Confounded Witch Doctor


The approach to the Bangweulu Swamps in remote northwest Zambia can be a little forbidding. This is the land of David Livingstone, an area where he spent many of his last days toiling tirelessly to save the local souls from the animist devils and to convert them to Christianity. It is there that he died and from there that his loyal servants Susi and Chuma bore him to Bagamoyo on the Indian Ocean and then back to England. The story that follows suggests that his gallant endeavors may have been in vain.

The road into the swamps is in various states of disrepair, and a lack of local knowledge can easily lead one astray in an area where the natives are sometimes unfriendly. Along the way one is likely to see an understandably miserable-looking man chained to a huge log. According to the locals, this is where he has spent most of his life and where he is doomed to stay, condemned to this sad fate by his peers, who insist he is mad and bewitched. Interested parties are warned sternly to maintain a safe distance. Get too close, one is told, and you may end up with the same curse. However, the wonderful panorama that greets the visitor upon emerging from the surrounding woodland is indeed a sight to behold.

Impossibly wide and flat plains give way to green papyrus reeds that sway in the breeze on the edge of a huge watery wilderness. Below an endless blue sky, clumps of russet patch the scenery, and only when they move does one realize they are alive. Thousands of black lechwe congregate on these plains in closely knit herds, making the landscape throb with life. Up close, the males are pictures of handsome elegance, with horns raking upward and away to form the silhouette of a thousand spires. Far less numerous are the tsessebe, oribi, roan antelope, elephant, and buffalo. Unseen in the muddy quagmire that is the vast swamp hide the magnificent sitatunga, which remain largely hidden during the hours of daylight. Hunters from around the world come to take up the challenge of hunting these shy and silent animals, among Africa’s most coveted game trophies.

The drive to the camp across the plains is exhilarating. Wildlife abounds in a celebration of life. In this earthly paradise there is no sign of human habitation, rather an exciting sense of being in a truly wild place on a truly wild continent. Slowly, however, a sign of civilization appears, an angular speck in the distance—a hunting camp. Made of poles and thatch, it looks almost like an appendage of the grassy plain. Cooled by a perpetual breeze blowing off the lake to the west, it is a place of rustic tranquility from which hunters may begin the search for their quarry.

Run by a debonair English gentleman by the name of David Willey, it became a popular spot for most of the safari companies operating in Zambia. David had initially come to what was then Rhodesia in search of adventure. The “bush war” in full swing notwithstanding, he was happy to forsake gray skies and relative security for a less ordinary existence in a land where new challenges and excitement were seldom hard to find. Moving to Zambia in the early 1980s, he went to the Bangweulu Swamps as camp manager and resident professional hunter.

It was a place of contradictions. On the surface, it was a wondrous wilderness, an African Garden of Eden; the sheer beauty of the natural surroundings was breathtaking. And yet, there was always a faintly malicious undercurrent of witchcraft and spiritual agendas beyond the comprehension of the white men who visited these fascinating parts.

A charming reception was given by an old gentleman by the name of Simon Vibiti, who was 106 years old when I met him. Approachable and friendly, he had a fascinating collection of tales of yore. His uncle had told him of being treated by Livingstone for an ankle injury. Old Simon was very complimentary about the white man—quite a pleasant change.

It was a pretty lonely place for a white man, however. Willy’s nearest neighbor was David Lloyd, to the north at Kasanka on the Congo border, more than a hundred miles away. He was a remittance man of sorts—that is, the son of a well-to-do British family who did not perform up to expectations. To avoid embarrassing the family, the “remittance man” was dispatched to the colonies on a handsome remittance and told to stay there—and out of the way.

Lloyd was the product of a wealthy Welsh family. He was also an incorrigible eccentric who had spent time in Barotseland in the department of Native Affairs, where he was a law unto himself. He used to appear from time to time, always immaculately attired in safari suit and cravat, get drunk and obnoxious, upset the guests, and then disappear back into the bush for a couple of months. There was never a dull moment when David was around.

