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Ntombi the Baboon

Story ID:2919
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Story
Location:Manzini Swaziland
Year:1968
Person:Ntombi the Baboon
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Ntombi the Baboon

Ntombi the Baboon

Ntombi the Baboon

In the 1960s my father was one of about 6,000 Europeans living in the tiny country of Swaziland. The rest of the country’s population, estimated at 500,000 inhabitants, were Africans - Swazis, to be precise, and most lived in the bush in the traditional collection of huts surrounded by a make-shift fence, formed by rough poles and thorn-tree branches, designed to keep wild animals out at night. This type of living space was referred to as a “Kraal.”

My father loved to hunt partridge with a "Cogswell and Harrison" double barreled shotgun and two pointer hunting dogs named Foxy and Biddy, (short for Bridget). I loved to accompany my father and he bought me a small “four-ten” single barreled shotgun so I could pretend I was a part of the hunt.

The dogs were precisely tuned to each other and if Foxy caught a scent and followed it to a clump of shrubs where the Partridge were hiding, he would stop dead still in the classic pointer line, one foot raised slightly, tail and nose in a rigid line indicating the location of the birds. Biddy would sense the tension and quietly make her way towards the location, her body so low to the ground that every step made her shoulder blades rise above the level of her spine, pulling the skin in taught undulations. She would then stop and point, from a different angle; so that her point-line intersected with Foxy’s point-line, at the exact location the birds were hidden. It became embarrassingly easy to find the game and the dogs were so disciplined that you had all the time in the world to approach, cock your gun and then try to flush the birds to take your shot.

There were various huge “bush ranches” around the outskirts my town, areas of private land that had not been developed, but upon which there would be sheep and cattle grazing by day. The ranch would be surrounded by barbed wire, but this was scant protection from bush predators. At night the animals would be corralled inside large paddocks with the same stacked thorn-bush branch walls so that night hunting leopards would not be able to get at them.

One such ranch in particular was called Scott’s Ranch after the owner. He was rather reclusive, but friendly to my father and always allowed us to hunt on his land where we never failed to find a plethora of game birds. After a hunt he would invite us in to visit with him and his wife at the ranch house. Mr. Scott was a busy man, but the lack of European company out in the bush would cause him to set aside pressing tasks just for a little conversation about the events unfolding in the towns. He would listen to the news with a voraciousness that was borne of isolation and would revel in my father’s natural Irish wit.

Scott had several “Kraals” on his property complete with huts, paddocks and natives living in the traditional way, supporting themselves as Inguni people do, accumulating wealth in the form of cattle. He had developed a wonderful symbiotic relationship with his squatters. They didn’t understand the concept of one man owning a section of the planet to the exclusion of everyone else and he didn’t try to educate them to the European philosophy of proprietary land ownership. He let them live on his land and in return he asked that they care for his cattle and sheep as they did their own, taking them out to graze during the day and bringing them home to the kraal in the evening for a night safe from predators. This arrangement worked very well for both sets of cattle owners.

In the evening, after a long gentle day of herding and protecting the cattle, the Swazis would gather around a roaring blaze and eat their evening meal before telling stories, singing and playing the marimba. Their shadows would flicker on the soft earth behind them like juddering wagon wheel spokes with the night as the rim. The meal would consist of a Swazi staple called “putu pap,” which was maize meal soaked in sour milk and cooked to a doughy consistency. This delicious starch would provide the basis of the meal which might include some stew beef, gravy, some garden vegetables and a wild vine which, gave off a yellow slime like okra, but tasted divine. The whole thing would be washed down with a Swazi beer called tchwala, which was made by fermenting sorghum corn. After several hours of talk and music they would retire to the sleep mats in their huts.

Putu pap was as ubiquitous in the Swazi diet, as pasta is to Italians, tortillas are to Mexicans, potatoes are to the Irish and sugar is to Americans. The next morning’s breakfast would consist of putu pap and vegetables and each herder would take a small amount of putu pap and a piece of fruit to eat later during the lunch break under a shady thorn tree.

One evening, while all were gathered around the bonfire, eating and talking, a female baboon appeared, ghost-like, on the periphery of the fire-light circle. The Swazis noticed her and gathered the children to the inner part of the circle, but other than that they took no further precautions and just ignored the baboon. She began to turn up often, during the evening congregation and little by little drew closer to the circle. If a Swazi looked at her she would look away, as if embarrassed. The reaction of this group of Swazis was unique, because they know that a baboon, although smaller and lighter than a man, is a terribly powerful animal. They have been known to tear a man to shreds when cornered in the wild and are ferocious in battle. If they are gut shot they will tear their own entrails out to get rid of the pain and although they don’t stand a chance against a leopard on a one-to-one basis, in groups of three or more they can often kill a leopard, which is their natural enemy. Swazis are no fools when it comes to understanding the potential dangers of the wild, but they also have an elevated level of intuition, which has protected them over the centuries. This group felt there was no threat, perhaps because of the baboon’s body language, her gender and the fact that she was very hesitant, if persistent, about joining the evening circle.

