I set out early last Saturday morning to gather up some 7th grade boys and wander around our village to take more pictures for the Yearbook project that I’m working on with them.  We made it all the way back to the back of the village and were approaching the area where most of the village on that side does their washing in the river.  Then we heard three gunshots.

We did some questioning and found out that some people were there at the river shooting a hippo.  So, we went looking for it and only a few hundred feet upstream from where everyone does their washing, we found it.  We were some of the first people there after it was shot.  At first it was just a small hump in the water and none of the people right by us were sure if it was dead yet.

men trying to get a hippo out of the river after it had been shotBut someone must’ve known because pretty soon a couple of guys got in the water to retrieve the dead hippo.  They attached a long rope to the hippo’s leg and guided it through the water as people on the shore pulled on another rope to drag it down-river to a more shallow area.

More and more people started arriving and they formed a big crew for chopping down the bush on the bank of the river in order to clear a space for dragging the hippo up on land.  Other people formed a crew for pulling on the massive hippo.  They eventually dragged the hippo to the area where they wanted to haul it up onto dry land.  The plan was to use the strength of a farming tractor to get the hippo up.

Around that time, I met the guy who had shot the hippo.  He said he was from Nelspruit (the nearest city – a couple hours away) and he said that someone in the village had called him because they’d spotted the hippo.  So his job was just to come out and shoot it.

The reason is, hippos are the #1 deadliest animal in the whole continent of Africa.  Even though they’re herbivores, they’re very aggressive when they’re trying to either return to water, or when something they don’t like is approaching their territory.  They’ve got HUGE mouths and HUGE teeth for defense, so if they want to, they can just bite a person right in half.  And since so many people in Africa wash their clothes and bathe and do other work in and near rivers, it often conflicts.  So, when hippos are spotted, at least in our area, they have someone come to kill the hippo and then the meat is distributed among the nearby villagers.

So, I talked for a short while to the guy who shot it, but he was pretty busy trying to help coordinate the efforts to get the dead hippo out of the water.  The tractor came, but when it tried to pull the hippo out of the water, the hippo’s massive weight was just pulling the tractor down into the water instead.  They also tried attaching the tractor to half the hippo and having a line of about 30-40 men pull on the other half, but it was still no luck.  The hippo was just too big and heavy.

So, they decided to cut the head off first to remove some weight.  It took about 20 people to pull the head up the river bank and it still took about 10-15 women pulling just to drag the hippo head across the flat ground.  The head alone was that heavy.

hippo head detached from the bodyThen they tried the tractor and the people again with the rest of the hippo, but it was still much too heavy.  So, they gave up altogether on trying to pull the hippo’s body out of the river and decided instead to simply butcher it in the water and pull up big chunks of it one at a time.

At one point, they cut into the hippo’s stomach and it was incredible to see how full of grass it was.  I’d guess that at least half of the hippo’s mass was comprised only of grass…  Unfortunately, it stunk REALLY bad when they got to that point – it was like the collected and focused stench of twenty cows defecating all at once.  So I had to get away from it for a while.

The crew of about 10 guys worked on butchering the hippo in the river for about four hours, mostly chopping at it with an axe, but sometimes with machetes.  In that time, the onlooking crowd of villagers kept growing until it reached about 200-300 people, including people from the village on the other side of the river (Dumphries C).  Lora also came to meet up with me and see what was happening.

The hippo meat filled up an entire pickup truck (“bakkie”), and that was after someone hauled off the head and a few other large chunks of meat.  It was also excluding all the intestines, which were put directly on the ground, and all the skin, which they never bothered pulling out of the river.  It was a BIG animal, and the quantity of meat was plentiful to say the least.

So, once they were finished with all the basic butchering, it was time to distribute the meat.  At first they made pretenses of making a couple lines – one side for Dumphries C, the other side for Dumphries B (our village).  So we stood in the line on our side waiting for our own share as they unloaded a couple big pieces of meat onto the ground.  The ground itself was first covered in tree branches and leaves to keep it “clean”.

Things seemed orderly for the first few minutes, but then all of a sudden something happened, I’m not sure what.  Men and women everywhere (mostly women though) just started diving en masse onto the meat and hacking away with their knives and machetes.  Within a few seconds the truck tires spun out and it took off into the bush, all the while people were grabbing onto it and trying to pull more meat out of the back.  Chaos began.

At the pile on the ground, it reminded me of vultures at a kill, only much more crazy and energetic.  They were surrounding it from every possible side and angle, both high and low.  Arms and machetes were flying everywhere just hacking away at it, even as more people were trying to squeeze in from the side, machetes already swinging up and down before even reaching the pile.  I don’t know yet, but if no one got cut badly, it’d be a miracle.

