(Painting by Alastair Napier Bax)
Mrs R and the tiger
Though Kenya is famous for its wild game the island of Mombasa has always been rather poorly equipped with wildlife, if you exclude marine creatures. Mongooses were plentiful, and birds and reptiles but no antelope or elephant or zebra and certainly no large feline predators.
Until, that is, the Day of the Leopard. Or, to be more correct, a couple of weeks of The Leopard because once, a long time ago, a rumour went racing round the island that a leopard had crossed from the mainland and was on the prowl. I can’t exactly remember the year but it was possibly 1959 or 1960, and I missed all the excitement because I was at boarding school in Nairobi.
Africans on their way home at night reported a large, spotted cat – a chui for sure, glimpsed slinking through gardens or following them at a discreet but still nerve-wracking distance. An Indian shopkeeper thought he saw the same creature skulking about when he was emptying some food bins one night. Soon sightings were coming from all parts of the island and these gained credence among the scoffers – such as my father – when pug marks were found in the grounds of the Church of England cathedral. The protestants of Mombasa considered this a definite triumph over the Papists down the other end of Fort Jesus Road and some wag suggested that the Provost of the Cathedral (not sure if it was still Rex Jupp at that time) buy himself a rifle! The pug marks were identified, by those who knew how, as being definitely those of a leopard.
After that the search was on, but the leopard proved elusive which, consider how crowded was our little island, without a lot of natural bush left upon it, is a tribute to the ability of big cats to conceal themselves from human view. We were not, in fact, particularly frightened of this particular big cat because leopards were not known to attack humans unless seriously provoked. However, a leopard is still a formidably strong and well-armed animal and who knew what it might do if it became hungry enough. Children were warned not to wander too far and dogs were kept indoors at night. As it was, any dogs that disappeared at that time were considered to have been leopard food and a couple of gung ho types actually sat up at night with pi-dogs bought especially for the purpose and tied up as bait nearby, until the RSPCA put a stop to it. Men – European men at least – seemed to consider the whole thing a good joke but women and Africans – who were of course less-securely housed and more likely to be out on foot at night – were frightened. Indians were frightened too or at least the man behind the counter of our grocer, Beliram Parimal was, because, as he told us, “leopard is terrible man-eater”. In India, said my father, that’s quite true, for there leopard are larger than ours and also seem to be fiercer. He was a great fan of the books of the Indian hunter Jim Corbett, whose brother lived at Bamburii, and had not long since read The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag. Unfortunately others in Mombasa had read this book too, borrowed from the British Council Library at Tudor, which probably helped fuel the general hysteria.
Leopard were, of course, quite common on the mainland wherever there was heavy forest. I myself saw them a few times – one on the roof of a cottage at Jadini Hotel, one crossing the road not far south of Malindi. When calves were taken at Kilifi Plantations a leopard was the suspected culprit and when I lived at Port Reitz my servants were afraid to walk home after dark because leopard were often seen in the vicinity. But a leopard on Mombasa Island would have to have either crossed the causeway, or Nyali Bridge, or swum across Tudor Creek or possibly the lower mangrove reaches of Kilindini Harbour. Suggestions that it might have crossed on the ferry from Likoni were generally disregarded! It all seemed so unlikely and even the reported pug prints in the church ground were regarded with suspicion by some – Mombasa was never short in those days of young practical jokers and some still remember the night a few of us drove all over Nyali pulling out name posts (remember those?) and swapping them around to confuse home owners and visitors. And then, suddenly, the leopard did something quite unexpected.
We lived in Kizingo Road and not far from us was a collection of small, cheap, thatched houses known collectively as “the bandas” and inhabited by the lower-ranking white local government employees. Among them was a woman I shall call simply “Mrs R”. She was married to a mechanic employed in the council workshops and her Lancashire origins were very obvious in an accent so broad that those of us who spoke “home counties” English could barely understand her – and thus she was much imitated behind her back. For Mrs R was not popular. She nagged her husband, gossiped spitefully about her neighbours, had few friends and was feared not only for her uncompromising opinions, loudly expressed in that harsh accent, but for her constant trouble-making. She was particularly unpopular with the neighbourhood children because, childless herself, she was always shouting at us to stay well clear of her house and garden and “keep roody noise daown”. I may be libelling the poor woman who has been dead many years no and thus unable to defend herself – but this is the way I (and others) remember her.
