Regina, The Strange Lion

Lesley Mukwacha


© Copyright 2023 by Lesley Mukwacha
Photo by Chris Rhoads on Unsplash
Photo by Chris Rhoads on Unsplash.
The smell of fried cabbage coming out of the small kitchen where my mom was preparing lunch will always be the one I blame for what happened four hours later that bright summer afternoon. Sadza,(stiff porridge) and fried cabbage, would be the meal of that day, no meat to accompany them, and it had been the same meal for the past three days. I had had just about enough of that. I wanted meat, I craved meat, I needed meat - even fish would do, and, since this was in a national park, where hunting of wild animals and birds was prohibited, the only possible option was fish, at least, fishing on lake kariba, the largest manmade lake in the world, was allowed. So, without giving it much thought, I gathered my fishing gear,  and headed for the lake, which was about three and a half kilometers from our compound.

As I walked through the Mopane woodland, on a curved narrow path that led to the lake, quietly humming the rap to the new song I was working on, I vaguely remembered the lion roaring we had heard the previous night. I paused for a moment, listened intently for any sounds from around me, heard nothing and told myself I wasn't going to be a sisi. I wanted fish for dinner tonight and nothing would stop me from having it, not even the thought of lions. Yes, there were potentially dangerous animals here, buffalo, lions, leopards, elephants, to name just a few, and, I had seen them all, walked into them and had my close calls with them; of course, I had lived in game reserves all my childhood years with a father who was a game ranger and clerk for national parks of Zimbabwe.

When I came out of the forest onto the pan, I was relieved to realize that there were no elephants or buffalo helping themselves to the green grass that decorated the whole area, nor were there any, drinking from the lake. There were a few impalas and zebras dotted around the pan, unworriedly grazing, which told me there were no predators around. They simply raised their heads, briefly checked me out and went back to their feeding business. The lake shore was still about half a kilometer away, so I walked on. There wasn't anyone in sight by the lake, which didn't worry me. I liked fishing alone. Quiet was very important for me, besides, I was also busy in my head with the new song, so, company would not be needed.

I arrived at the shore, prepared my fishing rods and wadded into the water. The water level was very low such that I had to walk about thirty or so yards before it got deep enough to fish for good size tilapia bream, bearing in mind that I shouldn't go in too deep as the lake was infested with crocodiles, and, as you probably know, they are the meanest, stealthiest creatures on the planet, but as long as you are not knee deep in the water, you are good, because, If it is big enough to take you, you can see it approach you in the shallow water but if you can't see it, then it's not big enough to overpower a full grown man like me.

The fish were biting quite well, and, within twenty minutes of being here, I had already caught eight good size breams and an average size tiger fish. I only needed a few more and I would be done, ready to go back home before dark. I checked my watch. It was half-past four, about two and a half hours before sunset. Suddenly, I heard a distant yapping sound behind me. I looked over my shoulder and squinted my eyes to try and see what was making that sound, which was growing louder and louder by the second-then I saw it. At first I thought they were just impalas chasing each other but, nope, I was wrong; they were wild dogs, now known as painted dogs, chasing after a female lion. Because of the cloud of dust kicked up by their feet, it was kind of hard to count how many they were, probably ten, running in a single file behind the fast running lioness. They were headed in my direction, down the same path I had used to get here. The lion was clearly running for dear life and the dogs for a dear meal.

Now, some of you may be wondering, how is it possible for a lion that weighs between 110 and 180kg to be scared of a mere painted dog? A single dog or three or four would definitely not even attempt to attack a lion, but seven going upwards are just too many. To make matters worse, dogs do not wait until prey is dead to start feeding, they feed while it's still alive until it collapses and dies of either shock or bleeding, or both, and am sure every animal in the wilderness knows this; so, the lion was no coward, she was smart. She would have to outrun them, which seemed almost impossible due to the dogs hunting technique of cutting corners on their prey until it gets too tired to keep running. 