After a minute or so of this, a few people who were apparently working together picked up a whole huge piece of meat and started trying to run into the bush with it.  The others were trying to pull it back and were still swinging machetes at the meat even as they ran.  It was seriously very crazy.

The surge came in our direction a couple times and we had to quickly jump out of the way so as not to get struck by one of the machetes flying everywhere.  Eventually the first group, the ones who had initially fled with the meat, won and they made it a hundred feet or so before they stopped running.

They set the meat down again and were busy trying to divvy it up amongst themselves when the second group caught up again and the machete tug-of-war continued.  It continued back into the river, then onto the other side of the river, still fighting for the meat until we couldn’t see them any more.  It honestly seemed a lot more wild than any of the animals we’ve seen here, and we’ve seen quite a lot of wild animals doing some crazy stuff.

After a quick recognition of the chaos of the scene, we decided to just stay out of the whole mess and we didn’t pursue the meat at all.  One of the boys I was with really wanted some for his family, so he chased after the fighting groups.  After watching for a bit to see if we could make out what was happening with everyone, and failing to do that, we started heading home. I arrived in the early morning and it was now the late afternoon.

Along the way, I met a few guys with a really big chunk of hippo meat and we asked them for a small piece.  They gladly cut off for us about a pound or two of really high-quality looking hippo meat.  Then, as we were crossing the river to return back home, we encountered some others who wanted to just give us a piece of theirs, without us so much as mentioning their quantity of meat.  So they gave us another pound or two.

We then washed the meat off some in the river.  It had quite a bit of grass and some sand and stuff stuck to it, since most of the meat was laid on the ground or chopped on the ground at some point.  I was carrying it in my hands up to that point, but one of the ladies who was washing her clothes at the river gave me a plastic bread sack to carry it home in, so that helped keep the flies away from it and we were very thankful.

boys with rib meat of hippoOn the way back we stopped to talk to quite a few people and eventually the first boy who accompanied me caught back up with us.  Someone had gotten angry with the truck driver and made him come back with some of the meat and then the boy had grabbed a pretty big piece of rib and rib-meat and ran off with it.  He was really proud of his well-won hippo meat and he got a lot of compliments on it as we walked home.

When we got home, I cleaned off our meat a lot better and cut away the fat.  It was pretty tough meat.  I marinated some of it in a cajun blackening seasoning, and the rest I just cooked in a little bit of water and oil.  It turned out to be very delicious, with an excellent flavor, even the un-marinated one.  But the blackening seasoning went really well with it and was even better.

Unfortunately, the meat was pretty tough and hard to chew.  So maybe I should’ve cooked it medium rare instead of well done, but I don’t have much experience with fresh killed game that’s been in the river and on the ground, so I didn’t really want to take any chances with food poisoning.  At least it tasted excellent, and our share of meat was way more than enough for the both of us.  We’re going to thin slice our left-overs for some hippo steak sandwiches tonight.

It was quite an exciting event, with a happy ending for many – lots of free meat!  It’s incredible how some people can be so excitably dangerous and greedy (like those in the hippo meat tug-of-war) and others can be so generous and self-giving (like those who gave us the extra portions of meat without us even asking and then also the bag for transporting it home).

Unfortunately, the action didn’t stop with the hippo last weekend.  Just yesterday, a gang of four showed up at the store directly across the street from our house.  They had a shootout with the store’s gunman as they were robbing the store.

I was inside our house when it started.  At first, myself and one of the guys I was with thought that maybe a child had a balloon that had popped.  Then when the second shot was fired, we thought maybe they were trying to shoot a snake.  I hurried out of the house in the direction of the store because I wanted to see the snake before it was completely destroyed.

Then we heard the gunshots coming from two different directions and saw dust fly off the ground and off the wall of the store from stray bullets striking.  Old ladies selling vegetables and would-be shoppers were fleeing the area of the store with their hands covering their heads.  We ran back inside my house and waited it out.  There were probably 10-15 gunshots total before the criminals sped down the dirt road in their vehicle.

Thankfully, everyone was such a bad aim (and poorly supplied with bullets) that no one was shot.  It was a close call though and the criminals apparently intended to kill.  The store’s guard was simply lucky that when they were only 10 feet from him and pulled the trigger they were already out of bullets.

The police didn’t arrive until about 2 hours later and apparently the same criminals have been making a string of robberies on Pakistani-owned stores in our area over the last week or so.

South Africa never ceases to be a land of excitement and adventure!  It certainly has more than its share of tragedy, but thankfully no one was hurt in the events of our last few weeks.

hippo mouth