Desert Tales: When Hunter Becomes Prey*

In the 1950s sub-Sahara Africa, still in colonial thrall, was a kind of wild west while the rest of the world restored what had been shattered by world war.  The grasslands of Africa, thronged with wild life, remained in many places open range.

In what was then a sleepy Chobe River village called Kasane (see earlier post, ‘Sundown on the Chobe’ that paints Kasane as the world-class destination it has become), there lived a local hunter named Kennakhumo – in Tswana, ‘I am the treasure’.  While he may have won that name for the joy of parents at his birth, he went on to earn a treasure of his own. He gained renowned as an elephant hunter, famous for bringing down bulls with full, arcing tusks. These he sold into the ivory market for handsome return.

The magnificent African elephant has long suffered from the withering effect of poaching even in protected areas.  Like refugees from a holocaust, many herds have sought safety in a few remaining sanctuaries like northern Botswana.  There they have overwhelmed the carrying capacity of the land and decimated crops.  In some quarters, there is a movement to remove the ban on elephant hunting to permit culling and renewed sale of ivory.        photo credit:  wikimedia commons

One year when the season for hunting came ‘round, Kennakhumo took two Kalahari San trackers and set out toward the northwest in search of the elephant herds.  In time, they found their prey. Sizing up the scene, the hunter laid a plan to bag his bull. He hid himself on a commanding anthill. Then he sent his San helpers in a wide circle upwind of the elephants expecting that human scent would cause the herd to drift downwind within range of his rifle.

The plan worked to perfection. Slowly the herd ambled into range. He waited patiently.  Then the moment arrived. He raised his rifle training it on a magnificent male. He squeezed the trigger and the anthill grasses shivered with the report.  

There is a belief among hunters’ households that while the hunt is underway there must be no quarreling at home.  Squabbles among family members roil fate and invite trouble. Such was the case that day. The bullet from the hunter’s rifle failed to find its mark.  It grazed the bull’s massive head, turning it rather into a cyclone. It wheeled and shrieked, raising its trunk in search of a scent which it caught coming from the anthill.

No time to fire again.  Flight was the only resort. The drama now turns.  Across the African plain a famed hunter runs for his life. His prey is now the hunter. Kennakhumo zig-zagged through thorn trees, tried to outrun the bull in open stretches hoping it would tire.  He scrambled down into and across a ravine. None of this deflected his pursuer. Approaching the end of his own strength, he glimpsed a surprise development. The San trackers had arrived on the scene and were running parallel courses to his own, hoping somehow to intervene.

Then one of the trackers dashed in, running with the hunter stride for stride, the elephant still bearing down behind.  The tracker then took a brutal measure. He tripped the hunter who stumbled headlong into the branches of a leafy shrub.  The tracker then turned toward the charging elephant, shouting and waving his arms, attracting its full attention. With the elephant fixed on a new target, the tracker drew it away into the desert.  Its wrath spent, the elephant wearied of the chase and wandered away.

The two San trackers returned to the shaken hunter, helping him back to his riverside home.  He had no trophy, but he did not return empty-handed. He had a story. Or rather, a story had him.  Having listened to this breathless tale, Kennakhumo’s children made a lasting entry into the oral saga of an African village.  More than ivory, that is the real treasure.

* This Botswana story came from Sekgopi Tshite, a Chobe National Park ranger in the ‘70s, who knew Kennakhumo’s family.  He later became my language teacher and raconteur of desert lore.


5 thoughts on “Desert Tales: When Hunter Becomes Prey*

    1. I find it fascinating how story often contains a certain poetry – the way a given name, here, lends a certain cast to the narrative. In this case, the ‘treasure’ being a story that outlives wealth or even reputation. It is the kind of suggestive, mysterious detail that makes for deeply satisfying narrative whether in film, literature or oral telling. Thanks for checking in, Tom!

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    1. Hey, Lewis! Good of you to look in on ‘Traipse’! I once heard a storyteller explain his method this way: find a great story, great material, and then get out of the way! In this case, especially compelling because there’s a rampaging creature on your heels!

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