"There is a place near here that is very bad, and I have not yet gone there." Mamadi said, before taking a drag on his cigarette. I had nearly crashed into him on my bike when he took this impromtu smoke break on our way back from Sare N'Gai. The sun bore down on the dusty, craggy road, filled with ruts and craters--the faded impressions of a deluge long since evaporated. "There is a waterway there, during the rainy season. The village people say that there is a dragon living there. Two boys were looking for sticks, and there they saw the dragon, and they were being very afraid. So they went home, and one of them died after that and one went blind." I sat on my cike, unclipping my helmet, and chuckled, saying in a playful tone, "So that's why you've never gone there? You think there's a dragon?" "No," he replied, "It is a very bad place, nad I have not ever been going there." This was not a joke.
As he finished his smoke and we continued, I said nothing, lest I betray my surprise at hearing this from Mamadi. He is one of my main counterparts--a TOSTAN facilitator, educating women to combat female genital mutilation and other risks to their general health. He is a fairly educated man. Yet, as I looked at the bush that surrounded us--the wizened, ancient trees with blackened limbsw clawing the relentlessly blue sky, the red dust covering the withering vegetation as if the hard, cruel earth were trying to smother the life that it had previously birthed, and the scraggly, mean-looking dogs, lizards, and buzzards scraping whatever meagre existence they can out of the dying landscape--it wasn't so hard to see why the Gambians saw it as a place of witches, demons, and even dragons.
I had been out on my own in the bush the afternoon before, in search of the point nearest my village where one can glimpse the great Gambia river. I passed through two small villages where gangs of children regarded me with either curiosity or wariness, all the way asking if I was headed in the right direction. Past the second village the road became more of a rough path cleared through the brush, often filled with loose sand, making biking difficult. I was starting to wonder if I had misunderstood someone's directions when the vegetation started thickening, suggesting a water supply nearby. I passed a grove of birds-of-paradise and fields of partially cleared grass, when the path faded out completely, giving way to patches of uncleared grass and brush.
I ignored the lattice-work of scratches forming on my arms and forged ahead, going the direction of whatever most resembled a path. Fields gave way to thickets, and my frustration began to mount, until finally a glint of light reflected off of water caught the corner of my eye. I quickly made a v-line in that direction, and came to a large wetland clearing surrounded by a grove of low shade trees. The scene reminded me of summer in Minnesota--water birds scanning for fish, surrounded by water lilies and pools of greenish much ready to swallow the boots of anyone foolish enough to enter them.
There was one difference between this and similiar American scenes, however. Between the shade trees were trails of hooven tracks ending in large depressions and couple of meters wide. Each of the individual footprints was approximately the size of my head, and all of the trails began at the water's edge. Without ever having seen suck tracks before, it took me very little time to figure out what they were: Hippos tracks. Hundreds of them.
Those who grew up playing a certain Milton Bradley board game or reading Richard Scarry books may not entirely understand the meaning of such a finding. Hippos are the most dangerous large animals in Africa, killing more people yearly than lions, leopards, rhinos, or other big game. They are extremely territorial, and will attack other animals that get to close, attempting to slash the offender with the sharp sides of their teeth. The American equivalent would be to stumble upon hundreds of grizzly tracks. Needless to say, my heart began beating somewhat more quickly- both from fear and excitement. After all, despite the danger, how many Americans get to see hippos in the wild? So, following an urge either fearless or self-destructive (if there is a difference), I began to muck my way somewhat closer.
Thesurface of the water was mostly covered with lilies, making it hard to discern from a distance if anything was lurking there. I stepped gingerly from one grass covered mound of mud to the next, trying to avoid the brackish puddles of stagnant water. I got as close as I was able, craning my neck, but no dice-- all I could see were those same water birds, who seemed to be having more luck in their search than i had had. I headed back to the grove with a mixture of disappointement and relief, and started the ride home.
I certainly have my doubts about the existence of dragons in the Gambia or anywhere in the world. But the hippo, unlike the dragon, is undoubtly a very real denizen of the Gambian bush. And for an American used to sleepy zoo fare when it comes to African beasts, that is as almost as fearful and exciting.