When we are in the States on furlough and mention to people that we live in Africa, their eyes usually get big, and they say something like, “Wow, Africa! Do you get to see lions, giraffes, and elephants all the time?” Then we explain that we don’t have those animals where we live in Mali. In Kangaba, we actually see very few wild animals. Sometimes we see a squirrel, and hedgehogs wander through randomly. They are very cute with their sharp little spines and the way they curl up when they are afraid, but they do stink. While out walking in the bush one morning, Neil came upon a group of monkeys. That was quite a thrill for him, but it has only happened once. We do see many beautiful birds, from magnificent hornbills to beautiful iridescent blue and black birds that frequent the trees behind our house. But usually our animal viewing is limited to the goats and sheep that wander by our house. Goats are cute, especially the babies, but seeing them doesn’t bring the same thrill that I imagine seeing a lion would.
Several years ago, we were driving in Bamako on one of the bridges that crosses the Niger River when we noticed traffic slowing down and stopping in front of us. People were leaning over the bridge railing and peering down at the river. Caught up in the mass curiosity, we craned our necks along with everyone else. Down in the river, a roly-poly hippopotamus floated in the water, looking up at us, mirroring our curiosity. Hippos are not a common sight in Bamako. I felt sorry for all the gardeners of lettuce and other vegetables along the river banks, but it was an amazing experience to briefly see a large wild animal in its natural environment. That was the only hippo we had seen in five years—until about a week ago.
I was working on lunch when Neil called me. Excitedly, he told me that he and a friend were standing on the bank of the Niger River looking at a hippopotamus floating out in the water, about 100 yards from the main canoe and ferry crossing for our area. Where we live, the Niger River is more than half a mile wide during rainy season. During the dry season, it shrinks to barely a third of that. The water that remains runs in a fairly deep channel, and the ferry and canoes go back and forth carrying motorcycles and people. Why would the hippo be staying so close to people? Neil’s friend said that some people were saying the hippo was actually a person who had taken the form of a hippo, so that is why it was comfortable near the river traffic. We don’t believe in shape-shifting, but at least the rumor meant the hippo was likely safe from hunters, at least for a while.
Of course, the kids and I wanted to see the hippo, too. So Neil came back to our house, and we all hopped into the pick-up truck and bumped and rattled our way through town and out to the river. After walking for some distance across the low-water bridge, a concrete pathway across part of the river that can only be traveled during dry season, we reached the edge of the channel. There was the hippo, floating out in the water, looking like a big gray rock. We returned to the canoe crossing, and there we saw the hippo raise his head and yawn. The people around us said we could hire a canoe and go right up to him. Considering that hippos are responsible for a large proportion of animal-related deaths in Africa, we declined.
Neil has been back to the river since then, and the hippo is gone. We don’t know if someone shot him or if he simply continued down the river in search of food. We thank God for giving us this special gift of seeing one of His creatures. The Bambara word for hippo is mali, and we are happy to have seen a mali in Mali!