The stupidest thing I’ve ever done brought me dangerously close to a lion.
Living in northeastern Kenya where I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the ’70s was like living in a game park. Wild animals were commonplace. There were crocodiles in the river that I rode my motorcycle through (no bridge). I often spotted gazelles, dikdiks and zebras running through the bush. Baboons and monkeys were common—one monkey even tried to steal the freshly made bread out of my kitchen.
For those of you who saw the 1960s movie Born Free about Joy and George Adamson and their lioness Elsa, you may be interested to know that I met the real Joy Adamson—she was still living in the area but had moved on to working with leopards.
You would think that my everyday game sightings would be enough. Not for me and my husband. One weekend we rode our motorcycles a few hours deeper into the bush and set up our tent at an animal watering spot. We made a fire, cooked dinner and as the sun set, had a front-row seat to the beauty of nature as many animals made their way to the river to drink. It was fantastic—no one around—just us and the animals!
It was about midnight when we were awakened by a lion roaring behind our tent. It was terrifying. Our fire had burned down. Too afraid to leave our tent, we reached out for whatever we could find and threw it on the fire, hoping it would encourage the lion to move on. The roaring continued. Not having a car to take refuge in, at one point I suggested my husband start his motorcycle, thinking the noise would scare the lion away. My husband was wiser than me and “politely” declined (“Are you crazy?”).
For hours we lived in absolute fear, hearing the lion, thinking it would attack any minute and we would be killed. In complete exhaustion, we fell asleep shortly before dawn.
I hadn’t thought of that night in years. That is until recently when Kony 2012 made the news. ChildFund works in northern Uganda and was among the first groups to respond to the needs children who had become “night commuters” during those horrible years. Afraid of being abducted, or worse, by Kony and his followers, children living in rural areas gathered each night and slept together in large groups, praying for safety in numbers
Like me when I heard the lion, I imagine those children slept only when exhausted, fearing for their lives at any moment. Unlike me, it was not their poor judgment that put their lives in danger. They slept in fear for years because they were vulnerable and lived in an impoverished country with an uncontrolled madman at large.
ChildFund responded with programs in some of the worst affected districts of Pader, Gulu, Lira and Soroti in northern Uganda. We provided child protection and psychosocial support to thousands of children in the large camps of internally displaced people (IDPs). The last decade, since Kony fled Uganda, has seen IDPs returning to their homes and gradually returning to their normal lives.
Things always look less scary in the daylight. That morning in Kenya, my husband and I awoke with a start, and when we ventured out, we found lion prints about 10 feet behind our tent. We felt the thrill and the high that comes with surviving.
I hope the former night children of Uganda have found some peace in their own survival. I also pray that Kony and his followers are finally stopped and brought to justice.