acacia blossoms

acacia blossoms

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Billys story

I wrote this at the height of the drought a month or so ago. Am not sure if its appropriate but it is an African story so here goes...

It’s a hot afternoon. The warthogs fix me with a beady stare trying to induce me to feed them early and more often. Monkeys pound the tin roof hoping for a share of anything that’s going, or can be opportunistically snatched.

Billy drives in on his way home from the bush. I offer him a cold beer and we sit on the stoep catching up on news. As we talk he tells a story that has recently happened in his area and is a symptom of the changing times, the drought and what happens when humans and animals compete in the same areas for the same resources. It is an African story – where humans meet wild animals at ground level. It is a story that has its roots in the history of life on earth and echoes way down through the eons of time..

It was October in Mozambique – suicide month. The ground baked and shimmered like last nights coals. The young women of the village had to walk far to collect water, and firewood. In the breathless heat, they walked slowly, chatting and laughing together as they spoke of the web of lives that held the village together. Boyfriends, husbands, children , old folk – friends and enemies. It was all there in a rich pageant. Their bare feet, hardened by years of earth walking, sink gently into the quartzy sand with each step where city feet would recoil from heat. Their mahogany skin shining as heat drew moisture from their personal reserves.

In the forest up ahead a breeding herd of elephants moved restlessly in search of water to drink and bathe; leaves and bark to browse. The green grasses of summer a distant memory – food is scarce – water is scarce – the way to each is fraught with danger. Youngsters hurried next to the giant stride of their mothers – their footsteps marking out a regular rhythm. Despite the quiet urgency of their passage a pack of scrawny village dogs races out to bark and chase them. Villagers, alerted, start banging pots to chase the herd away. The headman reached for his rifle. In the drowsy heat he does not want the elephants in his village, raiding his crops; terrorising his family.

The matriarch streams moisture from her temporal gland. Already under stress, she starts to panic. If she doesn’t lead the herd to water or food, the calves will start to drop.

The women are coming over the rise. They are in sight of the village but they are watching the road; carrying heavy loads of firewood or drums of water balanced on their heads – bringing it home to their families. They do not see the elephants.

The matriarch hears their lively chatter. She feels trapped, under pressure. She mock charges – kicking sand in the air. Hoping to stop the approach of the women until her herd has crossed the road safely away from the village. The women do not see her.
She mock charges again – kicking a spray of sand into the torpid air. Still the women do not see her. She has to charge. Anger rises with fear and she can no longer stop herself. She puts her head down and starts to run – covering the ground with a speed that belies her size.

Too late the women look up. They scatter, dropping wood and water – running running. The matriarch has them in her sights – she closes on them quickly and all her panic fear and anger is raged upon one unlucky girl – like a floodgate opened.

Billy is called to the village. The girl has been trampled to death.. but more than that… her body parts are scattered far and wide. Her head is off; her legs are thrown carelessly 50m from her torso. Arms also severed. A killing spree. The village is outraged – anger and fear peaking in their clamour for revenge. Billy must track the elephant – shoot it.

The police arrive. Billy must first find the body parts. No, his job is to find the elephant – the police must look to the victim. No-one wants that job. The police gather what they can and leave. Billy goes with a tracker from the village. Its more than 40C and they follow the track for hours until finally they lose sight of it amongst the rocks.

Returning to the village the funeral is already in process. They must bury the girl quickly in this heat. The mother is keening her grief; on seeing Billy she wails louder moving close to his vehicle – her cries an outpouring of grief that must run its course. Billy and the tracker are exhausted – the heat and dehydration taking their toll. They have walked far into the bush, following tracks at a fast pace - only realising how far they had gone when they turned to walk back.

Before he can leave, he must go to meetings to discuss the death by elephant, and the conflict between people and the animals of the national park. It is a conflict as old as Africa itself and still no-one has come up with an effective solution. As human populations increase, encroaching more and more into wildlife areas, so the conflicts intensify.

A week later, an elephant is crop raiding at the village. Billy has to shoot it. The elephant falls 40m from the grave of the young girl. Its not the same elephant but honour is somehow satisfied for now.


Fire Byrd said...

What a story.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the people/elephant it is a cruel reminder of what a harsh world you live in. Not that there isn't harsheness everywhere else, yours is just so much closer to the basic life needs than most.
Thank goodness for the rains!
hugs x

Tessa said...

Absolutely beautifully written! I'm stunned. So evocative, so haunting and so deeply painful. There is also a real sense of a kind of excruciating majesty in the tragic fate of elephant and girl. You paint a word picture so vivid that the very air becomes redolent with the sound and smell and simmering heat of Africa.

