Likoma Island, Malawi

“Hey Mazungu!” a voice called, “I am Gift, and this is my brother, Advice.” I glanced at the younger boy who smiled shyly. Mazungu is a Swahili word meaning white man, although its literal translation is man without smell. Gift offered to help me find accommodation and be my guide. I asked the younger brother what pearls of wisdom he could impart. He pointed to the lake and said, “crocodiles.”

Over the next week, I spent a lot of time with the brothers. Gift introduced me to his friends and took me to a witch doctors ceremony. I knew our relationship wasn’t a true one but the pretence was fun. The night before I moved on, we went home to his village. I met his mother and countless relatives. Overlooking the lake, we drank thin tea from tiny china cups. The sunset put on a postcard worthy performance and I felt happy and self-important at the same time.

One of the villagers walked down to the lake to wash. Wrapped to her back a baby squealed. They walked into the water. I watched the scene with detachment, chatting to family, framing it as background. But then the woman screamed and ducked beneath the water. She re-emerged in a whirlpool of blood amid the thrashing tail of a crocodile. The villagers ran to help. She was only six feet from the shore in waist deep water. A couple of the men waded in, but mother and baby were gone. The confusion and wailing were indescribable. The woman was Gift’s cousin. I drank my tea, said a million sorrys and slipped away. I was invisible anyway.

I saw the brothers the following morning and gave Gift some money. I hugged them both and smiled weakly. Gift said, “it happens, it happens” but it doesn’t happen where I’m from and I didn’t know what to say. I subsequently told the story many times. It was always well received, but as time went on it made me uneasy and I regretted turning it into an anecdote. I’ve never experienced anything like it.