Amidst the forested regions of Africa’s western Wembare Plains, there are many stories told of strange animals. Well-known in the local African traditions, the stories of encounters with these creatures remain obscure to the minds of people in most other parts of the world, save only for the occasions when foreigners have had experiences of their own that would shake their skepticism of such folk beliefs.
It was in such a place–the Simbiti woodlands–in the year 1900 that Captain William Hitchens had his own encounter with a pair of mysterious animals, which were unlike anything he had seen in Africa, or anyplace else.
“They were like little men,” Hitchens described, recalling the creatures and their odd behavior nearly four decades later. “[They were] walking upright, but clad in russet hair.” The native guide with Hitchens, despite being a local, seemed equally astonished by the appearance of the two diminutive, hairy humanoids, looking on at the creatures “in mingled fear and amazement.”
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“They were, he said, agogwe, the little furry men whom one does not see once in a lifetime.”
Hitchens wrote of his encounter with the creatures, and of other animals said to lurk in the darkened African forests, in Discovery magazine in 1937. The article provoked attacks from his more skeptical colleagues and members of the scientific establishment, all of whom scoffed at the idea of creatures like the fearsome khodumodumo, which translates to mean “gaping-mouthed-bush monster,” to reports of the massive, snake-like lukwata, which is said to inhabit some lakes and rivers.
Much as Hitchens’s article illustrated decades ago, some of the most peculiar–and tantalizing–reports of “mystery beasts” come out of Africa. Among the most famous is the mokele m’bembe, an alleged animal that is said to resemble a brontosaurus which resides around Lake Tele. In 1927, an account of a similar creature appeared in Chamber’s Journal, describing a lizard-headed animal some likened to being a brontosaurus which was said to reside around Lake Edward:
That there is a monster in Lake Edward—a mysterious beast called the irizima; and irizima means ‘the-thing-that-may-not-be-spoken-of.’
This mystery animal, the irizima, is said by some to be like a gigantic hippopotamus with the horns of a rhinoceros upon its head. Not long ago a madcap fellow trekked up from the Cape and plunged into the Congo forests to catch it. He declared that he saw it crashing through the reeds of a swamp, and that it was the brontosaurus—a huge marsh animal, ten times as big as the biggest elephant. In the Cape Town clubs they called him a liar; but a famous American scientific institute guessed better, and sent out an expedition to capture this ‘brontosaurus.’ It was never caught. Mishaps dogged the expedition and spoiled all chance of capturing the mystery monster.
The Chamber’s Journal piece was attributed to an author who went by the mysterious moniker “Fulahn,” although it is understood that this was merely the pen name of none other than Hitchens himself (perhaps he used it in order to redirect some of the criticism that followed publication of such seemingly outlandish ideas).
The article also gave descriptions of the swamp-dwelling irizima which denoted legs like a hippopotamus, “an elephant’s trunk, a lizard’s head, and an aardvark’s tail.” To have both a small head like that of a lizard and a proboscis-like appendage similar to a pachyderm would seem most unnatural; hence, the passage here might be intended to convey a long, serpentine neck, rather than an actual trunk. If this is the correct interpretation, then once again, the characteristics begin to resemble one of the extinct saurian species of the late Jurrasic epoch.
Among the other creatures Hitchens recounted in his writings was something called the kerit or, more commonly, the “Nandi Bear.” This describes a large animal that some hunters reportedly mistook at times for being a type of lion, but which appeared to possess characteristics vaguely resembling some ursid species. In the following account, Hitchens provides a description, based upon the account of two well-known hunters of his day:
One of the best accounts is that of Major Braithwaite and Mr. C. Kenneth Archer, two well-known Kenya colonists, whose experience and word are not lightly to be imputed in such matters. They saw the animal in grass and scrub and took it for a lioness; later, a side-view of its head gave the impression of a snout, the head being very large, while the beast stood very high forward, 4 ft. 3 ins. to 4 ft. 6 ins. at the shoulder. “The back,” they say, “sloped steeply to the hindquarters and the animal moved with a shambling gait which can best be compared with the shuffle of a bear. The coat was thick and dark brown in colour. Finally, the beast broke into a shambling trot and made for a belt of trees near the river, where it was lost.”
The accounts of the existence of such creatures given by Hitchens–and those given pseudonymously by his alter ego, “Fulahn”–are certainly tantalizing. Their significance is dimmed slightly, perhaps, by testimony from Hitchens and others involving belief in such things as lycanthropy, “skinwalkers,” and other mystical abilities (see H.M. Digby’s December 1930 article, “Men Animals of West Africa,” which discusses a few more of Hitchens’s unusual African adventures).
Although Hitchens wrote sensational stories, and promoted the existence of mystery beasts in his heyday–cryptozoology as it is known today–he is far from being the only one to have discussed seeing such things. Perhaps there is more than a grain of truth to a few of the stories… and if so, perhaps there is also more mystery to the wilds of remote Africa than anyone knows.