Tsavo East to Tutuola's Wild Hunter in the Bush of Ghosts

waterbuck carcass

When I first heard we were moving to Africa, I had naïvely romantic notions of calling this blog My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (after my favorite album by Byrne & Eno, which was in turn named after my favorite novel by Amos Tutuola). Thing is, Kenya is a far cry from Tutuola's world (or Byrne/Eno's (which you could say is just derivative of Fela Kuti, who is from the same town (Abeokuta) in Nigeria as Tutuola)). I'm not even sure Nigeria remotely resembles Tutuola's "Bush of Ghosts," but there must be something in the water there to inspire such visions (not to mention the music of Fela).

That's probably the best way I can think of describing what it is I admire most about Tutuola—it's not so much about the language or the story telling, it's more about the fantastically wild visions he strings together using words—it's about this surreal and jaded place he creates with it's ghostly inhabitants, this Bush (which unfortunately is a word that has been stained for Americans in recent decades).

Not that I believe in ghosts or anything.

My preconceived vision of "Africa" and what it housed was also shaped by reading a lot of Gerald Durrell when I was younger. He was a naturalist/zookeeper that was always "looking for beef in the bush" (pidgin-speak for searching for animals in the jungle) and painted Africa as a place of mystique and intrigue with strange and often dangerous animals lurking around every corner. But Durrell's zoological excursions were also to West Africa, from what I remember. Hopefully I'll get to go to West Africa next month, but for now I'll read more Tutuola and look for beef in the not-so-bushy bush of our own backyard (I say, as a blue monkey leans over our eaves and looks at me like "what they hell are you doing here?")

Looking for beef in the bush of East Africa is probably better portrayed by Hemingway's writings, at least from a mzungu perspective—more civilized "camping," out on the open plains of the Serengeti or the Mara, drinking gin & tonics, attended to by bamboozled servants made to wear ridiculous uniforms and say "caribu" repeatedly, viewing exotic wild animals... and shooting them. Fortunately in more recent times, "shooting" means with a camera, but unfortunately most of these other colonial traditions remain, despite turning all parties into parodies of themselves. But hey, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Count me as a hypocritical parody of myself.

Our destination for the long Easter weekend was Tsavo East, home to the notorious mane-less man-eating lions. We went with L & L & their protégé, L. Most Kenyans will insist it's a 3 hour drive from Nairobi to Tsavo, but they are living in an ideal world. Fact is the roads and traffic are always less than ideal in Kenya, so it's more like a 6 hour drive through hell. It takes an hour or two just to get out of the matatu hell of Nairobi on to the open road, where you are then greeted by an endless stream of maniacal lorries going in either direction since there is no other way to ship goods across Kenya, or East Africa for that matter, since the trains are so dysfunctional.

baobab landscape as seen through my snarky ab fab sunglasses

Tsavo at twilight

We got to the first Tsavo gate in the dark and they wouldn't let us in. Even the next gate gave us a lot of grief. The Kenyan park systems use these things called "smart cards" that are the stupidest things known to humankind. The only reason they have them is because Kenyan employees can't be entrusted to collect cash. But they try to make it out like they are doing it for your convenience, when the fact is it would probably be easier to get a Palestinian passport. If you plan to go to a national park in Kenya, don't assume you can just show up and pay the (expensive) park fees. You need to go to some office in Nairobi and relinquish your passport, be strip-searched, jump through flaming hoops, etc. Usually I'm all about DIY, but here it's better to just do the package tour thing. After much hassle, interrogation and identity checks in dark offices, we were not granted a smartcard, but we're allowed to pass through temporarily until the next day when we had to report back to our park parole officers to make sure we weren't bucking the system. This is all to say, they are not exactly encouraging people to visit these parks, at least not without a tour operator.

So our first sight of Tsavo was in the dark. Animals we saw fleeing from our headlights included elephants, an African wildcat (from which house cats are descended), a serval cat, buffalo, hardebeest, antelope, an owl and of course dik-diks. We stayed at Galdessa, which was fairly decadent. Don't let people fool you when they say they "camped out" in tents in East Africa. Technically these sorts of lodgings resemble tents, but they include all the amenities—massive plush beds, solar lights, "bush showers" and toilets that look like pit latrines, but beneath the wood-boxy "out-house" style facade is a real water-flushing toilet. And the "bush shower" (a canvas bag that they put hot water in) are nicer than regular showers. We were waited on hand and foot. When you want to go anywhere in the camp, even to the restaurant, you had to arrange for it in advance or blow your whistle so your appointed "servant" (thanks Joseph!) can escort you, along with Masai guards armed with spears to fend off all those lurking wild beasts.

