Never get between a hippo and the water. In fact, avoid wild hippos in general. It’s okay to look at them through binoculars from the safety of a safari vehicle, but that’s about it.
These are the warnings that run through my mind as I stand on a muddy bank with the man known as Tanzania’s hippo whisperer.
Ten to 15 hippos lounge in the water nearby. Pink ears and dark eyes pop up in the murky water, while hippo calves swim around contentedly. Weighing up to 100 pounds at birth, they know that they already own this pond. There are crocodiles here too, but it’s the hippos you need to watch out for.
It occurs to me that Yahya Selemani Engema isn’t nervous. He appears so relaxed that I wonder if he knows the hippo’s reputation as an aggressive, territorial beast.
“So do you think hippos are dangerous?” I ask.
“I know hippos are dangerous,” he says through a translator, adding that he has seen the animals kill people in other areas.
“But these hippos aren’t dangerous. I’m used to them.”
Hippos are notoriously some of Africa’s deadliest animals. It’s an oft-cited statistic that they kill more humans every year compared to any other land animal on the continent. Adult male hippos can weigh more than 6,000 pounds and can outrun you, reaching speeds of more than 30 kilometres per hour. If they feel threatened, they will easily trample you to death.
But Engema says at this sacred pool, he doesn’t worry for visitors’ safety, even when the hippos venture onto land. These animals are part of his family.
I searched for Engema after hearing rumours of his special relationship with hippos. But finding him in the remote village of Makangaga presents a challenge — as in, you need the GPS coordinates for a place that isn’t on a map.
The journey requires a reliable car that’s able to navigate dusty roads punctured by potholes. During the rainy season, these roads are often inaccessible because of flooding. But in the dry season, Makangaga springs up at the edge of tangled forest.
The sleepy village is made up of mud-brick huts with thatched roofs. It’s the kind of place where people depend on a make-shift petrol station if they want to leave. This involves filling old plastic water bottles with fuel and placing them on a precarious wooden stand in the middle of the village.
Residents here know that newcomers are eager to see Engema. He is the only man who can find the hippos.
When you ask for him, each person points further down the road. One man finally explains that Engema can be found near a particular baobab tree. Baobabs do well as major landmarks here.
Engema is a quiet man, carrying a bag of dried fish in one hand. He climbs in the car and points towards a wooded area in the distance. The car trundles through the forest, skimming over thick undergrowth.
After reaching a small clearing, Engema explains that it’s a short walk to the sacred pool, where he will call upon the hippos.
Walking in flip flops, he leads the way through the dense trees, and begins to sing softly in the local language of Mchinga.
“I’m asking permission to see the hippos,” he says. “I inherited the technique.”
Engema, 57, is a third generation hippo whisperer. He says his mother and grandmother used to come here in the past, and taught him how to call the animals. He took over the roll after his mother died in 1983.
“I want people to visit the hippos and protect them,” he says.
He is concerned about the future of these animals. There used to be more than 30 living here, but now that number has halved at least. He believes it’s because farmland is encroaching on their habitat. In the rainy season, the pool floods and the hippos wander into the village. They disturb nearby farms while villagers try and corral the animals to return them to the pool.
Standing next to Engema on the edge of the water, with the hippos 15 metres away, I worry that they might come ashore. But he assures me that these animals are different than their brutish counterparts, which you can spot in Tanzania’s various national parks.
There weren’t always hippos living in the sacred pool.
“Previously this was a place for sacrifice,” he says, adding that villagers would bring offerings to the shore and pray. Faith in Engema’s village is underpinned by traditional beliefs.
Years ago, he says, one of his ancestors went missing after going fishing. Villagers searched for Chimomo for a full week, but ultimately assumed he had drowned. One day Chimomo’s family searched the pool, hoping to find his body and put him to rest.
One male hippo was in the sacred pool.
The villagers believed Chimomo had turned into the hippo, and asked the animal to confirm this was the case.
“He responded as a hippo,” Engema says, matter-of-factly. He adds that the hippos multiplied and host the spirits of his ancestors, Chimomo’s family.
Now when villagers pray at the sacred pool, they dedicate the prayers to Chimomo. Every December, the villagers go to the sacred pool with offerings, including goats and chickens, for a festival meant to help protect the animals.
And there is never a concern that the hippos will harm someone.
“They are used to people, because they are relatives,” Engema says.
He is teaching his own children and grandchildren how to sing to the hippos so that they are protected when he’s gone. He says his mother and grandmother would be happy that he has kept them safe. While he accepts donations, Engema doesn’t ask visitors for payment.
“This is a unique place,” he says. He wants more people to visit and learn about the hippos. “Once people come here they will enjoy it.”
When asked if he will become a hippo when he dies, Engema smirks.
“I’m not sure, but it could happen.”
This story was originally published in The Citizen on March 6.