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Zambia Africa: Jaws of Death The Nile Croc

 (The names have been changed.)

The flooded plains were subsiding. Nyafulanga knew that food would soon be available for her seven children. Outside, four other women were waiting for her in the open square surrounded by the family huts. As they proceeded to the traditional spot for catching the fish, women from the other villages were all winding along the paths converging to the same location. Each carried an eight foot long fish basket on their head.
  
The basket was designed so that the water would flow through it while capturing the fish. They arrived at the fishing locale just before sunrise as they had in the previous days. Going into the water waist deep they set their baskets in a continuous line in order to cut off all possible paths of escape for the fish.  
 
Many fish had now collected in the lake that annually flooded during the rainy season. The river rose 10 to 20 feet covering the planes. As the floods receded the fish would follow the water flowing back into the Zambezi River. Nyafulanga, along with her family and friends, sang as they worked catching the fish late into the day.  However there was one who was not singing - it was in the water - watching, waiting.   
The Nile crocodile is one of the most treacherous and cleverest of the reptiles. It has survived the dinosaurs. One writer stated that it could stand up on its hind legs. I doubted that fact but it did remind me of the raptors. The croc will watch its victim and discover their weakness. With a sudden burst of strength, it can go from an apparent sleep position on the sand to pursuit speed of 15 miles an hour. It runs behind the victim and with its tail swats the person into the water. If two crocs are present, the victim will be torn to pieces. If one is present, the croc drowns its victim and at some other time devours it.  

Part of the danger of these creatures is that they are underestimated. Two UN officials came to visit us on the Zambezi at Chinyingi. When they saw the beautiful sand beach and gorgeous view they decided to go swimming. We warned them but to no avail. At 11 AM they went down and swam. That evening at supper they told us that we exaggerated the danger. The next morning at 11 AM again they went swimming ignoring our warning. At evening they shared their great swimming adventure. At 10 AM the third morning the crocodile was there waiting for them. It had seen their ritual and anticipated their arrival. 

Sometimes a crocodile will wait underwater for an hour for the unsuspecting victim. When the jaws clamp shut it remains shut.  At best the victim occasionally survives but minus a limb. At 11 AM there was a knock at the door; the villagers told us there was a croc at the swim site waiting. The two UN officials at 10:30 AM had started their vehicle and were heading back to Lusaka to tell every one of the beauty of the Chinyingi Beach. They never found out how close to death they had come. 

The sun had just set and night rapidly approached for the women fishing.  Within 45 minutes it goes from daylight to dark and it was now dark. Maria had already gotten out with the others. “Nyafulanga, get out, it’s dark.” “I’m coming Maria.” Nyafulanga looked up at her friend.  Her heart stopped in terror. Maria stood there frozen, with a scream. Nyafulanga felt her waist explode in crushing pain. She frantically grasped at anything, Already she was being submerged as the jaws of death were dragging her out into deeper water. She could hear the cries of the women as the water covered her. 
 
Thousands of people are killed by crocks each year, a fact I did not recall until later. That morning my mind was on the malaria medicine that I needed to stop the fever. So I walked over to the infirmary and asked where Sister was. The Sisters ran the hospital in the bush. Nurses in the bush witnessed things that could make a doctor shiver, with sometimes nothing but an aspirin they would save lives doing whatever it took. "Father, you’ll find Sister down at the river. It’s her prayer day." Once a week they spent a half day in quite prayer. I went down to where the Chinyingi River met the Zambezi.

At the river side I saw Sister as she was reading her book resting against the tree. As I greeted her I turned to admire the view of the Zambezi. I froze. In the water not more than 20 feet away from sister, hugging the bank, I saw the dreaded three points in the water followed by a log - the two eyes and the nose. As a croc approaches one could possibly see the two eyes and nose breaking the surface of the water - as terror and nausea fills the viewer. We all say the same thing when we realize we are being hunted. Is that a log? No, it’s a croc.

My emotion was one of total anger at this creature that was about to eat the sister or myself as I stood there. If I had not come down at that moment to find Sister - I shuddered - as we stared at the “log” it submerged and rose up in the middle of the river. We ran - that evening I went to the villagers. How do I kill a croc?
  
The elders had a method that employed rotten meat with a fishhook inside of it. From the hook, many strands of fishing line were attached to a large float.  When it ate the meat the float would be dragged on the surface warning the people of the croc lurking for a kill. With spears in hand, the villagers would canoe to the float. Someone would grab the float and the canoes would gently move to the shore slightly pulling on the fish lines. On the river's edge they would form a semi-circle around it to spear it from either side as it came ashore - in theory of course.

Armed with this information I went down to the river and placed the meat, hook and float by the shore line. I had chosen to use wire instead of fish line. Two days went by – nothing. On the third day the villagers came to me. Father, the float was spotted down at the river bend.  I remember getting in the canoe with the others, all of us with spears. Slowly, carefully we paddled to the river bend where we spotted the float. We all looked at it. Some were standing in the 20-foot wooden canoe.  It was actually quite stable because the canoe was a heavy hollowed out tree.  Finally, I reached over, took hold of the float, and began to pull. Nothing happened. The line had broken and there was no croc.  To be honest, I felt relief. 
  
