Sicelo Mbatha and his classmates used to walk 15 kilometers and swim across three rivers to get to their South African primary school. It was especially grueling when it had rained heavily in the summer and the rivers rose and raged.

“When it rained during the school day,” says Sicelo, “the teachers would release the younger children earlier so they didn’t have to walk home in the rain. But by the time we reached the rivers, most were inundated, and because we had been released before the older children, there was no one older and taller to help us cross.

Right after turning seven, Sicelo and his friends were crossing one of the rivers with his cousin Sanele, who was two years older than him. Sanele was the best swimmer in the group.

“He often helped us across and also helped prevent our plastic supermarket bags that we carried our school books in from floating in the water,” Sicelo recalls.

On that rainy summer day, the river was overflowing and the water had turned muddy. Some children wanted to wait for the older ones to help them through, but they didn’t come for a few hours, and everyone was getting colder and colder, their clothes soaked. So they agreed to hold hands in a line across the river and carefully crossed one by one with their legs in the water.

The blood made the water red

Yet in what was to become the most terrifying moment in Sicelo’s life, his cousin Sanele’s hand was suddenly torn off. “I looked down,” says Sicelo, “and I could only see the hustle and bustle of the splashing water, and the top of the crocodile’s head, Sanele’s white T-shirt – and the blood transforming it. muddy water in a red color. I was terrified.”

Sicelo’s white school shirt was also stained with blood. “I managed to get hold of Sanele again,” he says, “but he kept disappearing under the water. “

One of the girls tried to pull Sanele too, while another girl was crying on the shore, and Sicelo used all the strength he had at the age of seven to pull his cousin out of the mouth of the crocodile, until he felt Sanele’s hand relax. in his.

“I continued to hold his hand even though I knew the crocodile had won, until at some point his hand slipped from mine and he was gone.” Sicelo remembers Sanele’s plastic bag floating in the water, as the elders (adults) came with spears to find the killer crocodile. They couldn’t find him, he was already gone. Two weeks later, they found Sanele’s T-shirt hanging from a branch downstream.

Sicelo, now 45, is a nature guide at a nature reserve 175 miles north of Durban in central KwaZulu-Natal, and author of a memoir, Black lion: living in the desert. He spent his adult life reuniting with wild animals, but it took a long time for him to forgive those who killed his beloved Sanele. He hated everyone and everything for a while after that traumatic and tragic day.

“I had to go to school the next day and walk along the same river, but I was so terrified the whole time, thinking all the time about how the crocodile would catch one of us. I had a math test that day, and I couldn’t concentrate, I just couldn’t believe I was doing an arithmetic test when Sanele was killed.

Sicelo Mbatha on a South Africa Wildlife Tour

The adults have crossed the river with the children for some time, but the rainy season is the busy season in rural Zululand, when crops need to be harvested or planted. No one asked Sicelo how he was doing.

“I had trouble eating, sleeping or doing anything normal. I was so haunted by what had happened and stuck in grief.

In Black lion, an account of the solace he would find in nature, Sicelo writes: “I hated the sun for bringing yet another day without Sanele. I hated school, and every step of the walk there, and every step of the way back. I hated rivers. I hated adults who took me to school, kids who weren’t Sanele.

“I violently and vehemently hated all crocodiles and swore to avenge my friend’s death. I was drowning in the center of this deep, dark pool of hatred. I had failed to save my friend. His life was in my hands. And I had let it down. He lived with me for a long time, this hatred. Over the months and years, I have learned to put it aside. I let a skin grow on it, but it was deep inside me, a festering sheen of pain.

More People

Sicelo’s experience dates back 38 years and he has never forgotten it. Just a few weeks ago, British teenager Amelie Osborn-Smith, recently mutilated by a crocodile in southern Africa, said she felt “very lucky” during an interview from her hospital bed.

She was on a professionally organized rafting expedition when the group was reportedly encouraged by the guides to take a “quick dip” to cool off as the area was considered safe. The 18-year-old was attacked by a crocodile.

For Sicelo, the hatred he felt towards animals as a child fades over time. Years later, he saw a crocodile shred a buffalo, and while it was difficult to watch, he realized that the crocodile that took Sanele was simply taking the opportunity to eat. “It wasn’t out of cruelty or revenge,” he realized. Something changed in him as he watched nature take place.

“Finally,” he said, “I could accept crocodiles as similar creatures, even animals that I could respect, because they are strong and impressive. They can live without water for several days and survive without food for months.

Sicelo then devoted his life to the wilderness, showing people on his tours how to be touched by nature, but also reminding them that humans are not meant to rule over animals.

In nature, everything is linked

“There is a terror, but then a calm that comes over people when they realize how easily we can be part of the food chain,” he says. “I think it’s important for humans to share space with wild animals, to see how they cooperate, how they don’t destroy things like humans do, how everything is linked in nature.

“None of the animals do anything harmful for fun, everything happens for a reason in the beautiful cycle of life. We humans do not dominate nature, we must understand and respect it.”

Sicelo will always be haunted by the loss of his cousin, but he managed to feel love for the very thing that killed him. “Forgiving nature and spending my life there,” he says, “has helped me heal. “

“Black Lion: Alive in the Wilderness” by Sicelo Mbatha (Icon Books, £ 12.99) is out now


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