Rogue Hippo

The following story is true and was written by Maurice Swaby, an erstwhile West Hill resident.  It was first published in The Whistler in 1984

The Cameroons was originally German, but after the First World War, it was mandated to Britain and France by the League of Nations. Our post was administered from Nigeria, then a British colony. In 1936 I was Commissioner of a district, large in area, called Manfe. In those still unsophisticated days, you could only get to my headquarters in two ways: either in the wet season from Lagos, capital of Nigeria, to Victoria on the Cameroon coast; thence by some 200 miles by lorry, then the last 100 miles on foot. Your luggage was head-loaded by carriers, well paid and weight limited. The Manfe district was heavily forested and unhealthy. Malaria, Yellow Fever, and sleeping sickness were endemic. There were many fauna, including gorillas in the high ground to the North. My house was on a hill, overlooking what was considered to be the source of the Cross river, formed there by the junction of two smaller streams, and fed below by tributaries. It soon became a big river, bigger than the Thames, though not nearly so big as the mysterious Niger river which was nearly 3,000 mikes long.

The Cross river, perhaps by some freak of zoology, had a huge reservoir of hippopotamuses, far greater than in the Niger. In the dry season from December to March, the water went down, sand patches appeared and from my window at breakfast, I could see the hippos below, disporting themselves. There were large numbers, too, down river.

The local people made much of their living from the sale of palm oil, made from the nuts which hung in clusters at the top of the oil palm. The expressed rich red oil was used for soap, candles, and for all manner of lubrication, excellent palm oil ‘chop’ for eating with yam and vegetables. The oil was put into big barrels which were loaded into huge dug-out canoes, and taken down river to Calabar on the coast, where it was purchased by European merchants. The passage down the 300 mile river was rapid in the wet season, perhaps three days, but the return journey upstream was slow and laborious, lasting probably three weeks. The canoes were generally overloaded with provisions, so they lay deep in the water.

ITO-Hippo-Keith-ConnellyHippos are quite harmless creatures, but just occasionally you get a rogue, and there was one such downriver at a place called Ikom. He was well-known, and had overturned many canoes by getting underneath and shaking them. The water came into the overloaded, tilted canoes, swamping and overturning them. This was no fun, as the current in the rains is swift and strong, and it might need a strong swimmer to reach the bank, especially if overturned in mid-river. The river was also full of crocodiles.

One day, I was travelling by river to visit nearby river villages. I had a huge canoe, like those of the palm-oil traders. Suddenly we ran into a whole lot of hippos playing in the water. I was keen on photography then, and thought that such a photo would be nearly unique. I hastily rose to take the photograph when I felt the canoe rocking violently from side to side, and I knew we were on the back of the rogue hippo. Although I had luggage, a small staff and the paddlers, the sides of the canoe were well above water. We shot clear into the steady water ahead, not knowing which of all those rollicking monsters was the villain, and I never did get my photograph!


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