We all had known of villages where people were taken by the croc; a twelve-year-old girl from the school was killed. Far down the river, a lay missionary’s son was dragged into the river while the family watched in horror from the other side of the river. Every year the stories continued.  This week reports of a croc trailing a canoe were talked about. It was seen stalking its victims and was going to strike.  
Our Chinyingi bridge
The Zambezi River at Chinyingi is over 1000 feet wide. A Franciscan brother had built a suspension bridge over the river. The bridge was photographed by National Geographic in its article on Zambia of October 1997. I was coming in from Zambezi, bringing the mail to the Chinyingi Friary. Midway across the bridge, I stopped.
View from the bridge
Being 40 feet above the water one could get an amazing view of the whole region. I happened to look down to the left of the bridge, at the pontoon. 
As I was crossing the bridge
  
The croc was there waiting for a victim. As the river flowed southward, the croc was pointing northward, slowly moving its tail to keep a stationary position by the pontoon against the current. The pontoon is a large raft that you drive a vehicle onto pulling it by the cable to the other side of the river.  Something had the croc’s attention - 20 students were playing soccer (world cup football) and were about to come down to the river to clean up.  The croc was waiting for them.

It is useless to shoot a croc unless you shoot it in the belly, which is soft; anywhere else and the bullet simply bounces off the thick hide. However, with the croc in the water the belly is quite safe from view. There is one other spot that you can aim for – the eye – but how do you get close enough to hit it? The rifle at the friary had a damaged sighting mechanism. If you aimed at the target you would completely miss it. 

As I looked down at the croc from the bridge, I had to make an immediate decision. If I yelled and scared the croc away it would simply come back the next day and another wail would rise up among the villages as a child was killed. To make matters worse the croc was protected by law - unless danger to life was present. I knew what I had to do.

Going to the friary, I took the rifle and hid it under the habit I was wearing so the students would not see it. If the kids suspected the croc, they would run down to the riverbank and scare it away. Going down to the river was awkward because I was holding the rifle next to me while walking straight legged as if my left leg was made of wood. I came to the steep incline that led to the pontoon. 
Going on to the pontoon my heart sank – the croc had moved. I scanned the surface and saw the croc 400 feet down river. I said a prayer. Dear Jesus, this thing is going to eat a child.

It was a rather short prayer and the Lord knew what I was asking for. I placed the rifle at the end of the pontoon that jets out into the deep river. I braced myself by grabbing tightly the railing and lowered my foot into the river. I needed bait for the croc. Again, I said, Oh Lord, it’s going to kill a child. It worked – it was coming towards me. If this monster thought that I knew it was there, it would be gone in an instant – it lives by the element of surprise. Like the devil, it is very patient, watching.
The croc had stopped moving, did it suspect something? I lowered my foot deeper into the water. It started approaching, now it was 200 feet away. I had to act quickly. I lowered myself to the pontoon turning my back to him. I put my arm and leg into the water. I could see him coming faster now. At 30 feet he stopped, something was not right. I pushed my arm all the way in – nothing - he would not come closer. I stood up with rifle in hand and aimed at its eye.  Then I remembered, the aiming mechanism was broken. I quickly cried out to Jesus with a groan. Lord, it’s going to eat a child. Not knowing where to aim, I closed my eyes while moving the barrel of the rifle in a circular motion in the direction of the croc's head and pulled the trigger with eyes closed. 

Exploding out of the barrel, the bullet sped over the water hitting the croc in the eye. I was stunned.

A shout went up; kids came pouring onto the bridge. Utter jubilation. The croc was spinning in the river doing a death roll floating down the river - feet up.   I went to the friary. I was about to be deported unless I reported the incident immediately to the police. A knock at the door. Father, it’s still alive. It had been seriously wounded but recovered enough to swim into the tiny Chinyingi River. It was rapidly getting dark. Father, now you must finish it off.

Another brother from the friary and myself, armed with rifle, torch (Flashlight), rope and spear went down to the Chinyingi.  But where could it be?   And then I saw it at the very tree where Sister and I were almost attacked by the croc. I could see the croc clearly as it was at the river’s edge. The ground sloped down to the river in a very slippery steep embankment - at the same time, my rechargeable flashlight (torch) was losing its charge. The brother held the spear and I started slipping down the slope to the jaws of the croc. I extended the rifle way out with my hand so it would be a point blank shot.

The explosion of the rifle startled the woods and could be heard far beyond the villages. The impact of the bullet pushed the head of the croc under water. It came up again. The brother who was known for his soft demeanor screamed – shoot it again. Again the point blank explosion, and then another one.  With amazing courage the brother with spear in hand jumped into the water and speared the crock in the belly. He tied it with a rope and we dragged it to shore. We could smell the decaying meat from its mouth. The brother dragged it to the village hanging it from a tree where the villagers celebrated its death. How many had it killed?

The next day, with testimonial paper in hand and the croc in the back of the truck, I brought it to the police station. The officer reading the testimony and seeing the croc said the greatest words I could here at that moment. “Job well done.”   All week long people came to the police station to be photographed next to the croc. I found out later that they thought I was a sharp shooter.
To this very day I remember this event as if it was yesterday.  More than anything else, I am humbled before the greatness of God who revealed His mercy to a village who loved Him. Victory belongs to our God.

Psalm 18:17f  “He reached down from on high and seized me; drew me out of the deep waters.  He rescued me from my mighty enemy, from foes too powerful for me.  They attacked me on a day of distress, but the LORD came to my support.  He set me free in the open; he rescued me because He loves me.”

The Lord give you His peace.

Father Patrick of the Immaculata FLHF