The first morning we were brought coffee at 6 a.m. and went out expecting to go on a game drive only to discover that you had to arrange a vehicle in advance for an exorbitant fee. I mean, why else would you pay a buttload of money to stay in a game park if game drives weren't part of the deal? Even going on a walking safari was some $40 a person, for a two-hour walk. There, that's my beef about the Galdessa, they nickel and dime you for everything unless you are part of a package tour. And the food was just okay, nothing to write home about. Waited for L & L to wake up, then went to Voi gate to deal with the whole "smartcard" business (which was never fully resolved). Figured we would sort of safari our way over there, and as our luck would have it, right off the bat we came across four cheetahs feasting on a freshly killed waterbuck (the same waterbuck at the top of the page, whose photo I took the next day after the cheetahs were presumably gone—yeah, I know, "do not get off the boat.")

cheetah kill


cheetahs and waterbuck


This was real. We've all seen cheetahs on TV, and probably much better footage—close up slow-mo of cheetahs killing, etc. But something about seeing it in person validates everything. This stuff really happens, whether we are here to witness it or not. But don't take my word for it, find out for yourself. I was especially happy and honored to get such a view of cheetahs, as that was the one thing we didn't see a lot of on our trip to the Mara.

Looking for "beef in the bush" is not as easy in Tsavo as say, the Mara. In the Mara there seems to be lions and elephants around every corner, almost like it's a zoo. Here it required a bit more work, especially since we didn't have a guide that had a radio to alert him to the whereabouts of everything. Since there were five of us in a cramped car, I volunteered to ride on the roof clinging to the luggage rack (how I rolled pretty much the whole weekend). There were long dry spells where we'd see nothing but the occasional dik-dik or impala. And the animals we did see in Tsavo were afraid of us. Evidently there's been a recent resurgence of poaching in Tsavo (not just for ivory, but also for bushmeat), so it's probably a good thing the animals were leery of us.

We felt bad the cheetahs above left their kill (though they all seemed to have eaten their share as you can tell by their stuffed bellies) and there's always those conflicted "Copenhagen interpretation" emotions of inevitably impacting the animals you observe just by virtue of observing. In the Mara, the cheetahs we saw were not afraid of us at all. We watched these cheetahs for literally two glorious minutes before we left them to digest their meal in peace, but then a few other guided tours that had been alerted to the cheetahs (you can hear the airplane flying overhead that probably alerted them to it in the video) went screaming past us in search of them.

Other things we saw on that first day and repeatedly over the next few days were gerenuk, impala, thompson gazelle, lesser kudu, waterbuck, warthogs (only the butts of two), hyraxes, baboons, dwarf mongoose and giraffe. But no mane-less lions and no elephants, which was surprising considering how much elephant shit we'd seen. Around the camp we saw the usual hippos and crocs in the river and some little baby vervet monkeys.

The first day was really hot, at least coming from Nairobi. So after lunch we just chilled out. I read Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts. This was Tutuola's first attempt at writing a long narrative for publication (he wrote it in 1948), four years before the Palm Wine Drinkard and six years before My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. In the intro, it claims to be the first piece of long prose fiction written for publication in English by a Nigerian author. Although it was written in 1948, it wasn't published until 1982 (by Three Continents Press). According to the intro:

"A long chain of events is responsible for this 34-year time lag: once down on school-pad paper,the manuscript was sent of to Mr A. Kraszna-Krausz, Director of Focal Press in London, who, intrigued by Tutuola's offer of photographs of ghosts which were to accompany the work, had asked to see it. Though disappointed to discover the photographs were only drawings of ghosts, Kraszna-Krausz believed the 77-page manuscript deserved some compensation and purchased rights. But the work languished unpublished for long years and only Tutuola's occasional vague references to his "first" novel kept the matter at all public."