On the Congo border he was doing sterling work trying to resurrect a national park and protect the remaining wildlife, using mostly his own financial resources. Of late, he had been making himself scarce. Following a rush of blood to the head on his last trip home, David had decided to introduce wolves to his country estate in Wales. It was a ridiculous idea, of course, but one that appealed to his sense of the unusual.

Later, back in Africa, while on an elephant hunt on the Uele River in northeast Congo, he had retired to his camp bed to rest one midday and switched on a shortwave radio to listen to the BBC World News. He was surprised to hear the announcer deliver a report to the effect that a pack of wolves were having on the Welsh countryside, killing and maiming livestock in an orgy of bloodletting, causing incalculable damage. Something akin to a national emergency had been called, police marksmen were being deployed, and the whole place was in an uproar. Lloyd took a deep breath, poured himself a stiff whisky, and decided to give his homeland a wide berth for a while.

* * * * *

David Willey’s camp in the Bangweulu Swamps was considered one of the best in the country. All matters considered, he ran a first-class show that saw a league of visitors depart after having enjoyed a rewarding sojourn in comfort and style in a unique wilderness.

Four gentlemen visited upon a time from Central America. Accompanying them was professional hunter Alistair Gellatly. They had had a fine time hunting other areas of the country and had come to Bangweulu primarily in search of sitatunga and black lechwe. To say “searching” for lechwe is perhaps to be misleading, however. There were then, as there are now, thousands of them for the taking. The challenge was identifying the best trophy amongst the huge herds.

Sitatunga present a far more profound challenge. Their limited movement during the day means that the evening hours are best for hunting, but their habitat, deep in the swamp, welcomes no man. Mosquitoes there sortie in airborne armadas of tens of thousands, and very often one has to traverse crocodile-infested waters to reach a vantage point where one must wait, patient and silent, for the right specimen to appear. Sometimes they do; often they don’t.

Frequently sitatunga make their appearance in poor light, and striking the target requires more than competent marksmanship. For the successful, however, the result is a rewarding experience that few will forget. It was this prospect that awaited the garrulous gentlemen from Mexico who were making the most of their time in Africa. Between bouts of hunting they thoroughly enjoyed the good food, generous flow of liquor, and general good cheer. Sadly, that was about to change.

The four returned from a day’s hunting full of the joy of life. They had brought back a few trophies, and after seeing them safely in the skinning shed they walked to the camp, where an open fire blazed against the evening sky. A waiter clad smartly in starched whites and a maroon fez awaited them with drinks. With David in attendance to stimulate conversation, it was a night set fair. They took seats beside the fire, drinks were served, and then one of the party announced he was going to his grass chalet to deposit his kit. He offered to do the same for his compatriots. All was quiet and perfectly serene until a panicked cry from the chalet burst the silence.

“The money, the money!”

“What are you saying?” shouted one of the group.

“The money,” he replied. “The money is all gone!”

The other three rose and rushed to the scene of the crime, followed by a very worried camp manager. There was a furious discussion in Spanish as the aggrieved parties tried to unravel what had taken place, followed by furious activity as they turned their accommodations inside out and upside down. With everything in complete disarray, it was clear that the search had been fruitless. A grave problem was at hand.

“Twenty-five thousand dollars!” the first shouted, gesticulating wildly at the clearly distraught figure of David Willey.

“Twenty-five thousand dollars, gone!” he shouted, even more loudly.

“What do you mean, ‘Gone’?” was the mumbled reply.

“Gone, gone, gone!” he screamed. “Gone into the bush, I don’t know. But it is gone, and you’d better find it. It is your responsibility. Your people must have taken it!”

“Yes, yes, I know.” A look of perplexed consternation told the assembled guests that their host had no quick answer to their problem.

A demoralized hunting party made its way back to the dining area, and the evening meal was taken in silence. David explained that at first light he would solicit the help of the police. The nearest police presence was in Mpika, he told them, some 150 kilometers distant, but he would move expeditiously in getting them to seek out the stolen funds and identify the culprits.

