The legend of Yengwe is a story from the city of Ndola in the nation of Zambia. Ndola is the town that was in newspapers around the world after Dag Hammarskjeold, second Secretary-General of the United Nations, lost his life in this Copperbelt Province metropolis in a 1961 plane crash.
Yengwe was a familiar tale to many of the veterans of the Copperbelt who lived there in the estimated period-stretch of 1930 to 1975.
The parents of the author, themselves residents of the Copperbelt for a long time, recounted Yengwe to the children countless times. But, what is the legend of Yengwe actually about? A logical question. However, first things first.
Yengwe, today, is the site of Zambia’s first and only stand-alone hospital for children. The health facility has the official name of Arthur Davison Hospital. It is not only the place that is known as Yengwe. Among the ordinary Ndola townsfolk, the hospital, positioned on one periphery of Northrise residential area, has itself been popularly called Yengwe since inception in the 60’s. Actually, this particular spot of Ndola carried that name long before the hospital was built. In other words, even the Yengwe story is older than the hospital.
Arthur Davison Hospital assumed the name of Yengwe obviously because it slipped into a place already well-known by that name. And now, the hospital is the living symbol and enduring reminder of the supposed history of its location – at least in the eyes of those to whom the Yengwe saga was or is a household citation.
The legend is that at some point between 1929 and 1964, people were kidnapped and taken to Yengwe to be experimented on. It was the universal understanding that a white man had sought to see what would happen if human beings were for a long time fed on an exclusive diet of green vegetable matter, especially fresh grass. Never mind that the man would have known that some communities had consumed primarily herbal food for uncountable years. Perhaps he would have wanted to do a test himself.
The local people called the white person Yengwe. The source of the name, or its meaning, unfortunately, remained undiscussed. Yengwe allegedly lived and did his diabolical studies where the Arthur Davison Hospital stands today. In short, it seems the place was given the name of its resident and the hospital was given the name of the place.
It was said that the abducted individuals on the grassy food regimen eventually started looking like animals. They grew thick hair all over their body and walked on their hands and knees rather than on their feet. They forgot all human language they knew, increasingly resembling and sounding like pigs, to be specific.
How Were The Victims Kidnapped?
That is what often sparked the telling of Yengwe. It was an example of what could happen if one moved care-freely in the night. However, it was not meant to be a mere scarecrow, but also as oral teaching of part of the factual history of Ndola.
The victims in the alleged Yengwe operations were people who moved after the sun had gone down. Yengwe, with a squad of African assistants, used a car with a totally soundless engine, lights switched off, so the narration goes. The stealth vehicle braked close to the targeted person. Yengwe’s helpers would then jump out and pounce on the unsuspecting, probably even drunken, night–walker. They quickly and silently bundled their new captive into the car. It was said that it was essentially over in a matter of seconds, and the man-snatchers were on their way back to the research house with their trophy. There has not been any assertion as to whether or not they used a debilitating agent like chloroform to improve their chances. How they could keep their subjects under control at Yengwe – in particular in the initial stages when the hostages would be expected to be more human than animal - is also untold.
According to the story, when relatives and friends of the seized man discovered their loved one had disappeared without a trace, they concluded he or she had to have been captured by the prowler, Yengwe. That means somehow, the people had an inkling of what was causing the disappearances. Indeed, if any job is done by more than one person, as is seen in this case, keeping it a secret is a huge challenge.
Could Such A Mission Go On Unnoticed?
What are the chances that an ongoing, and not one-off, activity, could not be detected by crime fighters? An undertaking with obviously strong physical pointers evading the eyes of the authorities? Two considerations attempt to give us a better picture on this.
The first is that there have been many continuing crimes with good noticeable indicators that have remained unknown for a long time. Some smugglers and drug rings, for example, have been known to move large quantities of cargo for years before the law picked up their smell.
The second and greater consideration is that if any white person kidnapped black people for any reason, in those pre-independence years, it is inconceivable that such deeds could be exposed or classified criminal by the white rulers. Could the courts imprison or hang the wrong-doer?
Why Would Abductions Be Done At Night, Then?
Why would people be taken at night if it could not be treated as illegal by the establishment? It seems that can be explained.
Firstly, even with government protection, eye-witnessing could likely make things more challenging for everyone in authority and ‘researcher’ Yengwe himself. Knowledge of the dark activities would move from mere hearsay to actual evidence of kidnapping.
Just because the people did not act on what they heard would not mean they would not act on what they actually saw. The people could likely rise against the white colonialist government and Yengwe. Oppressing people is not easy business. So when you are an oppressor, you do not openly allow situations that make oppressing a more difficult job to do. And from that perspective, Yengwe would make things easier for the government and himself by working under cover. Night would probably be the best in this type of deed.
Secondly, operating after people had long left work would help raise chances that the potential hostage had taken some alcohol. That way, the victim would likely have become less able to resist effectively.
Thirdly, darkness would also make it safer for Yengwe’s African helpers. These would live in the black townships and their lives could potentially be at risk. It is easy imagining a person escaping an abduction attempt (predators do not always catch their prey) while positively recognising one of the perpetrators as their own next door neighbour.