The book itself is not much of a "book object". The copy I have (the first "standard" version from 1989) is essentially a photocopy of the typewritten manuscript, hardbound with no image or anything on the cover, much like a bound thesis from a university library—despite the note in the intro by the editor, Bernth Lindfors, saying "So what is being presented here is basically the same old Wild Hunter in more modern dress. This transformation, achieved by means of the latest technological miracles, is very much in keeping with the spirit of the story." (What technological miracles in publishing were there in the 80s?!) In another sense, it's better this way. And the 1989 version does have these cool woodcut-like illustrations by a Max K. Winkler.

image from Wild Hunter by Max K. Winkler

Max Winkler Wild Hunter

Just like in My Life ..., in Wild Hunter ... he travels through towns in the Bush of Ghosts, and is incessantly harassed and at times tortured by all sorts of weird ghosts with varying numbers of heads and arms. Whereas in My Life he enters the Bush of Ghosts to find his brother, in Wild Hunter his father, a hunter, finds himself in the Bush of Ghosts after hunting some lions and elephants and encountering a one-legged ghost. The book starts with his recounting his story to his son and before his death he warns: "if you want to be a hunter, be well prepared and carry sufficient juju with you to save yourself from the punishment of ghosts and ghostesses."

His father gives him all his spells, charms, his gun and hunting bag. The wild hunter gets tired while hunting in the bush but can't sleep on the ground because he's afraid of snakes and scorpions so he climbs a tree and falls asleep. The tree carries him into the Bush of Ghosts. He then travels through five towns in the Bush of Ghosts and suffers a series of pitfalls one after the other. Here, I'll pick a paragraph at random so you can see what I mean (and you can recognize the malnourished ram and the river woman in the above image):

"After a while I remember the spell that the old woman sitting by the fire near the big river had given me when I had offered her a piece of yam. The spell transformed a person into a ram with horns on its head. When the sixteen-headed ghost stopped and started to excrete, I swallowed the spell and it turned me to this kind of big ram. I suddenly came out along with his excrement, but as soon as he saw me on the ground, he pounced on me, wanting to swallow me again ..."

The wild hunter gets away, then eludes a tiger, but then falls into the hands of sheep rearers (also shown in image above) who mistake him for a real ram. He stays with them for three months because they can't sell him because he can't eat grass like a real ram. After reducing their price as a last resort before killing him, a woman finally buys him and ties him to a tree down by the river as an offering to the spirit of the river to get her lost son back. The spirit of the river ends up being the same old woman who gave him the spell to turn into a ram. She exchanges him for the boy and takes him to the bottom of the river, which ends up being a town with houses made of glass. This is just 1/100 of "the plot," it goes on and on like this—an endless string of mostly bad shit befalls him. He's like James Bond though, he always manages to pull through somehow.

He eventually hooks up with 7 other hunters who join him in his adventure. They all ended up in the Bush of Ghosts in a similar way, carried by animals or trees, and are stuck trying to find their way out. They take to planting corn as shown in the following image.

Wild Hunter in the Bush of Ghosts

They eventually encounter the devil himself, in his absurdly bureaucratic offices. Five of the hunters are on the devil's sinner list so they cannot proceed to heaven (though the devil is kind enough to offer them high posts in his engineering department). If you are curious to see if you yourself are on this list of sinners, you just need to write the Devil's office as specified:

"The Devil suggested that the person should use two envelopes, and the correct postage stamp should be affixed to it. After that, the second envelope should be addressed as follows:

To His Majesty the King of Hell
17896 Woe Lane
5th Town of the Ghosts
Bush of Ghosts

After addressing the second envelope, the person should put his or her letter inside it, gum it well, and post it to hell. But the person should bear in mind that his or her original record would not be sent but only a copy of it. To make things easy and fast, a postal order or money order for five shillings should be sent with the letter to the "Wild Hunter" would help the person. As soon as the Devil had told us this, we left his fifth town of the Ghosts. That was in the year 1842."

Oh, and time is all fucked up. Sometimes he'll spend pages on a specific little event, other times he'll gloss over a 20-year period in one sentence. The three remaining hunters then go to heaven and are temporarily reunited with their family members and friends that had died, and then are able to return back to their towns. "Thus I, the Wild Hunter, had gone to hunt animals in the Bush of Ghosts, which no hunter had ever entered and returned from, but I returned after many years of wandering."