While I stood there, mesmerized by what was happening, the lion seemed to slow down a bit, as if considering battling it out with the dogs, then suddenly turned its head towards me. I knew right away that she had seen me. The dogs were almost surrounding her, still yapping excitedly, when the lion did the unthinkable. She broke into a run towards me. There were merely a few hundred meters between us and she covered them in just a few seconds. As I watched, without hesitation, she splashed through the water towards me. I was horrified. My heart was pounding, my breathing heavy and loud as if I had just run an 800m race. There was nowhere for me to run, because on one side was the deep blue waters and on the other, one of the most feared animals on earth; it would be a case of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Without realizing it, I had dropped my fishing rods and through the corner of my eye, I saw one of them jerk violently, someone at the end of the line had swallowed the hook, probably a tiger fish, but under the circumstances, they could take away my rod for all I cared. Survival, at this juncture, was much more important than fish.

Realizing what was happening, the dogs stopped just outside the water on the mainland, their salivating red tongues hanging out of their mouths. They kept trotting around out there, communicating in a language only known to themselves. The lion, which had gotten to me and stood beside me, looked back at the dogs. Her left side of the body touched my right leg and I could feel a number of her pulses going. I was literally frozen with fear. This was not real. This couldn't be real. How was it possible that death could rub up against me like that, for, to us humans,  lions represent death? I was dreaming, yes, I was, and would wake up to the sound of my mum singing some church hymns as she cleaned the house. There just was no other explanation to this.

After what seemed like eternity, my senses started coming back to me. I didn't know what to do but knew I had to do something. My fishing rod had stopped jerking and that meant whoever had been on the other end of the fishing line had somehow broken free, who cared? The dogs had stopped yapping, only their panting sounds could be heard, half of them lay on the grass, staring at us hungrily, the others still ran around, rubbing up against each other, occasionally making light whistle-like noises. 

Momentarily forgetting about the lion, I reached down, picked up my fishing rods and raised them high above my head. I approached the mainland, whirling the rods around in the air as I made sure to drag my feet through the water, creating a loud splashing noise; while showing my teeth in a menacing grin that I knew would have scared even me, the owner. I was shouting on top of my voice.

"Hey, get the hell outta here you jerks!" 

It worked, oh my God, it worked! All the dogs scuttled off, at full speed, back towards the forest, without looking back once! 

"Yes, yes yes," I continued to shout, jumping up and down in the water. "Run away and stay the hell away. You hear me, the hell away?"

I stepped onto the mainland and suddenly broke into a mischievous laugh that lasted a very long time. I sat down where the dogs had been, calmed myself down and looked at the lion still in the water. Surprisingly, I wasn't scared of it anymore. As if my silence was her que, she did the unexpected. She lowered her head into the water, picked up my fish keepnet with her sharp teeth and slowly walked out onto the mainland where I was sitting, her head held low while her tail slowly swished from side to side to look harmless. She came up to me, put down the keepnet beside me and stood there, staring far into the forest that had swallowed the dogs. I noticed the tip of her left ear was missing, as if it had been beaten off in a fight or something sometime back. A small amount of blood was still dropping from a fresh wound just above her front right knee. For a moment, I wanted to reach out and touch her, pat her but thought better of it, I didn't want to alarm her. She was still a wild animal. I just had to wait for her to leave whenever she felt safe to do so. I was inwardly praying it was soon, for the sun seemed to be rushing down towards the horizon. As if she read my mind, she edged closer to me, and pressed the side of her belly against me, before giving out a little whine and walked off along the shoreline away from the forest direction.

I gave out a sigh of relief, gathered up my rods and fish and walked home, telling myself I wasn't going to tell anyone what had happened today, not my mum, not my father, not my siblings, not my friends, nobody, It would be my story till the day I die. Even if I told anyone, who would believe such a story? Well, I just told you and you better believe it, because it's very true. Later that evening at dinner time, as I enjoyed the roasted tilapia, I told myself the delicious fish was worth enjoying, they hadn't come that easy, and, most importantly, they had saved the life of an innocent lion from the jaws of hungry dogs. When I finally put my head down on my pillow around midnight, I had a strange feeling that I hadn't seen the last of that strange lion. I wasn't wrong.

