Lau

Freshwater Monster of East Africa.

Etymology: Nuer and Dinka (Nil o-Saharan) word.

Variant names: Jak, Jak-anywong ("punishing spirit," Dinka/Nil o-Saharan), Nyal (Shilluk/ Nil o-Saharan), Nyama.

Physical description: Serpent ine but wit h l egs. Size estimates vary widely: 40-100 feet long, as large as a donkey or a horse, or about 12 feet long and smaller than a python. Brown or dark yel l ow. It s snakel ike head has a 3-inch-l ong crest like that of a crowned crane. Some say four bones unit ed by a membrane appear around it s mout h; ot hers say it has barbels like a cat fish.

Behavior: Call is a loud, booming cry, heard at night. Its stomach makes loud gurgles, especially in t he rainy season. Lives in hol es in river-banks.

Tracks: Makes a furrow in swampy ground. Habitat: Swamps.

Distribution: Bahr al 'Arab, Bahr al Ghazai, Bahr al Zeraf, Bahr al Jabal, and ot her sources of the White Nile, from MalakM south to Rajjaf and Lake No sout h to Shambe, Sudan.

Significant sightings: A 40-foot Lau was observed near Waw, Sudan, in the late nineteenth cent ury.

In 1914, the complete skeleton of a Lau was ret rieved from t he Bahr al Zeraaf, and t he bones were dist ribut ed among t he Nuer peopl e t o wear as charms. A few years lat er, a 12-foot specimen was seen in t he Bahr al Zeraaf. Loud gurgl es from a Lau were heard in the Bahr al 'Arab in 1918.

In 1937, William Hichens published a photo of a wooden effigy in the shape of a Lau's head. The effigy was apparently used in ritual dances and was carved by Mshengu she Gunda, who lived in the Iramba District of the Singida Region, Tanzania, and had hunted extensively in t he Nile swamps. Possible explanations:

(1) An unknown species of large Catfish (Family Siluridae) with long barbels, a dorsal fin that could be mistaken for a crest, and a long body. Some species of cat fishes crawl out ont o land at night. They have no vocal cords but can make a growl ing noise. Some have poisonous spines, and ot hers produce el ect ric shocks. The El ect ric cat fish (Malapterurus electricus) of t he Nil e and tropical Africa is 5 feet long, but the Wels catfish (Silurisglanis) of Europe reaches nearly 10 feet long and can weigh more than 500 pounds.

(2) A large Marbled lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus), a native of East African lakes and marginal swamps, incl uding Lake No.

lau 291

(3) A l arge, aquat ic variet y of t he African rock pyt hon (Python sebae), which oft en att ains a l engt h of 30-33 feet.

(4) A composit e animal, made up of t he charact erist ics of several dangerous aquat ic denizens.

(5) A generic name for any aquat ic, el ongat ed creat ure, possibly incl uding t he Nil e bichir (Polypterus bichir), a 2-foot -l ong fish wit h ninet een to t went y-one dorsal spines that lives in lakes and rivers in Ethiopia and Chad; the Eel cat fishes (Channallabes apus and Gymnallabes typus) of Cent ral and West Africa; t he Nort h African catfish (Clarias gariepinus) that spends t he dry season in burrows; and t he Vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis), anot her air-breat hing cat fish of t he Niger and Nil e Rivers.

Sources: H. C. Jackson, "The Nuer of t he Upper Nile Province," Sudan Notes and Records 6 (1923): 59, 187-189; John G. Millais, Far Away up the Nile (London: Longmans, Green, 1924), pp. 62-67; William Hichens, "African Mystery Beasts," Discovery 18 (1937): 369-373; Bernard Heuvel mans, On the Track ofUnknown Animals (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958), pp. 447-449; Thomas Richard Hornby Owen, Hunting Big Game with Gun and Camera (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1960), pp. 92-95; Bernard Heuvel mans, Les derniers dragons d'Afrique (Paris: Plon, 1978), pp. 151-159, 363-370.

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