Anyway, it was a fantastic yarn and a good place as any to read it. Once the weather had cooled down some and I had finished reading this Wild Hunter in the Bush of the Ghosts, I climbed back on the roof of the car and we went to watch the sun set at Lugards Falls, which was a few miles downstream on the Galana river.

the red roads of Tsavo

Tsavo red roads


Lugards Falls


Lugards Falls

Kugards Falls


pool after falls

mud river rocks


mud crack resembling the Sleepingfish logo

crack mud


bird tracks in the mud

Bird mud rock


dried mud and sand on banks of Galana

cracked mud Lugards


elephant shitbomb decaying to mud

elephant shit

Speaking of elephant shit, besides the few we saw coming in at night, we still hadn't seen any elephants in the light of day. We saw plenty of fresh elephant bombs and there were the tell-tale swaths of destruction that looked like a tornado passed through, but no elephants to be seen.

The next morning we had better luck, suddenly they were all over the place, but still, they steered clear of us.

muddy elephant




elephant montage

Though we still hadn't really seen the "red elephants" that Tsavo East is famous for. (Not that the elephants are truly red—the color comes from dirt, so it was only a matter of finding some elephants that had wallowed in red soil.) We also saw some buffalo and I'm pretty sure I saw a bat-eared fox.

For me, the allure of "the bush", or a safari, has to do with exploring the morphological realm of possibility, from the tallest giraffe, to the biggest elephant, to the fastest cheetah, etc. They are realizations of the limits of possibility, filling the niche of survivability. It never ceases to amaze me, the shapes and forms and habits of the life forms that have evolved on this planet. Tutuola's realm, the Bush of Ghosts, is the antithesis of this in a sense—his ghosts perhaps represent dead lineages, extinctions that live in another realm, a realm beyond words, beyond thought even. But it's still a realm of possibility, of the imagination, this bush of ghosts.

The other book I brought with me was Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life by Richard Dawkins. I also brought this with me for inspiration for my own Natural Histories (which I give some background on in the last post). It tells "tales" around certain "rendezvous points," or milestones, tracing evolution backwards towards a common ancestor. Little did I know there'd be 40 such tales. I had planned to write 40 "stories" for my own Natural Histories, but mostly because of the 40 days and 40 nights of rain that set Noah's ark assail. Serendipitously, 40 is also the number of these natural milestones or rendezvous points (the last common ancestor they all share, or their "concestor.") He even starts at zero and counts to 39! Though he compares his tales to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Dawkins is a Brit after all), which I must say, I'm not a fan of, though the idea of pilgrims on a pilgrimage recounting their sides of the story is compelling. And you could definitely call the passengers of an ark "pilgrims," especially when you look into the etymology of pilgrim. You can bet there'll be a peregrine falcon on board my ark, rendezvous point or not. Speaking of which, I'm not even mentioning all the birds we saw in Tsavo... call me prejudiced, they don't count as "beef," though L would disagree, he was stopping left and right for them. And as Peter Markus just wrote on his facebook status, "The Bird will always be The Word," which coming from a mud-fish brother speaks volumes.

Anyhow, I'm barely past the first rendezvous point (humankind) in Dawkins' Ancestor's Tale, I'm sure I'll have more to say on the book later, when I get into the beef of it. Here's some sexy beef we saw on our last drive.

m, nice ass

impala ass


finally, "red" elephants

red elephants


buffalo teeth and palate

buffalo teeth


yours truly, happy death man (complete with camouflage skull shirt (designed by Keeno Ahmed/WSOS)

derek white posing

It's no wonder everyone at the camp was calling me Ab-Fab-rizio Zoolander all weekend. The way I figure, the animals must get bored of humans gawking at them, so I was giving them something to gawk back at. You always have to be thinking what it must be like for them.

I leave you with this montage sequence I made to the music of Wall of Voodoo, whose Tsetse fly song (from Dark Continent, another one of my all-time fav albums, though apparently not good enough to make it to CD) was going through my head all weekend.

Tsavo montage to Wall of Voodoo's Tsetse Fly

And here's some more photos from Jess's perspective.


(c) 2009 Derek White