Memories of a Startled Hippo, a Bald-headed Pygmy, and a Rhino Foot Ashtray

In 1969, during a summer break from teaching in Ghana, I organized a trip for my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers to East Africa.  About thirty of us flew to Kenya and spent a few weeks exploring the wildlife parks, the meerschaum pipe factory in Arusha, Tanzania, and the pygmies along the Uganda/Congo border. It was an eye-opening trip, as we each brought back memories that continue to live with us nearly forty years later. For me it was hiking by myself to the top of Murchison Falls in Uganda, stopping to rest by a large boulder in the forest, only to discover that the boulder was the backside of a hippopotamus.  When that hippo turned on a dime and breathed in my face, its ears twitching as it looked at me like some annoying branch it might break in two between its enormous jaws, I froze long enough to keep the hippo from charging (or swallowing) me. Then I slowly stepped backwards, keeping my eyes locked on his, and in those few moments, which felt like an eternity, I somehow was able to communicate with this glorious beast that I meant it no harm.

For one of the women in our group, it was her encounter with a pygmy woman who was so annoyed with our meager offerings to snap her photo that she picked up a rock to throw at the windshield of our rented car. “Mammy, mammy,” our volunteer shouted, taking a clip from her hair as a peace offering. The pygmy dropped the stone and took the hairclip, smiling broadly. What struck us all was that this woman was bald.

And for my friend Mark it was an unusual item he found at a gift shop in Nairobi. “Take a look at this,” he said.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s a rhino foot ashtray.”

“That’s got to be the worst souvenir in the history of travel,” I said.

“What are you talking about?” he said. “It’s a conversation piece.”

“No doubt,” I said. “It will generate some very uncomfortable conversation.”

My friend looked puzzled and annoyed with me. He played down the two other items he had bought: a large turtle’s shell and an alligator’s claw on a stick, which was sold as a backscratcher.

Those items became a code of reference between us over the years. When Mark bought a house or a new piece of furniture, I would ask him if he would be displaying the rhino’s foot or the turtle’s shell. It got to a point where he finally said, “You know what, when I die, I’m going to leave them to you.”

“Please don’t,” I said.

As time passed, I’m relieved to say, Mark saw the error of his youth.  “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he said, disgusted with himself for having brought those things with him from Kenya to Ghana to Denver, New York, and finally Los Angeles. But he never got rid of them. He kept them in a box, and I wondered whether he kept them as a reminder of his foolishness or because he just couldn’t part with something that cost him whatever he might have paid for them.

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