It makes sense from different angles that the best time to conduct the Yengwe thefts would be when it were difficult for anyone to see what were happening and the victim were potentially at their weakest time of day.
How silent can a car be? In this age of greater environmental and health awareness, noise pollution from cars is one of the problems vehicle manufacturers have been trying to minimise. There are cars with virtually quiet engines, but mainly at very low speed and in stationary mode. Was it possible and easy to make Yengwe’s vehicle completely soundless between 1929 and 1964? As far as investigation here could go, this appears a very small probability – especially when one talks of a car with a perfectly muted engine. Then how come the account is that the vehicle made no noise at all?
The chances are that if Yengwe did indeed happen, and almost as told, then either the captors used a car with a lower-than-normal vroom sound, or the ‘totally soundless engine’ part of the story was pure exaggeration.
Car Lights Off
Without any doubt, a human being cannot ordinarily see in total darkness where there is practically not the weakest ray of light. So, did the Yengwe team manage to drive in absolute blackness, nevertheless?
In reality, nights are not entirely lightless throughout the year. There is often a degree of brightness from some object that enhances visibility. When there is no moon, there is frequently some artificial source such as security lighting, especially in historically industrial regions like the Copperbelt. So, if car lights are off and the driver is able to navigate, there must be something else in the environment that has provided illumination. That is to say, if the Yengwe vehicle had no lights, the ruthless men almost certainly would use glow from other bodies. Glow that still left enough darkness for the villains to be sufficiently unidentifiable. If the kidnappers even wore any disguise, then there would be just enough light to work in, while the cover would now be complete; the perfect gangster office.
If the snatchers would have to hide their operations, concealment would have to include the vehicle. This, however, seems something they could also handle. For example, they could paint the vehicle a dull colour, like black or grey, keep it hidden and only use it on their wicked trips.
Did Yengwe Happen?
There is no proof that it did. It has been argued already, though, that possibility is there. But, if Yengwe was a real episode, what happened to the incarcerated, eventually? Certainly an interesting line of thought. So, let us assume in these four passages that it did take place. Then, that gives us questions to address in respect of the research coming to an inevitable close at some point. When the project ended, for whatever reason, is it not likely that the living people who were the unfortunate subjects in the experiment were all killed at once and buried together?
Could there be a mass grave somewhere at the former sinful scientific centre? There could be. Has there been a known report of such a burial place already? To the best of the writer’s recollection, not any at least in the last fifty years. In fact, had there been, Yengwe would have been officially recorded as an unhappy part of the history of Zambia, and in particular the city of Ndola (like the Dag Hammarskjeold incident).
What if a mass grave was found at some time in the past, and not brought to the attention of the news media or authorities? One wonders then what caused the silence, or where the remains were taken. Granted, Zambia has a lot of old burial sites, but a mass grave should have aroused special interest, in all likelihood. So, if there does exist a grave with multiple bodies at Yengwe, then it is anxiously waiting to be uncovered; by accident or design.
Did the ‘explorers’ decide to let the hostages die naturally one after another until the last person was gone? In which case there cannot be any mass burial place? Most unlikely. Who, for one reason, could have had that compassion for them? Not people who, in the first place, disrespected their lives by holding and studying them against their will. For another reason, keeping them too long could have carried the risk of being discovered by some morally upright, powerful, organisation or individual capable of exposing everything to all and sundry. And by the way, who waits? Who waits, sure that the other person will die first? So, the mass grave theory holds much more strongly.
Yengwe Might Be Pure Fiction
Even though Yengwe was told as a portion of Ndola’s real past, it might actually have never taken place at all. It was perhaps just part of Copperbelt forklore. A fairytale borne of man’s imagination and inclination to entertain and be entertained.
Yengwe was probably a way parents scared their youths into coming home early. A way to keep them from different vice promoted by the darkness of night. A way, too, to shape them into individuals who stayed home in married life, presumably giving their family optimal attention.
Real Disappearances Misinterpreted?
Was Yengwe just a wrong diagnosis of a real problem? Could it be true that at one time, there was vanishing of people? Disappearance caused by something unknown that was not Yengwe? And then, when different theories were advanced to explain the mystery, Yengwe happened to be the most captivating and therefore most exciting to tell?
The legend of Yengwe is given here exactly as it was communicated, believable or not. It was the intention not to change anything that was said to have happened.
Yengwe the story did exist. It probably still circulates thanks to Copperbelt old-timers passing it down to their children and grandchildren. Existence of Yengwe the white man and Yengwe the satanic project appear to require investigation. The earlier it is done the better, because there could be still-living potential sources of valuable information somewhere in the country or outside.
If a person called Yengwe ever was in Ndola, it would be interesting finding out how he lived his life.
If the project existed, there could be need to take the subject to some next logical stage. A statue could be dedicated to the memory of those who suffered such harsh treatment, for example. Physical symbols have been erected in respect of Dag Hammarskjeold and City of Ndola footballers who died in a road accident about five decades ago.
And if Yengwe the project never took place? Well, at least people will know all they had heard was simply a fairytale. A myth with great staying power. Like Loch Ness and Bigfoot.
19th December, 2020
© Rupert Chimfwembe