In a race against darkness, the men hurried towards their camp while the sun was being devoured by the blistering plains of the land known as Tsavo. Their skin still prickled from the intense heat of the day and they ignored the thorns that tried to desperately to make them stop. The closer they got to the camp, the more vicious the thorns became below them and the darker the sky got above. It was as if the land itself had conspired against them and given rise to the demons that began haunting them a few months ago.
Alongside the orchestra of the crickets, a mumbling of prayers in Sanskrit, Punjabi, and Arabic began. Despite not understanding exactly what the other person was saying, they all knew they were praying for the same thing. One more day of life. Darkness had taken over and even though the camp was not too far from the railway they were working on, they felt like they had been walking for hours.
The air became viciously cool, but that could not stop the beads of sweat that trickled down their foreheads as they thought of the monsters that could be lurking in the dark. It had been two days since the last incident, and today was probably the day the pair would come back to strike. The men wanted nothing more than to be back in their tents, somewhat safe from the dangers that the land had spewed out.
The lamp signalling the beginning of the camp was now visible, and their footsteps became faster to reach the light as quickly as possible. As though crossing into the threshold of the camp would magically protect them. As they hurried, the ground began to get more uneven and the thorns began to get sharper, piercing into the worn soles of their leather sandals. One of the men stumbled and fell, his turban unravelling and getting caught in the thorn bushes beside him. The rest started screaming at him to hurry and stand up. The ones in front ran into the camp, and the ones behind tried desperately to reach them as well, repeatedly knocking down the man who had fallen.
Their screams and the blood that had started dripping from their feet to the ground had awoken the still horrors, and as they shone a light towards the man who had fallen they saw the demons materialise out of the night and pounce on him. His screams captured the rest of the men, and they were unable to move any further.
“You left me!” he kept shouting.
“You left me! They’ll get you as well!” his screams stopped.
They stood and watched as he was ripped to shreds and taken away. His turban released itself from the grasp of the thorns, and flew towards them, shrouding them with his curse. Within a month, all of the men who ran away from the lions that night would be devoured by them, and they would all hear the curse placed on them by the man they left behind, as the lions would tear them apart.
In 1898, the construction of the Lunatic Line in Kenya came to a halt as workers in Tsavo were attacked by two man eating lions. The lions are believed to have devoured 135 men within nine months. The ordeal came to an end in December 1898, after the lions were killed by Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, an engineer who was sent to oversee the construction of the Uganda-Kenya Railway.
The lions were abnormally huge and were believed to be spirits that were summoned to stop the construction of the “iron snake” across the land. Some people even believed they were possessed by the devil and the pair were given the names Ghost and Darkness because of the havoc they wreaked during their time.
Their corpses were sold to the Chicago Museum by Patterson, and upon further investigations it was seen that one of them had a bad tooth which made human beings easy prey and was used an explanation for their behaviour. However, there is still no explanation as to why the lions seemed to enjoy the killings, striking even when they had no need to. According to testimonies, the behaviour of the lions was not typical in any form. They fearlessly outsmarted their prey and began a “reign of terror” as Patterson explained it.
I visited the site of the railway construction, and the killings in Tsavo. I stayed at the Man Eaters Lodge which is located along the banks of the Tsavo River, the location where the lions killed most of the railway workers, and where they were killed themselves. The lodge has a few artefacts such as lamps, lanterns, and spades from the time of the construction which was very interesting to see. They also have some pictures displayed and a bit of information regarding the events of 1898.
Right outside the lodge lies the ruins of the old railway line, the station, and what looked like some living or storage quarters. I spent some time walking around this site, thinking about the history behind it. I wish there was a stronger effort to preserve this part of the country’s history, but I am glad I was able to visit nonetheless.
Although my day was spent in awe of the landscape and thinking about the stories that the earth there holds, my night was not as comfortable. Falling asleep was hard. The sounds of the night in Tsavo filled my soul with dread. The river that flowed ferociously outside my tent was not loud enough to tune out the screams that lingered in the air over a century later.
I know I tend to become a bit too engrossed in a story, but it reached a point where I no longer wanted to think about any story. I wanted to be in a rational frame of mind and know that terror no longer lurked outside my tent. But every time my eyes would shut, they would open again involuntarily.
I conjured up goddesses and friendly animal guides from my childhood to guard my bed from all directions. I said prayers my lips had long forgotten. I thought about my great-great grandfather who had apparently worked on the railway and I wondered if he had been here during the time of Ghost and Darkness. I wondered if he also conjured the same helpers I had, and if the same prayers had escaped his lips 102 years ago.
They say trauma can carry forward multiple generations. It is inter-generational. I pondered over my lifelong inability to walk in the dark- always fearing that a lion would emerge out of the darkness and that would be the end of me. I never quite understood where the fear came from until now.
Perhaps he had been here, and he had survived. Perhaps his fear and his prayers had lodged themselves in my throat four generations later. I pictured the derelict railway tracks that he probably crouched over all day to build, and as a cold breeze wafted into my tent, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, just as his might have. Could it be that I was feeling the fear of a man whose name I didn’t even know?
Whatever it was, I don’t think the lions ever really left Tsavo. I could almost hear them roar as my eyes shut completely for the night.