Wildlife Classics: A Widow's Story


by JH Patterson

Very shortly before I left Tsavo I went (on March 11, 1899) on inspection duty to Voi, which, as I have already mentioned, is about thirty miles on the Mombasa side of Tsavo. At this time it was a miserable, swampy spot, where fever, guinea-worm, and all kinds of horrible diseases were rampant; but this state of affairs has now been completely altered by drainage and by clearing away the jungle. Dr. Rose was in medical charge of the place at the time of my visit, and as it was the good old custom to put up with any friend one came across towards nightfall, I made him my host when my day's work was over. We spent a very pleasant evening together, and naturally discussed all the local news. Amongst other things we chatted about the new road which was being constructed from Voi to a rather important missionary station called Taveta, near Mount Kilima N'jaro, and Dr. Rose mentioned that Mr. O'Hara (the engineer in charge of the road-making), with his wife and children, was encamped in the Wa Taita country, about twelve miles away from Voi.

Early next morning I went out for a stroll with my shot-gun, but had not gone far from the doctor's tent when I saw in the distance four Swahili carrying something which looked like a stretcher along the newly-made road. Fearing that some accident had happened, I went quickly to meet them and called out to ask what they were carrying. They shouted back "Bwana" ("The master"); and when I asked what bwana, they replied "Bwana O'Hara." On enquiring what exactly had happened, they told me that during the night their master had been killed by a lion, and that his wife and children were following behind, along the road. At this I directed the men to the hospital and told them where to find Dr. Rose, and without waiting to hear any further particulars hurried on as fast as possible to give what assistance I could to poor Mrs. O'Hara. Some considerable way back I met her toiling along with an infant in her arms, while a little child held on to her skirt, utterly tired out with the long walk. I helped her to finish the distance to the doctor's tent; she was so unstrung by her terrible night's experience and so exhausted by her trying march carrying the baby that she was scarcely able to speak. Dr. Rose at once did all he could both for her and for the children, the mother being given a sleeping draught and made comfortable in one of the tents. When she appeared again late in the afternoon she was much refreshed, and was able to tell us the following dreadful story, which I shall give as nearly as possible in her own words.

"We were all asleep in the tent, my husband and I in one bed and my two children in another. The baby was feverish and restless, so I got up to give her something to drink; and as I was doing so, I heard what I thought was a lion walking round the tent. I at once woke my husband and told him I felt sure there was a lion about. He jumped up and went out, taking his gun with him. He looked round the outside of the tent, and spoke to the Swahili askari who was on sentry by the camp fire a little distance off. The askari said he had seen nothing about except a donkey, so my husband came in again, telling me not to worry as it was only a donkey that I had heard.

The night being very hot, my husband threw back the tent door and lay down again beside me. After a while I dozed off, but was suddenly roused by a feeling as if the pillow were being pulled away from under my head. On looking round I found that my husband was gone. I jumped up and called him loudly, but got no answer. Just then I heard a noise among the boxes outside the door, so I rushed out and saw my poor husband lying between the boxes. I ran up to him and tried to lift him, but found I could not do so. I then called to the askari to come and help me, but he refused, saying that there was a lion standing beside me. I looked up and saw the huge beast glowering at me, not more than two yards away. At this moment the askari fired his rifle, and this fortunately frightened the lion, for it at once jumped off into the bush.

"All four askaris then came forward and lifted my husband back on to the bed. He was quite dead. We had hardly got back into the tent before the lion returned and prowled about in front of the door, showing every intention of springing in to recover his prey. The askaris fired at him, but did no damage beyond frightening him away again for a moment or two. He soon came back and continued to walk round the tent until daylight, growling and purring, and it was only by firing through the tent every now and then that we kept him out. At daybreak he disappeared and I had my husband's body carried here, while I followed with the children until I met you."

Such was Mrs. O'Hara's pitiful story. The only comfort we could give her was to assure her that her husband had died instantly and without pain; for while she had been resting Dr. Rose had made a post-mortem examination of the body and had come to this conclusion. He found that O'Hara had evidently been lying on his back at the time, and that the lion, seizing his head in its mouth, had closed its long tusks through his temples until they met again in the brain. We buried him before nightfall in a peaceful spot close by, the doctor reading the funeral service, while I assisted in lowering the rude coffin into the grave. It was the saddest scene imaginable. The weeping widow, the wondering faces of the children, the gathering gloom of the closing evening, the dusky forms of a few natives who had gathered round -- all combined to make a most striking and solemn ending to a very terrible tragedy of real life.

I am glad to say that within a few weeks' time the lion that was responsible for this tragedy was killed by a poisoned arrow, shot from a tree top by one of the Wa Taita.


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