After a sleepless night, he made his way to the radio room and explained to his head office in Lusaka what had occurred. The company was doubly motivated. They were concerned not only for the welfare of their clients, who were their responsibility but also in getting paid for the safari—distinctly unlikely if the money were not recovered.

What with the lack of movement between camp and the outside world, it seemed highly unlikely that the money had gone a great distance. In all likelihood it was hidden close-by, and recovering it was a question of finding the culprit or culprits, almost certainly a member or members of the staff, and having the loot returned. There were only twenty-seven people employed at the camp, making the number of suspects a limited one.

David decided on a two-pronged approach: a reward, with no questions asked, to anyone who produced the money and no mention of the man’s name to the local constabulary, who were not famous for following the Geneva Conventions in their treatment of suspects. He comforted his demoralized guests with the hopeful thought that their problem would be soon resolved.

Then they waited—for the police to arrive or for a respondent to claim the reward. There was some relaxation in the general mood, but by evening nothing had happened. The police had not appeared, nor had any information been forthcoming from the staff.

As the gloom gathered again, a message on the radio announced that the police in Mpika had no means of travel; a vehicle would have to be tasked to bring them in. A car was consequently readied and sent out, but the delay meant that they would not arrive before the following day. Anxiety was high all evening.

In the early hours of the morning, however, David was somewhat relieved to hear the rumble of a Land Cruiser, and he went out to meet it. Inside were six well-armed policemen who appeared eager to get to work. He briefed the senior officer on the developments and apprised him of his view that the culprit had to be a member of staff. The policeman assured him that no stone would be left unturned. With a big smile and a spring in his step, he summoned his officers to follow him into the servants’ quarters.

Soon there was the crunching sound of doors being kicked open and shouts of alarm from the rudely awakened staff. Most left their huts scantily clothed and frightened. In the cool of the dawn the senior policeman warned the staff that there was a thief among them and that he would take whatever steps were necessary to discover who that person was. He suggested compliance, and rapidly. Failure to cooperate would bring harsh punishment.

With the occupants standing outdoors in the cold, his men commenced a rough and thorough search of the dwellings, revealing nothing. With frustration setting in, there was another warning to the miscreants to make themselves known, failing which an interrogation would begin.

No one was left in any doubt as to what the word interrogation meant. The policemen were showing clear signs of frustration, and AK-47s and batons served as a stark and immediate reminder that violence was imminent. After another stern warning was met by silence, frustration translated into action. The first suspect was hauled into the bush.

One after another the staff members were interviewed, but to no avail. Despite a generous distribution of slaps to suspect skulls, suspect lips remained sealed, and the policemen realized they were making no progress. Frustration etched their faces, and the lawmen had little to show for their efforts other than stinging palms.

David received the report of their lack of success with anxiety. The victims of the crime were similarly disheartened. But there was hope, the senior policeman insisted. Taking David aside, he suggested a different course of action. There was in the hills to the east a famous and feared witch doctor of supreme wisdom by the name of Chipoko, who would have no problem discovering the identity of the thief and the whereabouts of the money. “This man,” he said, “was sought by people the length and breadth of the land. Even politicians and senior government officials went to him when they sought guidance, counsel, or retribution. His services came dear, but he was never known to fail those whom he agreed to serve.”

“And how do I find this man of magic?” David asked.

“Give me some money, and I will send a young man I know into the hills to find him and bring him to me. Then I will send him to you. The vehicle will have to wait to bring him to you. Once he is here, there will be no more problem. He has never been known to fail.”

Africa abounds with stories of spirit mediums, many of whom are entirely creditable. David was delighted to hear of an option that promised so much. A sizable amount of money had to be disbursed, but it was small pickings compared with what was at stake. Money and vehicle were handed over, and the man left with all possible haste after being implored to make as speedy a return as possible. David went to brief the clients.

“I have sent a vehicle and money to Mpika, from where a messenger will go into the hills to find the most powerful witch doctor in Zambia. This man has never been known to fail, and his word is absolute. He will have no problem in identifying the thief and recovering the money. That is the African way of dealing with problems of this nature, and I should have sent for him earlier.”