I did not go fishing for the next couple of months. I chose to stay home, composing my music and helping in the vegetable garden. Whenever someone from the compound invited me to go fishing with them, I would come up with some excuse or tell them I would catch up with them, which I never did. My elder sister had started working at spar supermarket and we could now afford meat regularly.

One bright Sunday morning, my mother decided to cook beef trotters, and, those who have prepared these, know how long they take to cook, especially on fire; the whole day. I had to go fetch more firewood to add to the small pile by the fireplace. I put on my army boots, grabbed my ax and made for the woods about a kilometer from the compound. It was very quiet as I walked through the short green grass, except for an occasional chirp chirp from red eyed bulbuls that flew from tree to tree. I had walked for a good fifteen minutes before the forest got thicker and more dense with short acacia trees dominating all other trees here. I stopped in the middle of a clearing full of dead logs. Elephants had done a pretty good job of pushing over big Mopane trees in this area. I told myself this was it, I just had to find a nice dead one, dry enough to make good firewood. 

My eyes fell upon one on the left side of the clearing. As I approached it, a sudden uneasy feeling of being watched stopped me in my tracks. I listened intently, my grip on the ax tightening. I was pretty sure I had heard a twig snap. The hair at the back of my head stood on end. The way I felt, plus my many years of living in the wilderness told me whatever was watching me was no antelope or elephant or buffalo. The thickets around me made it almost impossible to see what was out there. I dropped on one knee to have a good look under the acacia bushes and my fears were confirmed. Directly in front of me, about thirty yards or so, were two round red eyes staring at me through the tall grass under the bushes. Through the corner of my eye, to my left, at about a quarter to, same distance, I saw two more eyes, and as I slowly turned my head to my right, two more eyes glared at me. I knew I was surrounded, and, each time I checked they had moved a few feet closer.

In my head, I told myself the painful truth; I was done for. I was no match for three lions, especially, armed with only an ax. Only a miracle could save me. I wanted to scream so loud but the thick forest would just swallow my screams; and, even if by some chance, someone at the camp or compound heard me, by the time they got to where I was, I would be minced meat in the lions' intestines. I had been so caught up in thinking of a way out that I had forgotten to check behind me. More fear gripped me when I thought I heard soft footsteps not too far behind me. I was too terrified to turn around. Now, there is a general belief that when in this situation with a lion, your best weapon is to not turn tail but stare it down. One can stare down one lion, two maybe, but how the hell do you stare down four lions, one of which is behind you?

I was going to have to fight it out with these guys, yes, I was not going out without a fight. One thing I knew for sure was that, lions do not like pain or seeing their own blood, they usually avoid direct confrontation as much as possible, resorting to creeping up on their targeted victim and unexpectedly pouncing on it from less than twenty meters. The element of surprise is their best weapon, which is why, once discovered or noticed, they abandon the whole hunt and start afresh. As I weighed my options, I knew this was a different scenario, these guys did not want to surprise me because they had already surrounded me, they wanted to take me on. As they edged closer to me, now only about ten fifteen yards or so from me, my fear turned to bravery. A surge of adrenaline rushed throughout my body as I whirled around to face the lion behind me, which had gotten closer to me than the rest, the ax held firmly in my hand. Something about it stopped me immediately. It looked harmless, its expressionless eyes were light brown and not red. It had lowered itself to its belly and kept staring at me, its tail gently swishing from side to side. It also was a lot bigger than the other three that were now giving out terrifying low grunts and growls, seemingly waiting for further instructions from the obviously older one lying there In front of me. 