Mrs R was of that type and class – fortunately a tiny minority in Kenya – who went out to Africa purely for the job – and perhaps the sun – and appeared to get very little out of it. They never learned Swahili, never went into the bush or even a game park, never in fact stirred very far from their government-supplied home. They lived frugally in order to save to go “home” one day and buy a small house. They employed only one servant to do everything an as their houses usually contained little besides the basic PWD furniture this little was not much. In fact they feared and despised Africans and were, in turn, despised by those who did work for them and who preferred their bwanas and memsaabs to not interfere in the kitchen or lock up the pantry or dole out groceries with parsimony. Mrs R was a case in point – she had a succession of servants from tribes who did not take well to domestic service and she treated them with rudeness and suspicion. Worse, she raised her voice to them in a way that other memsaabs would consider ill-bred as well as likely to be counter-productive. Possibly she did this because she had never bothered to learn any Swahili and believed, in true British fashion, that the only way to get a foreigner to understand you was to shout at them. Again, I am being rather harsh, and more than a teeny bit snobbish! But that’s the way it was. People like Mrs R never felt any kind of affinity with Africa, never felt the deep love felt by the rest of us, never tried to understand it, longed always for the day when she could finally return “home”. Where, no doubt, she would bore her friends and relatives with tales of her glory days as a memsaab. And people like Mrs R never took any interest in wildlife nor learned to tell one animal from another.
Ironic, therefore, that it was to Mrs R that the Mombasa leopard made its most famous appearance. According to two close neighbours, they were awakened late one night by a scream and a terrified voice calling out “Wilf, Wilf, it be taiger! It be taiger!”. When they rushed outside they realised the voice they were hearing was that of Mrs R, emanating from the conjugal bedroom. “Wilf, wake up!” she called. “It be taiger!”.
The way it was reported to me (and to many around the neighbourhood) Mrs R had been lying awake in bed when she saw a large, spotted, bewhiskered face peering right in her bedroom window. “When I realised what t’thing was,” she confided to my mother, “I were raight terrified”. Mrs R might not have known her animals but she did know a big cat when she saw one in her window, and had then woken up her sleeping husband. Loudly enough so that every one else in the neighbourhood (the bandas were very close together) could hear. The Story of Mrs R and the “taiger” winged its way round the island next day an she may well not have been believed except…that one of the neighbours who rushed to her aid reported later that his dog, an Alsatian known for its savage nature, had cowered whimpering at his side. And…the clincher…several pug marks of an unmistakable leopard nature were found in the soft sand of the garden bed outside Mr and Mrs R’s window.
The search was intensified but though expert trackers were brought in they found it difficult to find a trail through the little roads and gardens large and small that comprised the area between Kizingo Road, Prince Charles Street (as it was then) and Ras Serani Drive. However a couple of days later an African wandering under a baobab tree not far from the Likoni Ferry looked up and got the fright of his life, for there, draped nonchalantly over a branch, was the leopard. I got a fright too, when I heard about it, as did some of my friends, because this tree was a favourite play spot of ours and we’d even built a small cubby house in its thick, protective branches. The big cat was then captured, caged and (I think) released on the mainland. Nobody ever knew, conclusively, how it had got on the island, let alone why. The rumour mill ground out theories by the day – it had been brought on to the island deliberately as a joke; it was an escaped pet; it had escaped from one of Carr-Hartley’s zoo shipments at the port. The first might just possibly be true, albeit unlikely, the other two were obviously ridiculous because any escape would have been reported. And you don’t keep a large creature like a leopard in your home without friends and neighbours knowing about it…I’m just repeating this now to show how so many people don’t bother to think before they theorise!
We kids, of course, happily believed all the rumours in turn and even came up with a few of our own. One, I remember, was that the leopard (we always thought of it as “he”) would for sure have had a mate somewhere who would look for him everywhere and, through starvation and revenge, would prey on those who had taken him. Which shows that, back then, we knew little more about the habits of leopards than did poor Mrs R!