As a child, I lived in a small town in the middle of the African bush in Northern Rhodesia with my family. It was in what was known as the ‘Copperbelt’ – a series of small mining townships spread along some hundreds of miles in the north of the country. Our town was called Bancroft, on the border of what was then the Belgian Congo, and we lived there for a few years. When the Congo War occurred, and the ‘uprising’ which followed, for our safety, my parents evacuated us to the United Kingdom, the land they had come from twelve years earlier.
There was a MOTH Hall (Member of the Order of the Tin Hats) (sort of like our Returned Services League here in Australia) in which many of the important events of the town took place. It had a very popular bar although there was another one in the Mine Club – and it was where the black tie balls (yes, in the middle of the bush), the formal ‘coming out’ presentations (yes, those too), dances, parties, and Masonic meetings happened, as well as the church fetes, Christmas parties - the Girl Guides, Brownies and Scouts met there too. It was also the place where some hundreds of Belgian refugees landed up seeking refuge after fleeing their homes and crossing the border to the relative safety of Northern Rhodesia, but that is another story.
My father took me to there one afternoon as a surprise, to show me something. There were cars parked everywhere and dozens of people in attendance, and the atmosphere was festive.
I could not believe my eyes when we walked inside. There was a gigantic crocodile, his body was so long it seemed to run the length of the hall, and he had a rope tying his jaws massive shut. His huge talons had scratched hundreds of white gouges in the shiny brown parquet floor, but as I watched, he just lay there unmoving, although his massive sides heaved, he was alive. Both terrified and mesmerised, I stood safely behind my father, peering out at this bizarre sight, something out of a strange story.
Men stood drinking and smoking, and there was even then what I knew to be male bravado occurring and many loud voices, possibly discussing its size. Women in high heels laughed nervously, keeping their kids and themselves at a safe distance, talking quietly to other mothers.
I did not know what those adults spoke of or incomprehensively why that majestic creature was there, or what became of it.
Some years later, a friend Alistair was out fishing with his mate John Bench, in a small tinny on the Kafue River half way between Bancroft and Chingola. John’s father was in the boat with them, when a hippo, known to be the most dangerous animal in Africa, rose out of the water, biting that boat in two. It also bit John’s father in two and he died instantly. Those teenage boys swam for their lives but made it to shore, physically unscathed but forever scarred by that experience.
That hippo was hunted down and killed, one more of Africa’s sad realities.
I always wondered if that was the fate of that crocodile in the Moth Hall; if it was doomed for a similar transgression.
My father never said.