Frederick Courtney Selous, the pioneer and hunter, described it as "the most mournful and weird sound in nature"
;. It was that same sound that deranged Hemingway's hero as he lay dying from gangrene below the snows of Kilimanjaro. Even today the eerie, long-drawn-out whooping of Impisi (the hyaena) on night patrol sends rural Venda, Bakalanga, Bemba, Gogo and other tribesmen scurrying for the safety of their huts. Demons will nevertheless stalk their dreams, for they know that the smelly, slinking, slope-backed scavenger carries a villainous witch, her maniacal cackling incantations casting vile spells on those out during the night. Dripping "hyaena butter", the creature scent-marks its passage across the silenced savannah.
The hyaena's association with evil goes back many years. It all began, say the Dinka of Sudan, when the first hyaena maliciously gnawed off the rope linking earth to heaven and thus deprived man of his ladder to immortality. Later, among Shaka's Zulu impi (warriors), any man found with smooth, hairless inner thighs was obviously guilty of riding the sorcerer's mount and therefore summarily executed as a messenger of evil.
Following on, Lobengula had old female slaves pegged out to appease Impisi and thus ward off evil spirits. Likewise any of his indunas (warriors) using a hyaena tail as a fly swot suffered a rapid demise, because this caused much-dreaded drought, famine and pestilence. In fact, so great has been man's fear of this creature that even today many Africans will never touch, let alone kill, the animal and the Somalis still inter their dearly departed deep below hyaena-proof mounds. Secretly, sorcerers continue to stir hyaena snouts and testicles into poisonous concoctions in order to ensure their potency.
For the people of Africa there are a number of oddities that confirm Impisi's evilness: the female genitals look like those of the male; they generally give birth to twins; often one is stillborn while the other arrives with Dracula-like canines and incisors fully erupted. If these are not portentous, what is? And, of course, Impisi is a creature of the dark - the sneaky, loping one that even lions fear - and the only bush inhabitant that marks its passing with ghostly white defecations. But if you don't think any of that is demonic, then take a walk alone into the bush and listen closely to the "mournful and weird" whooping of the African night.