Land of Elephants – Wich Doctor

III. Wich Doctor

Kitui Forest. December, 1932.

For weeks I have been wearing myself out, stretching my legs and my patience all in vain; I can’t find elephant.

My native guides attribute this lack of success to the machinations of some evil spirit.

‘There will be no change until you send for the nearest ‘Makanga’ (witch doctor). Only he can drive out the spirit from us, and only he can make us potent.”

They’ve been living on that excuse for days.

I am not superstitious. At least, I like to think I am not. I take every opportunity of saying so. But that only succeeds in strengthening within me the suspicion that I may be. Every hunter is. And in Africa . . .


, I laughed at the thought of consulting the witch doctor; I have no love of theatricals, I don’t need hocus-pocus, what I want is elephant, we’ve got no time for such distractions, and so on and so forth. If one is kept tramping this torrid, brain-addling thorn wilderness without result, one gets extremely bad-tempered. The tropics always attack one’s liver.

But when my companion began to insist that he, for all that, was going to try it, if only for the sake of the fun of it, and even without my knowing sent for the Makanga, I found myself waiting with interest, I might even say with impatience, to see what would happen.

Though meanwhile I cursed my friend thoroughly and recommended him to take a gipsy fortune-teller with him on his next hunting trip.

Moreover, in token of my contempt I struck camp, and without waiting for the arrival of tlie witch doctor set off ostentatiously towards a district we had hitherto not explored. I took leave of my partner, telling him to let me know if his friend the doctor tied an elephant up to a tree for him.

On the following evening a runner arrived at my tent with a note telling me that my companion had shot a big bull elephant and I was to go back as fast as I could and he would tell me more when I got there.

I shook my head. That’s luck, I said, not the Makanga. That Makanga had a mighty piece of luck to arrive at the same time as the elephant. The whole thing’s mere chance.

But for all that the business worried me.

And the next day, to my shame, I set oft again for the camp I had left. They were just bringing in the great tusks. My mouth watered.

My companion received me with the following fairy-tale:

„You had hardly gone off when the witch doctor arrived. Two villains carried his magical contraptions for him. After an hour and a half of more and more extraordinary jiggery-pokery, he began to prophesy that on the next day when I set out to hunt I should find on the right of my path the skeleton of a giraffe. Then, soon after that, a black animal would appear on my left; this black animal, which would not move out of my way, I was to kill. Later the tracks of a herd of elephants would cross my way, but although they would be fresh tracks, I was to pay no attention to them, but go straight on towards the east, and at nightfall I should shoot a big bull elephant.

That’s what the witch doctor said and, believe it or not that’s exactly how it happened!”

„You trying to be funny . . .”

But in the end I had to believe him. Besides my companion swearing on his word of honour, there were about thirty blacks also bearing witness to the story.

The black animal which would not move out of his way, was a black mamba, the most poisonous snake in Africa, and my friend, in accordance with his orders, shot it through the head.

And there was not much case for the skeleton of the giraffe lying there by chance; giraffe skeletons do not lie about all over the place; I have not seen a single one this year. And elephants we had been hunting for three weeks without result. And now, behold, they were bringing in the tusks.

But for all that I am not in the least superstitious. Nobody must suppose that I am. How should I be? I am only interested; I should like to know whether magic could work on me; I mean, whether I could have just such luck.

That evening, merely in order to be able to laugh at the witch doctor’s science, I too submitted to treatment.

The Makanga made us all stand in a row, me and my followers, and after a short meditation he began to dance round us, yelling violently. Every now and again he checked in front of one or other of us and blew violently in our faces. I don’t know about anybody else, but personally I don’t like having somebody blow violently in my face. But for all that I stuck it; one will do a good deal for the sake of a big elephant. I merely blinked. Then the Makanga created a quite special magic all round us and cast a devil out of us. Cast him shrieking out of us. Finally he took my rifles in hand. He stroked them one by one, then blew down the barrels. Blew the devil out of them.

‘What he blew into them had to be cleaned out with a pull-through.

Then came the prophecy. We had to gather round in a circle, the doctor squatting in the middle, with his two ministrants on either side of him. He spread out some small animal skins in front of him, skins of civet-cats and ground squirrels. Then from the depths of a mighty jar they produced several handfuls of dried beans of various colours. Black and yellow and wine-coloured beans, and among them one snow-white bean.

For a long time he sorted and mixed them, till on each of the skins a heap of beans of a different colour was collected, and the white bean lay on the open palm of one of the witch doctor’s assistants.

Then the doctor produced his bow, fixed an empty gourd between the bow and the bow-string as an amplifier, and on this improvised, onestringed harp began to twang. To it he set up a soft, reedy singing, of which not one of us could understand a single squeak. He was singing in his own witch doctor’s language, singing a special little song to each little pile of beans.

When he had finished that he tipped all the beans, white one and all, back into the jar, shook them well up and then handed them over to the circle of his audience. One after the other we had to shake them, and hand the magic gourd on shuffling the cards, so to speak.

After the shuffling came yet another little song to the accompaniment of the harp. Then the witch doctor picked up the gourd and tipped out its contents all over the skins in front of him. On how many, and what coloured beans fell on each skin, but above all on how the white bean fell, depended the future.

The old magician almost immediately set to communicating the message of the beans, which was as follows:

„To-morrow morning you will set off (so much I knew without being told it by a witch doctor) and in the evening you will come back again to the camp (that didn’t surprise me either). The next day, don’t go out hunting, not even if you get news of elephants being in the neighbourhood. The day after that you can set off. You will meet a one-eyed man who will ask you for salt. Give him some.

On the evening of that day you will find fresh elephant tracks, you will hear elephant’s trumpeting too, but the big bull elephant you will not kill till the day after that, or even till the third day.”

That’s the main thing, said I to myself, the rest doesn’t interest me. I will willingly sacrifice another day of delay, I don’t even care if I get my elephant on the fifth day, as long as I get it.

With that the ceremony ended. Evening was coming on. Good prophecy can only be done successfully in the dark unfortunately, because I could not photograph it.

And on the third day, at noon, as had been said, I shot an eighty pounder.

True that I did not meet a one-eyed man who asked me for salt, nor did I hear the trumpeting of elephants promised me on the first day. But what do I care for such little blemishes? The best of witch doctors make a slip of the tongue now and again. The elephant came true, and that, not a half-blind nigger, was what I was after.

I am not superstitious, but if I should happen to come wandering along this way again, I should for all that consult His Excellency the witch doctor before I set to work. For the sake of a really respectable pair of tusks I will let myself be blown in the face as often as you like.