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A tree hyrax
A tree hyrax

Written by Pritpal Sandhu

Musoma hill in Tanzania has played a very prominent part in my life, particularly the period when as a child I first became aware of my surroundings and from there all the way to early adulthood. My association with the well-forested hill made up of huge granite boulders started when my father, who worked for the Judiciary, was assigned a government bungalow in the late forties early fifties period, at the base of the hill on the south side, facing the Sokoni (a local market).

This was during the British colonial period in Tanganyika. Musoma was at the time a small frontier town surrounded by wilderness to the degree that the hill was inhabited by a very diverse fauna. This fauna included a clan of fisis (hyenas), troops of vervet monkeys, masses of hyraxes, a few porcupines, a small numbers of pythons and a leopard. Not to mention the mini fauna, such as the family groups of mongoose, occasional civets and genets, grass snakes as well as the numerous brown and yellow-striped rock skinks and lounges of ‘noddies’ (red- and blue-headed agamas) sprawled all over the rocks, nodding their heads in a contest with their rivals. In the hill was a rich habitat for the avifauna, which included large wakes of black kites, gangs of crows, a few hawks, two pairs of fish eagles and numbers of small perching birds.

Musoma Hill viewed from Mitchell’s Point © Pritpal Singh Sandhu

My father was a keen outdoorsman and naturalist. Soon after I was able to walk, my father started taking me out with him on his outdoor exploration trips, so I was quite familiar with both the day and night time animal sounds of the African savanna. This was a time long before the arrival of electricity in Musoma.

Our house used to be lit by Aladdin lamps and hurricane lanterns after the sun went down each evening and the curtain of night fell abruptly on the town of Musoma. After work, once the sun set, my parents liked going for walks around the Musoma hill. My Dad usually carried a flash light with him to illuminate the way, especially if it was overcast and the light from the stars was hidden.

During those times, the Gymkhana club (at the base of the hill on the west side) had built a fine dance floor right on top of the hill, where the ground was even. They also build a dirt road up the hill, starting from the end of Bazaar Street and climbing gently for a short distance up to the small hill, from where the climb became quite steep, and the last portion with abrupt turns and drainage rills could only be negotiated by cars in the first gear with the judicious use of the handbrake.

This road terminated at a small parking spot a short distance from the dance floor, and was given the name “Lucy’s Folly”. Besides this road, the club also built a stairway made of flat rocks from the back of the club house, climbing steeply through the wilderness of granite boulders, cacti, Maasai sisal and euphorbias all the way to the dance floor. On festive occasions, many a jolly dance parties were celebrated by the club members on the moonlit dance floor.

At the time, the road, the dance floor, and the stairway were the only artefacts on this large wilderness hill. The Musoma town water tanks did not exist, and most of the town’s people got their water from the lake with the assistance of water carriers, while the government quarters were served by a tractor-towed bowser that delivered water to the rain water tanks outside each government quarter. The huge flat rocks where later the town administration built the Musoma water tank, used to be a favourite picnic spot for our family as well as visiting guests. This was a spectacular rock providing fine views of the south side of town, and just beyond it one could scramble up some rocks and get a wonderful view of the east side of town as well as the whole of Mara Bay across to Kinesi.

I would not be surprised if in the past the resident leopard used it as a vantage point to keep an eye on the game below.

A red-headed agama
A red-headed agama © Pritpal Singh Sandhu

As we lived at the base of the big hill, my dad used to take us and our visiting relatives and friends on foot up the hill for picnics at the large rock during daylight. I recall once when he showed me a warren of tunnels with strange white droppings and informed me that these were bone-rich fisi (hyena) droppings. The fisis have very powerful jaws and consume bones to extract nutrients, excreting a white, bone-rich stool. Besides the droppings these tunnels were full of bones, which included occasional human bones dug up by the fisis out of shallow graves during their nightly excursions into the hinterland around town.

On one occasion when examining these tunnels we spotted a human skull. At that time I was still a small child, and my mind was filled with tales of witches and witch doctors (wachawi) accompanied by their evil companions, the fisis, that our ayah Chausiku (our housekeeper) used to tell us. In some of the stories the witches could turn themselves into fisis and perform their evil deeds, while in others the witches used fisis as their mounts.

In my small child’s mind I imagined the witches and their fisi companions had brought the skull up the hill during the night to perform some nefarious ceremony to bewitch someone with their evil incantations. Living where we were, I was very familiar with fisi calls and cackles, as these sounds nightly serenaded me to sleep and at dawn woke me up to the new day as the fisis made their way back up the hill behind out house, to hide in their caves.

One full moon night, it so happened that our family group and my dad’s friend, the revenue officer, were walking down from the dance floor area, engrossed in conversation, shining our torches on the steep rugged road bed to avoid tripping and on the surrounding vegetation to avoid brushing against the leaves of the giant tree nettle. When out of the darkness we were startled by very strange sounds, followed by screams and shrieks.

When the sounds first caught my ear they were loud cracking sounds resembling those made when pushing open a rusty gate, which were then followed by a series of unearthly screams, which ended in a descending series of expiring shrieks as if someone was dying and breathing their last.

These sounds terrified me, almost making me jump out of my skin! I thought that just around the corner we would be encountering a group of witches who had opened a mysterious gate and were in the process of murdering someone. My child’s mind was filled with apprehension.

I rushed over and held my dad’s hand for reassurance as we all came to a halt and all conversation ceased. It was a very long, suspenseful, nail-biting moment, with my mind conjuring up crazy scenarios, before I heard my dad’s voice reassuring us.

“The sounds are nothing to worry about, as they are being made by a tree hyrax – Perere – announcing its territorial ownership,” he said.

This caused us all to breathe a sigh of relief.

The cute tree hyrax from Musoma hill that produces one of the most terrifying, bizarre, startling and unearthly night time call sequences in nature. Note the sensory guard hairs throughout its coat allowing it to feel its immediate surroundings in the dark. © Pritpal Singh Sandhu

Later when we resumed our descent after being reassured, I learnt from him that besides the two species of diurnal rock hyraxes, our hill also harboured the crepuscular and nocturnal tree hyrax. The male of this species has large air pouches and an enlarged larynx with which it produces and projects this frightening calling sequence. He also explained to me that these animals did not emerge from their hiding places till dark and were active through the night, and on average had two peak calling periods, one after dark and the other well past midnight.

By the time we made it back home, my mind was still excited by the strange sounds I had heard.

That night it was a long time before I could fall asleep, with my mind struggling between tearing away the cobwebs of the witches tales told to me by the housekeeper, and the explanation that my dad had provided in his calm voice.

This incident was an early experience that taught me not to jump to conclusions when hearing strange sounds in the nighttime woods, but to be analytical, as there was always a rational and sometimes fascinating explanation to be discovered.

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