The three growling ones had now come together and kept pacing around, occasionally making as if they were about to charge me. Their mouths were covered in fresh blood, their stomachs round and full, hanging so low they almost touched the ground; this meant that they had just been feeding off a kill, and were not hungry. They were probably just pissed off with me for passing by; or, wanted to kill me and save me for desert…whatever their reason, they were terrifying. I was just about to open my mouth and say something, I have no idea what, when it dawned on me that I had seen this lioness before. Infact, we had met before. I noticed the missing left ear tip. Yes, this was the painted dog lioness! Oh my God! What the hell was going on? To be honest, I did not know whether I should be happy or not, for, despite this discovery, the other three lions' chilling growls and grunts had not stopped, in fact they had increased a notch higher, sounding even more menacing and impatient. From mere observation, they were younger sisters of hers.

Realizing I had recognized her, she rose to her feet, walked around me to the three sisters and a meeting of some sort took place right there in my eyes. The three seemed unhappy with whatever their sister was asking them to do. They kept grunting, rubbing up against each other and rolling on the ground as if in protest but their growls had gone quieter. I decided this was the time for me to make a move. I started backing up slowly. The lions did not seem to notice as they continued arguing. When I thought I had put enough distance between me and danger, I turned around and slowly walked towards the compound. I was halfway there when I suddenly felt I had company. I looked over my shoulder and there she was, walking quietly less than five yards behind me. She was making sure I got home safe. We got to the edge of the woods where the compound yard began and she stopped. The yellow grass here concealed her so well no one from our houses would see her if they did not know she was there.

I continued to walk and when I was a few yards away from our house, the reality of what almost happened, had it not been for the strange lion's sudden appearance, hit me so hard I felt weak in all my joints. My legs could not carry me anymore, and, before my body hit the ground, I felt my mother's soft hand catch me and gently lower me onto our lawn. 

"What happened, Lesy?" She asked me softly, panic and fear evident in her gentle voice.
I could not speak. My lips had become numb. All I could do was point in the direction of the woods. She looked in the direction and saw the big brown eyes behind the yellow grass for a very brief moment before they disappeared.

Before I passed out in her arms, I heard her utter the word, "Lions".

When I came around, two hours later, I was lying in my bed. My father sat in a rocking chair beside my bed, a herald newspaper in his hands. He looked at me and smiled. I sat up and spoke. "What happened to me?"

"You fell asleep." My father said gently.

Then I remembered what had happened.

"Dad," I said seriously, "can I ask you something?"


"Why do I keep running into this lion which seems to know me and like me?"

My father's face lit up for a moment as if what I had just said touched a nerve. He shifted uneasily in his chair, cleared his throat and looked me right in the eye before saying, "Which lion? Where have you been running into it?"

I told him about the lake incident, then the woods incident that afternoon. There was a growing look of interest and concern on his face as I narrated the incidents. He did not interrupt me until I was done. Then, rising to his feet, he said, looking down at me, "Come to the verandah, we will talk about it all after dinner." Without waiting for my response, he walked out of the room.

Just after swallowing his last mouthful, my father began, his voice low and strong.

"About thirteen years ago, you were just about six years old, there was a famous pride of about fifteen lions, whose home range was between Nyanyani river here and Nyaodza river, meaning they could freely roam all around here at will and only preyed on wild animals until one day, one of them, for some reason, killed and ate one of our own, a nice old game ranger walking home from a bar in Nyamhunga township late at night. A few of his remains were discovered a day after he went missing and we all knew immediately who the culprits were. All the park rangers were so incensed by this to the point where they  wanted the lion hunted down and shot, but the problem was knowing which one exactly had killed him since they were all found together near where the old man's remains were found." He paused for a moment, lit his cigarette, and puffed on it before continuing.

"We had to kill them all."

Suddenly feeling very sad and angry at the same time, I interrupted him, my voice a bit harsh. "But why? One lion kills a man and fourteen more have to die?" I could feel the sparkle in my eyes as I spoke and I could see my mother, who had said nothing since I had woken up, shift uneasily.