Spirits rose immediately upon receipt of this good news. Witch doctors being completely foreign to the Mexicans, they pressed him for more information.

“How can this be?” they asked.

“The Africans work in weird and mysterious ways, beyond our ability to understand,” he assured them. “They have their own methods. He will probably use various animal parts to exhort the spirits into granting him the guidance he requires, and then he will disappear into his own world. When he returns, he will have the answers we need.”

“Are you sure he is always right?” The Mexicans were amazed at this intriguing revelation.

“Absolutely sure. There is no doubt with this fellow. His word is final. The man he indicates, we can be sure, is the culprit.”

There were a series of sighs of relief as the men settled back, secure in the knowledge that a certain solution to their problem was on the way.

The next morning there was a cheer on the faces of the guests as they prepared to go out hunting, secure in the knowledge that they would soon see justice done and have their money back. However, the staff, unsurprisingly, were sullen. They insisted that they had committed no crime and were unappreciative of having been roughed up by the constabulary.

The following day, around midday, the vehicle finally returned to camp. Taking pride of place in the front seat was the wisest, most revered, and most feared witch doctor in the country. The senior policeman had never before been seen riding in the rear of a vehicle, but in this auspicious company he obviously knew his place. The camp staff looked on in a mixture of awe and terror. The clients ran to a point from which to gape. There was a solemn silence as the witch doctor exited the vehicle, and the air was thick with the scent of the human drama soon to be played out.

When the full figure of this scabrous man appeared from behind the vehicle, the sense of awe only increased. His feet were unshod, and both ankles were covered in bangles up to the base of his calves. A filthy leather wrap hung from his waist, secured by a cloth belt tied to which were numerous sinister-looking pouches made from impala scrotums. These bags were bloated, and one could only wonder what mysterious potions lay inside. Over his shoulders hung a shabby kaross made from jackal skins, attached to which were the tails of a variety of animals.

Around the man’s neck was a bead necklace, off of which hung the dried head of a vulture, its massive beak curving like a cutlass across his chest. Falling from his head was a knotty mass of plaited hair on top of which was a skullcap of leopard skin. Cut deep into his face were vicious looking tribal scars that had left deep welts crisscrossing his cheeks. His eyes were hard to see because he approached with a woeful demeanor, his head firmly downward cast. But when he came close to the gathering, he looked up, and his eyes were black and the whites red.

All in all, this was a most fearsome personage, with an appearance certainly befitting a mystery man of his stature. All looked on in stunned silence, but the face of David Willey could be seen to wear a thin but certain smile—a look of glowing contentment. His was the face of a man who knew that he had orchestrated a tactical masterstroke. Somewhere before him was a thief and a very worried man. Casting his eyes around the staff, he could see legs shaking.

There were no pleasantries. Twenty-seven members of staff were ordered to the skinning shed. Dark, dank, and heavy with the smell of recently butchered animals, it was the perfect setting for the ghoulish procedure about to commence.

Chipoko tilted his head backward to look into the world beyond. He then uttered something seemingly indecipherable, but his personal assistant made the instructions intelligible to the staff.

“Fire, fire. He wants fire,” was the translation.

Chipoko pointed to the place he had selected for the flames. The moment he moved toward it, the crowd followed. No one uttered a word. The Mexicans looked at David for guidance. He nodded his head and urged them to await the deliberations outside.

A fire was soon roaring, and Chipoko squatted close to it, his head shrouded from view by the kaross that draped his head like a photographer’s cloth. Long toenails curved over the front of his toes and touched the grass. With face unseen, he emptied his pouches. Out came a piece of crocodile brain, the tip of a hyena’s nose, a vulture’s gizzard, and roots and tubers.

Then Chipoko mumbled again to his lackey, and a live chicken was brought—but rejected. It was not white enough. The next offering was paler, and the instant the great man nodded the chicken lost its head, lopped off with lethal deftness. The blood pumping forth flowed into an old fruit tin, and into the mix went the animal parts and plants. The mixture was placed near the coals, and still Chipoko’s head remained hidden behind its ragged veil.

