When the Sleeping Warrior Awoke

Photo of the sleeping warrior mountainIn November 2010, GCI European Mission Developer James Henderson and his wife, Shirley, were attacked by a Cape buffalo in Kenya.

Shirley’s story:

November 17 dawned beautiful over Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. We were celebrating my husband’s 60th birthday in the style of his choice—a bird safari near the banks of Lake Elementaita.

James and Shirley Henderson
Above: James and Shirley Henderson. Top: The Sleeping Giant volcano.

Our camp sat just below the impressive heights of the Sleeping Warrior, an extinct volcano. Our complimentary bush walk involved a hard climb for over an hour that finally brought us to the “chin,” the highest point on the rim. We were awed by the beauty that surrounded us. James said that this was the very best birthday present he could possibly imagine, and I had to agree with him!

We decided to finish the bird safari by walking inside the volcanic crater, through a steep, narrow gully and descending to our waiting vehicle. When we reached the gully, James noticed an animal scent and asked Samson, our Maasai guide, what animal it was.

Samson said, “It’s buffalo, but it’s old spoor, not fresh.”

We ascended the gulley, and just as we neared the top, we heard a loud snort and saw something large moving in the grass. Samson shouted, “Buffalo! RUN!”

The African Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

drawing of a cape buffalo

The Cape buffalo is among the top ten most dangerous land mammals on earth. The British military engineer, wildlife artist and hunter, Sir William Cornwallis Harris wrote the following description in his book, The Wild Sports of Southern Africa, published in 1839.

“All writers are agreed as to the hazards of invading the haunts of this savage animal, whose skulking habits, no less than his tremendous strength, render him an object to be greatly dreaded … he is described to of so irascible a disposition that he will attack his great enemy, man, without the smallest provocation. And should he succeed in destroying his victim, it is his wont to stand over the inanimate corpse, goring and tossing it in vindictive fury with his formidable horns, trampling it under his feet, crushing and mangling it with his knees and stripping off the skin with his rough and prickly tongue; desisting occasionally, but to return again with renewed appetite, as though his revenge might never be glutted!”

Six days after the Hendersons were attacked, a Cape buffalo killed two people not far from where their attack took place.

I stood frozen to the spot long enough to look at the massive creature, which was not three feet from me, directly in the eyes. Terror, helplessness and confusion gripped me. I saw in its eyes the split second that it decided to charge. Too late, I turned to run. I felt the animal’s horn hit my back and slam me against the rock wall. I screamed in pain and remember saying, “Dear God, please save us!” The pain and pressure eased momentarily before the buffalo rammed me again, goring my lower back. I felt like a rag doll as it tossed me and then began trampling and kicking me. My eyes must have been shut, because I didn’t see or want to see or know what was happening. I just prayed for it to stop.

And then suddenly it did stop. I sensed the buffalo thundering on down the narrow gully, and I vaguely remember thinking and possibly even shouting, “James! Get out of the way!”

Everything went quiet and I was so scared, afraid to look. Then I saw James staggering up the gulley toward me holding his right arm, his clothes soaked with blood. I was terrified. I thought he had been gored in the stomach, but he kept saying he was okay and asking if I was okay.

James’ story:

I didn’t know how to get out of the charging animal’s way.

It’s amazing how much can go through your mind in a split second. I wanted to get to Shirley. I remembered that with rhino, because of their bad eyesight, you are supposed to throw yourself flat into the long grass. With a hippo, you make sure you’re not between it and the water. And with a Cape buffalo, you quickly climb a tree.

No tree!

I threw myself on the ground to the side of its path as I saw it lower its head to attack. I thought it was going to kill me, and I turned my head away and closed my eyes with Stephen’s prayer on my lips, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

The buffalo hit me hard as it sped by, shattering my right shoulder, goring me beneath the elbow and slamming my tense body across the rocky ground before thundering on down the gully into the crater. Perhaps it was moving so fast that it could not break its own momentum.

Initially I could barely move. It felt like a huge rock was crushing me and pinning me down, but, I believe with God’s help, I was able to struggle to my feet and make it up the path to where Shirley lay. It is hard to describe the emotion of relief and gratitude mingled with agonizing pain that we each felt on realizing that the other was still alive. Even now, tears well up as I type those words.

Later we learned that the buffalo had actually lifted Samson between its horns and carried him several feet before flicking him off. Although severely battered and bruised, Samson heroically stood guard over us in case the beast would return, something a Cape buffalo will typically do. Thankfully, this one did not come back.

An Attack of Satan?

Some have suggested that Satan entered the buffalo and attacked us. I do not believe that is what happened. The buffalo’s aggression is simply part of its violent animal nature, from which all creatures will be delivered when Christ returns. It is true that Satan is the “adversary” or “enemy” of humanity. Satan, the scripture says, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). That means that Satan seeks the opportunity to discourage us in the faith, and to turn us away from God. It does not mean that Satan has the power to literally attack us in a physical sense. Whatever Satan does, we have nothing to fear, because our trust is in the faithfulness of God. As Paul wrote, “The Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3).

Looking back, we realize that things could have been much worse. Usually a Cape buffalo leaves no survivors. Despite the indiscriminate violence and the fury of the attack, we both instinctively turned to God, and we felt that we were protected. Throughout the recovery period we both have felt God’s presence and comfort. God is there in good times and in bad. Where was Jesus when the buffalo attacked? He was right there with us, sharing the suffering.

Some have written to ask me why God allows such things to happen. I do not torment myself by trying to answer that question. The fatalistic idea that whatever happens is specifically ordained by God’s will is not valid biblically. Nor do I regard this as a trial that the God of love has sent us in order to prove us in some way.

All of us have witnessed or experienced tragedy and crises. I think of my mother who is lost in Alzheimer’s, and I cannot explain the why of that, either, other than to say that time and chance are part of the order of things (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

The Bible tells us that we all share in suffering, and that Jesus suffers with us. Personally, I am more able to observe the how than the why. How God comforts, how he intervenes in little and in big ways, how he gives peace of mind when peace of mind seems impossible, how he helps us smile in the face of adversity, how the Spirit speaks for us when all we have are tears, and how, with God, there are moments of inexpressible joy. For me God is always in the process, always present, always involved. And that’s more important to me than the “why.”

(Editor’s note: The Hendersons underwent extensive surgery in Nairobi and are now back home in the UK. They are recovering well and send their heartfelt thanks for all the prayers, cards, letters, and expressions of love and concern.)

James and Shirley Henderson
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