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Mfowethu the Leopard

Story ID:2878
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Story
Location:Malkerns Swaziland Africa
Year:1968
Person:Frick Esterhuizen
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Mfowethu the Leopard

Mfowethu the Leopard

My friend Frick Esterhuizen had been called to dispatch a female leopard that had been killing goats and dogs near a Swazi Kraal in the midlands of Swaziland, just outside the town of Malkerns. Hunting leopard was unusual because the leopards of Swaziland generally stayed in the mountains where their favorite food – baboons - would scavenge in troops. They preferred naturally forested hills, with trees to climb for privacy or hoarding. The leopard is the only arboreal “big” cat in Africa and as such, is dangerous quarry for a hunter as one must always be aware of what is above him as well as around him.

The leopard and cheetah are Swaziland’s only big cats. There are no lions although, on occasion, a few will stray over the border from Mozambique or South Africa. In general they are left alone, but sometimes, they will start to kill cattle, goats and sheep and then one or more of the mlungu hunters will have to be called upon to shoot them before they start to take children from the villages. The best known hunters were Peter Forbes and Frick Esterhuizen. So it was, that when Frick Esterhuizen was called upon, he went to dispatch the cat with the promise that he could have the skin to stretch into a rug. He took with him two bearers: Zandile and Henceforth. Henceforth got his name from the Bible, a book his mother read religiously. She saw the line from Ephesians 4:17 which read:

“This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind….” and henceforth, Henceforth was known as Henceforth.

The day Frick shot the leopard was a typically hot, dry day under clear blue skies without the faintest promise of a cloud. Frick and the bearers staked out a goat in an open area where the leopard had taken goats in the past. They hid themselves in some thick bush under a large umbrella thorn tree, down-wind of the goat. The day dragged on until afternoon with the goat bleating its irritation at being separated from the herd. The Swazis had taken the main body of the herd to a distant grazing ground so their answering bleats would not draw the leopard to them. Other than the periodic bleating and with no conversation allowed, all the hunters could hear was the constant chirping sound of a million insects looking for mates in the hot African sun.

It was late afternoon before the leopard appeared. Zandile saw her first. She was almost invisible, disguised in the shadows by her spotted rings. She moved hesitantly, looking, for all the world, like she suspected something. Surviving in the wild takes skill, strength, resourcefulness, speed, agility, but most importantly – intuition. It seemed that she sensed the circumstances weren’t right. She began to circle the goat keeping to the deep bush around the clearing. Frick worried that she would make a complete circle and come upon his band of hunters, so with that in mind he decided to try for a shot through the bush, if he got a reasonable glimpse of the leopard’s flank.

The goat became a lot more agitated when the leopard moved up-wind of it. It’s bleating intensified and it started to pull at the rope around its neck, straining to look in all directions and free itself. Frick moved the rifle into position to fire so slowly that he looked, to Henceforth, like a chameleon and, like a chameleon; his movements were not smooth but followed the movement of the bush as it was jostled by the breeze. In a short while they could smell the leopard. Frick aimed for what seemed a life-time, but when he squeezed the trigger the bullet hit her in the side of her chest and burst right through her heart. The leopard went down immediately, tried to rise, and then fell to the dirt. They all ran to it and Frick took his pistol for the coup de grace.

Suddenly Zandile pointed and said “Look mastah!” “What?” asked Frick. “She has babies” came the reply. Zandile stooped and clutched a teat between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed. It was full of milk and the clean, white liquid ran out over his black knuckles.

Part of the hunter’s code in Africa dictates that if you shoot an animal which has young, you are responsible for finding the young and taking them to a reserve where they can be raised and looked after. Unfortunately, finding the young of a female leopard is an extremely difficult task, as she will hide them very well for their protection.

Frick was irritated. He told Zandile and Henceforth to gut the leopard and take her carcass to the truck. He also left instructions that the goat be watered returned to the village to await the rest of the herd. It was December, the height of summer, so the sun would set at around eight o’clock. That gave him about four hours of daylight to find the leopard’s lair, so he set off in the direction from which the female leopard had come. Zandile and Henceforth had hunted with him before and they had confidence he would succeed so they turned to the job at hand and left the hunt to Mister Esterhuizen.

At dusk, just as they were starting to get worried, Frick turned up with two cubs. He said he had found them in a narrow cave on a kopie not too far from the kill. The little cubs made no sound as they were handed to the bearers. Henceforth felt bad that they had to see their mother in such a state, but he’d had the foresight to milk the teats into a clean jar and now he dipped a cloth into the milk and let the cubs suck at it alternately. By the time they got back to Frick’s farm-house in the highlands the smaller of the cubs was looking very weak.

That night the cubs were put together in a box and the next day Henceforth told me the little one had died during the night. However “Mfowethu” was alive and demanding milk! I asked who “Mfowethu” was and he said: “that is the name Mister Esterhuizen gave to him!” “That is the name Mr. Esterhuizen gave whom?” I asked “The living cub! He is a toughie!” “But Mfowethu means “brother” in Swazi.” I said. “Yes… brother, is it not so?” Henceforth beamed and strode off like his wife had just given birth to a healthy girl.