As time went by, some of the Swazis would throw her a little food, which she would scoop up and eat willingly and kahle, kahle, she drew closer and closer until one evening they found themselves sitting in the large circle with the baboon comfortably amongst them enjoying the warmth of the fire. In time they let her have her own bowl of food and she ate with them using her hands just as they did, licking the bowl when the contents ran low. As time progressed she was given a mat on which to lie and joined a family in one of the huts when the rains came.

After a few months, the baboon seemed to be accepted as a full member of the community, just like any other person, perhaps not as loquacious, but equal in status. She never harmed any of her cohabitants and was never any trouble. She seemed to know that the call of nature was to be answered outside the cleared area of the kraal and would defecate in the bush that surrounded the kraal. On Sundays she would sit just outside the make-shift un-walled chapel the Swazis had built and listen to hymns and preaching as if hoping for salvation. The Swazis called her Ntombi – “Girl” and she took to riding on the back of cattle as they were taken out to graze.

In the early morning, the herdsmen would gather with Ntombi in their number, eat their breakfast and then wrap their lunches up to take with them. Ntombi would pack her putu pap into a tight ball and eat around the middle for breakfast, until it resembled a big apple core. Then she would carry the rest, under her arm, on the back of a cow, to the grazing grounds where she would put the putu pap aside to eat during the noon meal. She supplemented her diet with insects, grubs, seeds and berries she would find, but would always sit to eat with the herdsmen at noon.

To their astonishment, the herdsmen found that Ntombi had an amazing talent. After observing what the herdsmen did for a few days, Ntombi became the best herder they had ever seen. In fact her speed and agility allowed her to herd as well as ten men. She would run over the back of sheep and grab an errant ewe, give her a nip and get her back in the flock with very little effort. The cattle also responded to her very well. If she was dealing with a lone bull she would entice him back to the herd by teasing him until he charged her as she led him in the right direction avoiding his horns with agile ease. If she had to retrieve a docile cow, she would chase it back to the herd with loud barks. As a protector from foxes, feral dogs and other day time predators she had no equal. Ntombi was indeed the most efficient herder they had ever seen.

Their initial reaction was shock and confusion, but eventually, the shock turned to awe and the awe to respect. The Swazi herdsmen acquiesced and recognizing they had the cheapest and most efficient herder on the planet, they resolved to enjoy their days off in the shade of the giant acacia trees that dotted the grazing lands leaving all the work to Ntombi.

Ntombi lived with the Swazis of that kraal on Scott’s ranch for many years, as a full member of their society. She sat with them at night, went out to work with them in the morning and ate with them when they took their meals. She came to know the name they had given her and responded to it when called. She learned the meaning of several Swazi words and hand gestures and became completely integrated into that microcosmic society on Scott’s Ranch.

In the firelight evenings there were many discussions about reincarnation inspired by this magnificent creature as well as musings as to who she might have been and whether she had, in her previous life, been close to someone at the kraal where she now lived. Furthermore, she never attacked or threatened even strangers when they approached the kraal. She seemed to see herself as a human being, albeit with extraordinary physical ability, and looked upon each visitor as a potential friend. However, as wonderful an addition to the community as she was, she did have one tragic flaw and this would manifest every year at the same time.

During the lambing season Ntombi would become very broody and as any sheep rancher knows, ewes are not the brightest mothers in the animal kingdom. They will drop a lamb and just walk off, expecting the lamb to totter to a standing position and follow as soon as it can. Ntombi would pick up a helpless lamb and hold it to her breast and then jump up into a tree to nurse it. When the Swazis tried to get her to come down she would leap to higher branches, letting go of the lamb, naturally assuming that it would cling to her fur like a baby baboon would do and the lamb would fall and be killed. At that, Ntombi would drop to the ground, pick up the lifeless body of the lamb and be inconsolable for days. She would rock the little body and no one could take it away from her until it began to smell and she would realize it was not coming back to life. At that point she would surrender the little corpse to be buried and stay depressed for days.

It was heart breaking to the Swazis she lived with, to watch Ntombi suffer so, as they had become very attached to the baboon and their compassion for her constant loss would spread pain throughout the village. On the occasions we would pass through their dwelling place while hunting, or walk over some of the fields where the cattle were grazing under the watchful eye of Ntombi, we would notice the mood of the community and how they were both proud and sad at the lot of their wild companion.

I grew older and left Swaziland to go and study in Europe. I never forgot Ntombi the baboon who lived in a kraal on Scott’s Ranch. At the time it seemed the most natural thing to see a wild animal integrated and accepted as part of a working community. It is only in retrospect, after experiencing life in Europe and America where one seldom encounters wildlife that I realize how extraordinary these circumstances are.

Ntombi has, no doubt, died by now. The life span of a baboon is much shorter than that of a human, but the impact she made on her community of humans will never be forgotten and her story will be passed down from generation to generation as a lesson that not all wild animals must be feared. There exists a bond, a communality we share with them and they must be afforded the opportunity to enjoy this planet too. Perhaps there is a way to understand the thoughts and emotions of wild animals even if they are not as sophisticated, complex and convoluted as our own. It is obvious they think and feel and even if they are not conscious that they do, this ability should be respected. Perhaps this is Ntombi’s legacy. Perhaps the people that knew her will tell her story and soften the hearts of those who would kill for sport, trophies and black market money.