From Cecil to Nxaha: When lion spirits revenge

Isdore Guvamombe Reflections
Back in the village in the land of milk honey and dust or Guruve, until lions learn to tell their own stories, the story is always told from the human being’s perspective. The only time the person cannot tell the story about his encounter with the lion is when he has been eaten. Lions are fast, discrete and sleek hunters who hunt for food and not for leisure. They are dangerous. But spiritually, lions are the vanguard of Zimbabwe’s spiritual realm, mhondoro.

Lions play a big role in the spiritual realm of African tradition. They are the vanguards of the spirits in the wild. Back in the village, it is taboo to kill lions. They are sacred. When a lion is killed the spirits always revenge either by unleashing a pride on the offenders or by bringing famine, hunger and starvation or all of it. In Shona language lion spirits, mhondoro, go beyond family issues and are regional and national. Nehanda, Kaguvi, Chingowo, Karitundundu, Dumburechuma, Svembere and many others are spirit mediums backed by lion spirits. Like lions, the spirits are regional and fierce.

Back in the village, spirits use lions as their “dogs”. When a taboo is broken, the spirits unleash their dogs. Hwange National Park, one of Zimbabwe’s and indeed the world’s last vestige of wildlife, has been in the limelight for a moon or so now, all for the wrong reasons, depending on where you stand.

Hwange is that perfect theatre of the jungle where wildlife roam wild and free. Geographically, it is situated in Zimbabwe’s hot and arid Matabeleland North province and in terms of size, it stands at a whopping 14 700 square km, almost the size of Belgium. It started on July 31 with the killing of Cecil, the legendary king of the jungle who, for 13 years, trudged with royal exuberance the length and breadth of Hwange.

Cecil was an international legend who not only posed for pictures for tourists at short distances of 10 metres but was part of a well-funded Oxford University research. Cecil was first shot with a crossbow, followed up and killed with a gun some 40 hours later by American fortune hunter and dentist Walter Palmer. A few days ago, another lion Nxaha, killed a tour guide, Quinn Swales, in Hwange National Park, after he came too close for its comfort, while guiding six tourists – one French and five Swedish.

Nxaha? This villager, a Korekore from the northernmost part of Zimbabwe, knows little Ndebele and from his little understanding of the language, Nxaha has something to do with a bull that resists castration, and is left with one dangling bit. Nxaha has a disability and was born with one, the other one is missing and God knows what happened. Having one means having problems with testosterone, and that makes one hyper aggressive.

This villager got to know Nxaha a few weeks ago while investigating the death of Cecil in Hwange. Nxaha, like Cecil, was collared two weeks ago as part of the Oxford University scientific re- search. Quinn Swales (40) was a professional guide and not a professional hunter. He was based at Main Camp, Hwange National Park.

Investigations reveal that on August 24, Quinn, who was the lead guide, was on a walking safari with six foreign tourists. He spotted fresh lion spoor and decided to track a pride of lions consisting of two females, two cubs and two males. One of the males was Nxaha. Protective of the pride, aggressive and agile, Nxaha jumped on Quinn. All efforts to save Quinn were in vain. That is the lions of Hwange for you. It was a painful death.

Hwange National Park has attracted lion research projects from Oxford University, courtesy of Zimbabwe’s sound conservation strategy. The park is teeming with wildlife and attracts tourists in their broad totality. But unbeknown to European researchers, there is a spiritual side to lions. It is much easier to see lions in the wild in Hwange National Park than any other park in Africa. Hwange is a verdant park established in 1928 and has stood the test of time. There, lions are plenty. The lions are sacred.

So did Nxaha revenge on behalf of Cecil? Are the spirits up to something bad? Only time will tell!