The cub grew and prospered with Frick as his owner. Frick was very bush-wise and knew a lot about almost every animal in the bush. Mfowethu became a friendly tabby and grew to about 150 pounds in weight. When he would see someone he recognized visiting Frick he would run into the house and jump into the lap of the unfortunate guest. At 15 to 20 miles per hour 150 lbs landing in your lap can break a bone, so his friendliness was not always appreciated.

He had many interesting idiosyncrasies though. Whenever Frick took guests to outlying areas of his farm, Mfowethu would have to ride along in the jeep. Not only did he have to come, he had to sit in the front seat. No one wanted to argue the seating arrangements, not out of fear that he would get aggressive, but because he would be pleased to accept your sitting there as long as he could sit in your lap. On any drive over 10 minutes that would naturally result in a collapsed femoral artery at the least. So everyone else sat in the back of the jeep with Mfowethu up front. However, there were two problems with this arrangement.

In Swaziland, everyone drives on the left hand side of the road and naturally the steering wheel is on the right of the car. Mfowethu would therefore sit in the left front seat as Frick drove. The jeep had no roof, no windscreen and no doors. It was a Land Rover stripped to the bare minimum. Frick found he could transport planks and pipes that way. The first problem with the seating arrangement was that Mfowethu would drool, like a dog, to keep himself cool and his saliva would blow back on the guests. In addition, he had no sense of balance whatsoever. Every time Frick would turn right, Mfowethu would fall out of the jeep! Frick would bring the jeep to a halt and wait until the leopard ran up to take his place in the front seat again. Then Frick would drive on without losing his train of thought. I myself have sat in the back of Frick’s Jeep, watching the back of Mfowethu’s head, alert for flying leopard spit, waiting for right hand turns when I knew that little spotted head would just angle out of the doorway like a sky-diver leaping from a plane.

The big problem with owning and caring for a leopard is the fact that you have to adjust his feed to suit his metabolism. In the wild a leopard will drag a buck into a tree, wedge it in a fork and then feed off that kill for up to a week. In the hot African sun that buck will start to rot and by the time it’s a week old, it will be putrid. However, this putrefaction provides the leopard with essential bacteria for its digestion. Without these bacteria in its alimentary canal, it will die. For this reason Frick Esterhuizen would have to let some of Mfowethu’s meat rot and feed it to him every now and again in a putrid state. In addition he would have to throw him an entire rabbit or dik-dik to be eaten: bones, fur, sinew and all - for the roughage that he needed.

The days passed blissfully for Mfowethu and he continued to be very friendly to everyone. Frick worried that he might become aggressive when he grew through puberty into adulthood, but for some reason it didn’t affect his friendliness to humans. Strangely, Mfowethu was frightened by the cattle and stayed far away from them and on one occasion, when very young, he was chased by a chicken. From that day on he left them alone too.

Frick’s sister, Gretchen, lived in Johannesburg with her husband and children, about seven hours drive from the Esterhuizen Farm. She had heard about his acquisition and decided it might be nice for her family to visit Frick so the kids could experience a domesticated wild animal. He welcomed their visit and when they arrived the kids were champing at the bit to see Mfowethu.

In the evening the big cat sauntered in and seeing company bounded over to them gleefully. The children attacked and pounced on him, pulling his hair and tail, prodding him and putting their fingers in his ears. Frick’s sister, like many parents, did not even notice that they were torturing the animal and that he was taking it without defending himself. Frick tried to tell his sister to stop them, but she would not be interrupted. She prattled on about family business while the children were allowed to torment the leopard with Frick getting more and more anxious until Mfowethu let out a blood-curdling growl that shook the rafters.

This was the kind of growl that can turn even a city dweller who has never seen the bush into a cringing, quivering religious person. It was the kind of growl that speaks directly to the DNA memory and says: “You are about to be eaten” so that even if one has never been in the wild and heard that growl, somehow self-preservation memory knows it intimately and every hair on your neck and head stands up as if it wants to retreat, en masse, down your back and into the safety of your shorts.

The children ran screaming to their mother and both parents leaped to their feet in shock. Frick was stunned. His sister and brother-in-law started protesting that the beast was wild and dangerous and should be in a cage and what the hell did he think he was doing bringing it around children?! The obvious argument ensued and, in the end, Frick’s sister and her family left the house that night determined to find a hotel and leave for Johannesburg the next morning.

When they had gone and there was only the sound of the night insects and hissing gas lights, Frick sat with Mfowethu and spoke to him quietly. He spoke of the ways of men, especially stupid men and stupid, undisciplined children. Mfowethu could not have known what was being said but Frick said he calmed down and was purring in rhythm with Frick’s words. He let Mfowethu sleep on his bed that night, an unusual concession, as the cat would always treat the bed as his own and treat Frick like an unwanted tenant.