Someone, somewhere wrote these words which I think have a certain resonance, especially after reading your superbly told tale of the harsh reality that is so much a part of that glorious and – some say - doomed continent:

"To live anywhere in the world, you must know how to live in Africa. The only thing you can do is love, because it is the only thing that leaves light inside you, instead of the totally obliterating darkness. Love, even if it ends in defeat, gives you a kind of honour; but without love, you have no kind of honour at all...."

Lori ann said...

Hey Val, this is something I am so passionate about, we've felt the problem has always been overpopulation. And I don't know what the solution is. I feel horribly for the girl and her family suffering such a tragic loss, but i feel worse for the elephants, who were here before.I don't know enough about it to make an intelligent comment,but perhaps more land can be used as park or private reserves so the eles can live in peace.Thanks for telling us the story Val.

Anonymous said...

Nature can be cruel. Written with pure emotion. Beautiful, yet harrowingly sad.

CJ xx

tam said...

A tough one, but so well told. As you say, it is not a new story (how many like it) and there are no easy solutions. I love the way you capture it from all points of view. I have many stories on this topic. Am obsessed with it.

Angela said...

God, I feel like crying, Val. All your comments express my feelings, too. Tessa`s quotation helps me a bit. Love...yes, and yet... You are such a wonderful writer of emotions, I adore you!

Val said...

thanks all of you for commenting... I am intruiged by your responses to this one.
Fire Byrd - yes maybe - it is harsh but it is actual too. It may seem that life has less value here but maybe it is more real too?
Tessa - Thanks for your kind words. I love that quote! Is Africa doomed or is it just true to itself?
Lori - actually there is a remarkable amount of land set aside for Wildlife Reserves and national parks, but boundaries are easily crossed from both sides and the main conflict is equal survival needs. How you change that i dont know, but people take priority.
CJ - is it cruel or is it just life? There are human predators too - and human 'elephants'.
Thanks Tam - I'd love to read yours! I am no expert - just relaying an event that is just so ancient but remains a modern day issue; I suppose really its land use again?
Geli - sorry if it made you cry. It is tragic whichever way you look at it tho. That quote from Tessa is fabulous. Love - maybe that is the African lesson?


Val said...

maybe intruiged is the wrong word? certainly i am interested in your responses as my own leaves so many questions unanswered and no solutions!

Unknown said...

What a heartbreaking story, yet so typically African. Man and animal, side by side, constantly competing, one doing what it must, the other doing what it must too. Logic - as we might see it - does not apply.

Beautifully written Val, no unnecessary emotion and filled with evocative images.

Reya Mellicker said...

Not sure I could have tolerated this story while the drought was still ongoing. Now that I know rain is falling and your part of the landscape is turning green again, I can bear to read it.

You know I've been fishing around for books about life in Africa. What I'm thinking right now is that I want to read YOUR book about Africa.

Maybe I am reading your book, published in chapters, here on your blog.

I'm so lucky!

Val said...

Ab Van - thanks. heartbreaking it is and no real winners in this one.
Reya - thank goodness for the rains for sure! am working on a booklist for you :-)

Anonymous said...

Val, a wonderfully told African tale, gentle and sad, allowing just a glimpse of the true brutality, exquisite beauty and harsh reality of survival continually repeated across Africa - in the bush and in the cities.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

What a story.

What an incredibly well-written, incredible story.

Mental P Mama said...

I am visiting at the suggestion of Chesapeake Bay Woman, and I am so happy I came here. What a haunting, beautiful story of our short dance here on earth. I will be back for more.

tam said...

Added to the debate on my spot, though not with in same vivid storytelling way. Thanks, Val.

karen said...

val, this was so powerfully written, it brought tears to my eyes.

How often we think about this conflict dilemma, and unfortunately i can usually see both sides. Usually end up just doing the ostrich thing, as thinking about it too much hurts..

Tessa, thanks for that quote....

Val said...

thanks guys for your comments and care.
Rob - sad but true - brutality exists in the cities here. Its just another version of the same need tho isnt it?
CBW - thank you
Mental P Mama - thanks for visiting!
Tam - am off to check yours nowx
Karen - welcome back. yeah ostrich.. me too x

Anil P said...

The animals will need the right of way, corridors they can traverse.

I'm not sure how we can defend encroachments unless we are prepared to lose the wildlife for good.

Haunting nevertheless.

Val said...

anil-P stay with us on this!

Val said...

please visit Tams post at for the REAL Debate(sorry not sure how to put a link in here)_

Tricia said...

Wonderfully written, thank you. I hope you'll continue.