There was dead silence as all assembled looked on. Suddenly Chipoko flung his head back, the kaross fell away, and a face swimming in perspiration revealed itself. The members of staff were ordered to line up before him, and immediately he started to chant. A tangle of sounds varying from high-pitched wails to primal grunts reverberated across the plain. Then Chipoko leaped to his feet and danced around the fire, brandishing the tin with the foul smelling gruel that slopped around inside.

His intentions quickly became apparent. Suddenly he turned on the first in line, told all the assembled to turn and face the wall, and amidst much shrieking enjoined the quaking man to partake of the contents. Terrified, he did so, and there followed another loud exhortation of unclear intent. The same procedure repeated, until each and every member of staff had been through the vile ritual. Thereupon the witch doctor turned his back and resumed squatting close to the fire, his kaross again over his head. There he continued to wail until suddenly silence overcame him. All that could be heard was heavy breathing as he dug deep into his spiritual inner sanctum for the identity of the thief.

The staff all looked down at their feet, in dread of the finger that would condemn them to a life of hell in a local jail. Suddenly Chipoko burst into English and bellowed out loudly for all to hear: “Bring the white man!”

The witch doctor began to wail again. He arched his body backward and looked on high. David was sitting with the clients, awaiting the news, when a member of staff arrived to invite him to attend the ceremony. With the clients in anxious attendance he made my way to the skinning shed.

“I can see the thief,” the witch doctor screamed, and with that the entire labor force turned to face their employer. The witch doctor was pointing directly at him

“He is the thief,” they murmured in unison.

David was utterly astounded and lost for words. Struggling to avoid looking like a villain, he turned to look at the clients, who were viewing him with shock and disdain.

“He is the thief,” the witch doctor screamed again.

David cringed, not knowing what to do with himself. In total silence and very miserable, he walked back to the camp. Back at the dining area he told Alistair what had happened, and the PH almost fell off his chair with laughing—which lightened the tension among the clients considerably. Now more confused than ever, they took themselves off to reconsider their position.

Alistair, being an old hand, irreverent, and a great cynic, then sent for the witch doctor, the staff, and the potion. After learning from them that, while under the spell, they had all clearly seen David Willey as he stole into the chalet to remove the money. Alistair then indicated that he wanted them to reenter the same trance so he could review the vision for himself. With considerable hubris, he ordered that the gruel be brought forthwith, and he quaffed the contents.

There was a tense silence while all looked at Alistair, who stood facing the wall awaiting the revelation. The silence was broken when he complained loudly that all he could see was his vision spinning, and he accused the witch doctor and staff of fabricating the whole story. Then he collapsed in a heap by the fire, green slime dribbling out the corner of his mouth.

This development created consternation in the ranks of the accusers, who were vocal in their insistence that white men do not respond properly to the African medicine. For David Willey, however, notwithstanding his conviction, the hunter’s timely intervention gave him strong grounds for appeal, which he quickly seized, rudely rejecting the witch doctor’s verdict. Alistair remained comatose on the floor.

When payment of the full fee was refused him, the witch doctor went into a rant followed by a furious trance and called down a deadly curse upon the beleaguered Willey. Then, with much invective, he left in a terrible huff.

Three weeks later, alone in camp one evening, Willey was sitting by the fire reading when a fellow approached him with information as to the identity of the thief. The man’s story seemed credible. The thief was a waiter he had dismissed some time before. Once again he sent for the police in Mpika, who returned with the suspect in full denial. After quite an intensive interrogation they announced that they would be taking him for a “walk” into the bush, and they advised him not to be alarmed by the sound of gunfire. There were shots, and Willy gravely suspected a death. He was relieved to see the police and prisoner emerge alive and intact from the bush, with his former employee bellowing a full confession.

After the money was recovered, he sent for the mighty witch doctor, elicited an apology, and had the curse removed. All agreed his star dipped a little that day.


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