Things changed on the farm. Mfowethu was still friendly to everyone, but now he would not go near the Swazi children and if they approached him, he would start a low rumbling in his chest that sent them running. Frick knew that the worst thing you can do when confronted by a predator is turn and run. You then become prey and a basic instinct clicks on in the beast’s mind and he cannot help but chase you. Mfowethu had never been like this until Frick’s nephews tormented him, but Frick knew that it could end only one way.

That area of Swaziland was starting to become populated with Englishmen and South Africans moving to Swaziland to find work. Many of the immigrants were young families with children and, try as he might, Frick was unable to keep them away from his farm. Visitors began to notice that Mfowethu would growl at their children and they expressed their discomfort never considering that they had the option of staying away from the farm.

After two months of painful deliberation he called the zoo in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were delighted by his offer and said they would send a truck to pick up Mfowethu. Frick tried to go into detail about his character and needs, his love of sitting in the front seat, his joy at seeing a friend, but they said they were constrained, by law, to transport him in a very specific way.

On the day of departure, Frick’s heart was broken. He stood there, all six feet and four inches of brawny Dutchman and wept like a child as they drove Mfowethu out through the barbed wire gate. As they left the red dust rose, mercifully and covered their departure. For days the Swazis that worked his farm spoke in quiet whispers and tip-toed around the man. Frick walked like his soul was dead and spoke with no-one. Fazeka, his Nduna ran the farm and hushed the workers. He would not let any problems approach the ears of his employer and feared that the loss would turn him mad. Henceforth spoke of the keening they would hear from the farm house at night.

After a few weeks Frick was able to eat with the farm hands. No-one spoke of Mfowethu and two brothers, who always called each other Mfowethu, now used their Christian names instead for fear of upsetting Mr. Esterhuizen. Fazeka allowed no nostalgic conversation and kept a close, surreptitious eye on Mr. Esterhuizen, searching for a sign that the man was coming back. He would add his descriptions of arguments with his wife and eventually the mirth cracked Frick’s wall of gloom and entered his heart. Frick tried to exhaust himself each day by working the farm for fourteen hours, so that after dinner he could just collapse into bed and sleep an exhausted, dreamless sleep.

A year went by and the memories of Mfowethu the cub and Mfowethu the adult leopard turned to pleasant stories of his shenanigans. Frick Esterhuizen was becoming himself again. He could think of Mfowethu and wonder how he was getting along without falling into a deep depression.

One day he decided he would like to check up on the leopard and make sure he was doing alright. He knew the cat would never recognize him after all this time, but he was determined to take every precaution that he would not be seen by Mfowethu. He felt that he was now adequately equipped, emotionally, to check on the leopard objectively and make sure he was getting what he needed in the zoo. On a rainy Sunday he left for Johannesburg.

Monday was cool and dry, high up in the city of Johannesburg and Frick drove to the zoo. This was a zoo built on the old model of animals in cages and people wandering around looking at them from behind hip-high barriers. Frick, a bush dweller, was appalled at the scene. The cages were small and there was little room to walk. Animals paced robotically from side to side seemingly mesmerized by the shadows of the bars moving in front of their eyes. Then Frick saw a sign that read “Leopard Enclosure Ahead.” He approached carefully, through the teeming mass of parents and children with candy floss and ice cream.

In the distance, he saw Mfowethu. He knew him immediately. He knew every spot on his body, every black circle with an orange centre on his tawny yellow coat. Mfowethu sat with his back to the bars and his head hung low. Some children behind the safety barriers were poking him with a stick to get him to turn around so they could see his front, but Mfowethu was not cooperating. He seemed to Frick to be completely despondent. How could he understand why his father had abandoned him for so long? Frick thought: “after all this time he would never know me in this crowd,” but as that thought entered his mind, Mfowethu suddenly sat up straight. Frick thought the child with the stick had finally poked him into a taller posture, but Mfowethu was sniffing the air. He turned and ignoring the children started to search the crowd. Frick was in shock. Then Mfowethu saw him, picked him out in the vast mass of chattering humans and jumped up on the bars with his front paws. Frick couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Mfowethu started mewling, like he did when he was hungry and wanted Frick to feed him. He bounded over to the lock and started patting it with his paw! This was too much for Frick and he tore his gaze from the leopard. As he summoned all his strength to walk away he felt a sharp pain in his chest and he knew his heart had been shredded. He left, not looking back; hearing the call of Mfowethu as he begged to be taken home.

Frick never saw Mfowethu again. He lived the rest of his life like a man who had lost a child, never laughing, caring little for the farm and not concerned about his mortality. He never married and visited town only when absolutely necessary. Mfowethu died before Frick, but Frick followed soon after.

The Swazis still talk of the “heart-bond” between the man and the leopard. They are convinced Frick died early of a broken heart. They accept that as a fact and they talk of the two of them reunited in the white man's heaven where they can drive all over in peace, with Mfowethu falling out of the jeep and Frick scratching his ears and feeding him smelly meat.