what seemed like an eerie eternity, I saw the monstrous jumbo still towering almost four meters above with a malevolent look on its face. We locked eyes again and this time it nodded its head and face-pushed me with the trunk. I passed some more substance. 

In an unexpected move, the jumbo made to leave. He made an about-turn, made two or three steps before appearing to change his mind. He made another about-turn, swung his trunk threateningly and let out a prolonged pulsated trumpet that seamed to say, “mjaribu tena hiyo ujinga mtanitambua washenzi! leave! Now!

The heap of soil and nettle and debri that had laid dormant for some minutes  exploded to life. We hurtled down hill like frightened warthogs running for their holes, crossed the stream, careered uphill, scaled the fence and hauled ourselves into the farms to join the guys who were still screaming frenetically.

Still panting like a demented frog, I shoved through bodies looking for a place to sit and catch my breath. I brushed shoulders with my brother who was among the people who had not ventured into the forest with the rest of the heroes. I smiled at him sheepishly but he didn’t smile back. “Nì ndù ùrathekia? (What’s funny?)”, he asked in a voice full of malevolence the kind that I never knew he could muster. 

This was no time for petty squabbles. I needed some mi time to take stock of the shit that had just happened. I sat a few meters behind the crowd that was still frenetic. More guys, who were with me in the forest, came slumping and collapsing or just plonking themselves behind the agitated crowd, utterly shellshocked and dumbstruck.

From the crowd, one lady was more frenetic than the rest. Mama Kanyeki was being restrained by other ladies from what seemed like an effort to tear herself down.”Uuui! Kanyeki nìakua!”, she yelled.

But wait!  I had seen Kanyeki, he was slouched just a few meters from where I was sat. And he was not dead.  I looked at him. He looked at me. I looked at his yelling mother then back to him. I wanted to shout that Kanyeki was sitting right beside and that he was not dead from the look of things. My mouth was opening but no sound was forthcoming. I also noted that I was my hands and feet were shaking and trembling uncontrollably.


Aftermath.


* Rumours of Kanyeki’s death were quickly dispelled. His mother embraced him tightly.


* Kinyua the stop-running-guy was the only     person yet to be accounted for. 


* The crowd dispersed each to their gìthùnù.


* After a few moments, the effects of stinging nettle started taking toll. I started feeling like millions of tiny invisible needles were buried inside the skin. My face became swollen and puffy with the eyes paticulary becoming swollen shut. The fingers felt like some big clubs and lost the sense of touch. 


* Kìnyua materialized an hour later with a load of quality dry firewood on his back. The wood would be vital in keeping the three sickly forest matigari-ma-njirungi  warm throughout the night. 


* The jumbos invaded the farms at night and ate with vengeance.


* Come  morning, I was still trembling. The body ached like hell. Every square millimeter. The swelling was massive. My two forest comrades hadgrown rotund you could mistake them for water barrels. They looked like those two guys of the “ata hatujapigwa sana meme.


* I will never, knowingly go to within two hundred meters from an elephant.


* We cheated death.

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