The Scacred Crocodile Pond
THE SACRED CROCODILE
I had passed the Paga crocodile pond on numerous occasions since my arrival in Ghana and was aware that it was a tourist lure and attraction of some sort, but hadn’t been sufficiently curious to stop and pay to watch huge reptile do their act on chickens. I had no fascination for these ugly beast or their eating habits, and wasn’t interested in getting to know them on a more personal basis. To me, looking at a pond full of crocs was like watching a cage full of rattle snakes in the San Antonio zoo. Your brain tells you the snakes can’t get out to harm you, but one couldn’t deny the innate sensation of fear and revulsion the nearness to the reptiles would trigger in your subconsciousness.
The small pond was off to the left of the gravel highway and about two hundred yards behind the Paga Chief’s bar and the village soccer field. As the chief was nowhere in sight, we turned off the road and drove across open fields to the edge of the murky water. Several pairs of evil eyes looked hungrily at us from just above the water’s surface. We could see nothing else - only those evil menacing eyes which looked like large black, glassy marbles.
"Now, tell me more about this pond, Mr. Bawah," I said as we strolled along. My eyes moved back and forth, first on the ground ahead of us - then, anxiously to all sides. I had been advised that crocs often sunned themselves along the banks and waited in hiding behind brush for a small animal, or a child to walk by on their way to the water. When very hungry, they are known to attack large animals and even people.
"Its like I said before, sah. There was always a small natural lake here - and it always had got a lot of crocodiles. These Paga people think the crocodiles are their dead ancestors come back to life. They say when a person dies, a new crocodile is born. If you see a baby crocodile, then you know that your dead relative is in there. So years ago, the old Paga chief - who was a fine man - asked my senior officer to make a better place for the crocodiles. We came here in the dry season and dug a deep hole right here - and put the dirt in the dam like you see. In the big rains, the water runs around the dam. not over it, so it don’t wash away."
"So why does the Paramount Chief want us to do something more here?"
"Cause by now, the deep pit has silted up and the lake is so shallow it almost evaporates every dry season." He paused, pulled in a deep breath through his mouth, as if attempting to avoid the sour stench hanging over the pond area like a steaming blanket, then cut his gaze sideways to watch my reaction as he continued.
"When the pond gets too low, all the crocodiles come into Paga at night looking for food and water. They always kill many chickens - even pigs and goats. Sometimes … they even take small children back into the pond.
"What … they take children?" I responded, feeling my face twist with anger at the revelation.
"Yes, sah…the people don’t do nothing about it - cause they think their ancestors are doing it.
"So, the Paga chief wants a new dam and a deeper lake for these filthy creatures."
"Yes sah, but not at this place. He wants it further away from town. The people will catch and move the crocodiles to the new lake and drain this one to make a better football field."
During our conversation, a thin, crippled leprous old man had hobbled near us. One foot had been eaten away by his advanced disease and he used a bush stick as a crutch. He carried two scrawny chickens with strings tied to their legs.
"That man wants to sell us those chickens to feed to the crocodiles."
"How much do the birds cost?"
"He will ask one pound each because you are a white man, but I can buy them for five shillings each, which is the fair market price."
So … I argued with myself… we were at the pond and the crocs in the muddy water were watching us and the chickens. So why not go for it? Watch the feeding frenzy of the crocs at least one time. I fished around in my pockets and found two crown coins which we handed to the leper.
Now I was ready to see what this old man does with the chickens. It must be something to pull in nearly every passing tourist, I thought, bracing myself - ready for what I suspected would be an unpleasant sight.
The old man limped to the edge of the pool and began calling to the crocs. I couldn’t understand his words. He spoke in an eerie high-pitched, wavering sing-song. It sounded like space music in a cheap sci-fi movie. But within a few seconds, many more sets of beady eyes were popping up on the muddy surface, then long thorny spines appeared behind the eyes and soon tails were visible. Some of the beast began to swim slowly towards the old man - it was if they had been called. All of the reptiles eyes were transfixed on the chickens lying on the ground - held in check by their leg strings.
As the crocs neared the shore, the old man cautiously edged backwards - dragging the now petrified chickens along with him. Now he began to sing is a clear pidgin English and calling individual names as if he knew them all personally. Could he recognize them? How often had he fed them before? Hadn’t he called himself the ‘crocodile chief’?
Closer swam the crocs while the old man crept further back with his terrified fowls. It was a game they had all played over and over, countless times. For centuries - other old men had sacrificed other helpless creatures to the ancient ancestors of these beasts.
One by one, a dozen or more of the giant reptiles emerged from the pond, slowly crawling onto high ground. Never once did they take their eyes from the chickens. I was sure they had somehow hypnotized the birds. I realized that I too was being mesmerized by this spectacle of eminent cruel and sudden death facing the chickens. Surely, such deaths occur naturally within the normal feeding chain of all creatures. After all, I too ate many chickens without giving a thought to their manner of death. However, these birds were obviously going to be consumed alive.
The old leper carefully selected a particular croc for the initial feast. He picked up both chickens and sidled in front of that one. I guessed that this one would have measured over four yards in total length.
Carefully looping the leg string of one chicken around the big toe of his remaining foot, he laid the poor, nearly comatose bird in the grass behind him - hiding it from the crocs view. The other chicken’s leg sting was tied carefully to one of his fingers and he then began throwing the frightened bird forward - purposefully landing it five or six feet in front of the waiting beast. He was like a fly fisherman casting his lure in front of a prime mountain trout. The leper would slowly pull the fluttering, squawking, flopping bird back towards him - as the reptile crept closer - only to cast it out anew.
"Makee come old grandfather," he chanted over and over in a falsetto feminine-like voice. "Makee come chop… makee see white man you chop…makee come … come chop..?
The lucky selected croc had now slithered to within about a meter of the fear-crazed fowl. I never knew a chicken could shake from fright, but this one now seemed to be in a full scale epileptic fit at that moment.
I had the premonition that if somehow this chicken could be reprieved from the certain horrible death of being eater alive, it could never be a normal, happy, bug-chasing bird again. Perhaps it would just lapse into a coma and starve to death. Anyway, I was now ready to see the croc feed.
"Watch closely now," Mr. Bawah whispered softly in my ear … not wanting to interrupt the old man’s performance or his deep concentration of the croc’s slightest movement.
So I watched, I watched very closely … I even watched intently. The croc was obviously now in an attack mode. It was almost, but not quite, flat upon the ground. Its short legs were bent and poised like a dash racers legs as he tensed to leap from the starting blocks.
There was a rustle … a stirring … but it had been quicker than my eyes could possibly follow. In the smallest fraction of a second, the croc had lunged across the remaining distance and by the time my eyes could focus again, I saw only the croc. The tip of a chicken wing protruded from one side of his mouth and a twitching lower leg from the other. The huge jaws then seemed to settle and mesh closer together. Spare chicken parts and a few feathers dropped cleanly to the ground. There followed a swallowing motion and a chicken-sized lump could be seen moving slowly down the reptile’s throat. The large beast then wheeled about and dashed for the water where it immediately sank from sight. The digestive process had begun.