Hauntapokus was mine for the price of a mother’s coffin. Njoroge tearfully explained that his mother had died and in line with Kenyan custom he needed to buy some wood so a coffin could be built to bury her on the family shamba (farm). All he had was a two foot long Leopard Tortoise which he would give to me for the price of burying his mother.
Hauntapokus had one problem. She was a land dwelling reptile bonded to a love affair with freedom.
My African born daughter inadvertently named the Tortoise after watching the movie “Pokahauntus” and twisting the name. “Pokey”, as our new pet was christened, indeed had the color of the wind running through her veins. She blended perfectly with the highland grasses and once she beat her barriers she blazed a trail straight back to her valley.
Regardless of how secure I built my fences Hauntapokus leveraged her sixty pounds to bulldoze over and around and through. On one memorable occasion she was seen by my neighbor barging through our thorny bamboo hedge with seven other smaller versions of herself walking in a row, head to tail, as if they were imitating the migrating elephants.
Each tortoise had come in exchange for meeting some desperate need but Hauntapokus was the first and she remained the Queen from start to finish. Frequently through the day she would hold court with one or two others as they tested the strengths and weaknesses of their enclosure and as they planned their break. Freedom was just a plot away.
No matter how many succulents or kikuyugrasses or carrots or lettuces that I fed these herbivores they wanted more than I was offering. They wanted freedom. On one occasion I watched as Hauntapokus nudged two tortoises into the corner of the pen and then proceeded to climb onto them and almost over the top. The underside of her plastron rested comfortably on their carapaces and her back legs pushed powerfully to almost high jump her to success.
Pokey’s kin spreads anywhere from Sudan to the southern cape of Africa and being tropical tortoises they never hibernated. This gave them plenty of time to plot their strategies. During the two dozen successful escapes over the years the camouflage of shells made it difficult to spot them in the knee high grasses which surrounded us on every side. Only the broken stems of steamrolled grasses gave a clue.
Perhaps Pokey realized instinctively that the mountainous diet of vegetable store scraps weren’t right for her entourage. Romaine and Collard Greens and Kale and Dandelion weren’t common fare. A high fibre diet was not my understanding of first class dining. They planned their own gourmet dishes and my wife wasn’t thrilled at the tortoises foraging on her Hibiscus, Lillies, and Daisies. When a prize collection of African violets disappeared during one short escape the three suspects were not hard to guess.
We never dreamed of throwing bananas into the pen because we didn’t want the baboons and monkeys targeting our yard and garden. Avacados, melons and apples were okay. The stinging nettle was plenty just beyond the perimeter but who would have guessed that it could make a great tortoise salad. Alfalfa, sikuma or watercress – whatever was in our garden as opposed to Pokey’s pen - became her next dinner menu.
Hauntapokus was constantly digging and I lived with the illusion that one day a ping pong sized egg would produce a tonka sized version to celebrate. Only one round white egg was ever produced and that without results. Pokey may live 150 years so time is on her side.
In the broader realm of struggle for economic stability, survival through epidemics, security from instability, political and linguistic and cultural awareness, Pokey’s struggle became a solarium of tranquility for me. While time and malaria and tic fever bludgeoned me to my knees Pokey remained immune to anything that plagued the “two-leggeds.”
One week before the end of our double decade in Kenya the fortress was dismantled for the last time. Hauntapokus and friends were freed to the winds and the grasses of Kenya. Perhaps another desperate roamer will seize upon the idea of exchanging a two foot tortoise to gain the cost of meeting a new need. I have no doubt, if that tortoise is Pokey, a store of secretly stored cranial blueprints from previous ‘great escapes’ will mean frustrations for the new owners.
Pokey’s love affair with freedom will not end with me.
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