"When a lion kills and eats a human being," my father replied gently, " it becomes a man eater. It becomes a habit as he realizes how easy it is to hunt people than other wild animals that are fully armed to defend themselves. And, since it's impossible to know for sure which one would have committed the crime, the whole pride has to be put down, unfortunately. Unfortunately." He repeated for emphasis. Scratching just below his left knee, he proceeded. "We shot and killed all fifteen of them, including four very young ones. We loaded all of them onto our vehicle and took them to the dumping area where we burned them, but not before I had noticed one big female had milk trickling from her mamae, a sign that she  had very young babies. I didn't tell anyone. The following day I went back to where we had shot the pride and searched the whole area. It took me a good one hour to locate a cub that could have easily been a few days old, hidden in some thick shepherd bush. At that age she was helpless and relied entirely on her mom. I picked her up and secretly brought her home. I then took her to our house in Baobab ridge coz it was quiet there and no one would ever know. If I had brought her here, she would have been killed. People were very angry and also, domesticating her would be against the national parks laws, I would be reprimanded, or, fired. So, I kept it a secret. Only your mom and I knew about it. We kept her in a small neat warm cage at the back of the house and fed her for one and half years, during which time you ate and played with her almost every day. You were too young to remember but she certainly remembers you. Your scent has stayed with her all these years."

He paused again for a long pull at his cigarette, which gave me a chance to speak.

"Phew, how is that possible?" I said, not angry anymore but a bit emotional. " I mean, it's been so long."

"Yes," my father explained, "lions have a very long lasting memory, unlike leopards and other cats. They hardly forget."

"How come I don't remember any of that?" I was suddenly so serious. Wrinkles of confusion had formed on my forehead. 

"Because," my father matched my seriousness, "something terrible happened one day when you were playing in the backyard with Regina. Yes, that's what we called her." There was a very saddened look on his face as he stared into the darkness in front of the verandah as if he saw something only him could see. "At two and a half years, Regina, because of the good balanced food we fed her, had become too big for you. She outweighed you already and must have pushed you back over one of the big rocks on the rocky outcrop at the back of the house. When you fell, you hit your head hard on a flat rock and had a bad concussion. Had it not been for the strike at work that brought me back home earlier than usual that day, we would have lost you."

I saw my mother surreptitiously wipe a tear from her cheek. She kept quiet, with her arms folded across her chest. 

"Paramedics had to be brought in and I did a good job of hiding Regina in the house, and fortunately, the team had no idea of what a lion's spoor looked like, all they said, after seeing some footprints near where they picked you up, was, "You must have a large dog here." I told them we did and that it had been taken for a walk. You were in a commer for six months. That's probably how you forgot about Regina. Your memory chose to bring back other things, maybe just so you wouldn't blame her."

"Ayayaya." Is all I could say as I tried hard to remember. 

"After that incident," he continued, "I couldn't keep Regina here. I had to release her into the wild even though it was unwise because she knew nothing about survival in the jungle, but junkle was her home. One pay day, when I was alone in camp, I brought her here and sedated her before laying her in the one bush deep in the woods. I waited in my car until she came round before driving off. She has lived there ever since, and since she was female, it would be easy to be accepted by other prides, or stay alone until old enough to mate and start her own family. For months after that, when no one was around, I would check up on her and bring her some food. Then one day I saw her with a handsome fella and that was the last time I went to see her. So, the other lions you saw weren't her sisters, they were her daughters, that's why they obeyed her."

With that, he rose from his chair, walked up to me and laid his right hand on my shoulder. "So," he spoke with a very low deep voice, "If you love Regina, you stay away from her and the woods. She won't harm you, but others might, and all of them, including her, will be put down. You understand?"

I quietly nodded and watched him disappear behind the house, possibly for more cigarettes smoking.

That night I didn't sleep as flashbacks started hitting me hard in the head. Regina days started coming back, more vividly each time. I told myself I would pay her one last visit before going to the capital city of Harare for college; in the safety of my father's car of course.

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