In the summer of 1986, the time between my sophomore and junior year at Nyack College, I went on a summer long missionary assignment to West Africa.
It was an exciting time; we travelled through the jungle and bush land to get to the missionary compound in Burkina Faso. The culture was in the throes of change, pro Khadafy militants had just seized the capital the year before and the country was full of militants with guns. Even the children had guns! I remember well our driver giving a ride to a girl of 8 or 9 who wielded an AK-47 very nonchalantly as it bounced up and down with the barrel pointed toward my head as we made our way down the pot hole littered dirt road in the wilderness. Yes, these were exciting times indeed!
But however chilling the civil turmoil was at the time, the real off putting situations in which I found myself in that summer were in the realm of the supernatural.
I've talked about some of them before, most notably the encounter with a cryptid worshiped as a god of fertility by locals around Banfora. But most of my time in Burkina Faso was on the road, going from remote town to remote town to preach, sing and show a movie on the life of Christ. We would pull into a small remote town on the savanna which was home to a mere handful of mud brick buildings in the afternoon and by evening the entire area was filled with thousands of people. They had come from miles around just to see a movie and hear songs songs and a message. In the evening, after the show, we often had a wide array of hosts who gave us a place to sleep overnight. Some were indigenous church leaders, fellow missionaries and relief workers.
It was one evening after a large gathering in a remote village that I had a very odd and disturbing encounter at a relief worker’s home.
The relief worker welcomed us into his small home. He was in the deep savannah to help with agricultural and modern infrastructures for the many small villages in the area. In this remote location, the well water was infested with parasites. The outhouses were crawling with flying cockroaches that were a half foot long. And the house itself was small, there was only one bedroom. So with a group of our size, one person had to sleep outside and I volunteered. There were rumors of bands of robbers that traversed the scant forested areas that appeared hodge podge over the countryside. While they rarely came close to these remote villages, I was told to take my bush knife with me as I made my bed atop our aged and battered Land Rover.
The village was located on the edge of one of the sparse wooded areas, where most of the trees were cultivated bananas of various height. The dirt road where the aid worker resided contained six to eight mud brick buildings and a few concrete block houses. The wide road was one of two in the village and it was on the main north-south highway that connected the larger towns to the south with the capital to the north. The only electricity in the area came from our generators which lay within the Rover that I slept upon, so the street was pitch black.
The darkness that you encountered at night in Africa is different than the darkness which you encounter during nights in most American cities. Often in America the light pollution dulls the brilliance of the night sky; but in Africa with there not being a light for almost a hundred miles, the skies are alive.
I was lying back enjoying the view of the cosmos before me when I heard something move at the end of the street. Lying flat, I tilted my head in the direction of the noise and in the pitch black I saw movement. It was something BIG. A large black shape meandered through the street, heading slowly in my direction. I froze in fear as I realized this massive shape moved on four legs, with a pronounced pelvic swing as it moved. If I was in North America, I would have sworn that it was a bear that was moving through that deserted evening street in darkest Africa. But it was Africa, and there were no such native creatures as this for hundreds of miles. Lions once roamed the savanna territory, but the last one to be seen in the area was over a hundred years before this. Whatever it was, it made its way to the parked Rover and began to circle the vehicle. I barely heard a thing, but I saw the shadow pace around the vehicle for a tense minute or two. I had slowly pulled my bush blade out of its sheath, expecting whatever animal it was to suddenly jump in attack. But it never did. Whatever it was finally walked away and I heard the occasional ruffle slowly recede behind me.
What was it I encountered that hot summer in Africa decades ago?
Was it a straying lion, roaming back into ancestral territory? Physically, that could be the only explanation. However, there were old missionary stories of shaman who could shape shift and prowl the savanna at night. Many had claimed to see a shaman transform into a giant snake or jungle cat. Or could it have been a territorial spirit, taking a shape to inspire fear? I had heard many stories as such while in the area as well. Or maybe it was the specter of a long lost pride of lions who had roamed the area for millennia until climate change had turned their lush jungle into a dry desert borderland.
I will never know, but I am glad it went away. I had never prayed so hard in my life.
Until Next Time,