Michael K Phillips
"The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away. " Pablo Picasso.
Type "elephant poo" into the search engine of your favorite internet access programme and you would assume to get one or two entries. But the subject, it has to be said, does not excite a great many people given the origins of its making and the manner of its evacuation. We are talking excrement here and issues such as excrement are best left in obscurity.
You would assume that but the reality is very different.
When I last typed ‘elephant poo’ in Google, I got 208 000 entries. What on earth do people want with ‘elephant poo’?
I can understand an eminent zoologist writing an erudite paper on the digestive habits of an elephant. I can understand the actions of Tanto, jumping off his horse to feel, smell and taste horse droppings in order to ascertain the time elapsed between his and the Lone Ranger’s arrival at that point and the previous passing of the villains.
But should the villains have been riding elephants!?
Well it appears that firstly people make paper out of elephant pooh. My mother, who features in what is to come as these words unfold, had at the time of writing, published a series of booklets printed on elephant pooh paper. This explains why I found my daughter standing in the middle of our sitting room holding the edges of a book by the tips of her fingers as if she had picked some decaying article out of the dustbin.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Its Gran’s new book. It says it is made out of elephant pooh!”
I remember going into my favorite “Aladdin’s Cave” of a South African shop in Newhaven in England and being offered a sterile flower pot of elephant dung with flower seed in it.
“Just water it”, said Mr Suzman, “ and a miracle will occur.”
“No shit Sherlock!” sayeth my daughter taking on the role of Watson, as in three weeks, the towering triffid threatened to consume the entire conservatory at the back of the house despite the vagaries of English weather.
Of course there are less welcome ways of using elephants familiar to us all in the world wide campaigns to cut out poaching and the wanton killing of defenceless animals. Occasionally one comes across relics of the past such as elephant foot stools and poofs. Endless bits of ivory that seem the more out of place because of the feeling that they cannot be put back or replace the dead animal.
A stuffed elephant’s head mounted on the wall of a stately home has all the feeling of life that can be conjured from seeing one of the last stuffed forms of the Dodo in a museum in Brighton.
If the effects of the lives of elephants are felt widely in the world we live in today, then it was even more so the case when I was a young man.
Shortly after leaving the Etosha Pan, you rejoin the main road northwards to Tsumeb. Tsumeb is not a name that fits easily into the Bantu dialects of Northern Namibia. This is because the name has Khoisan origins. The Khoisan peoples are the ancient people of Africa with some 30 000 years of residency. Established in Africa long before the migrations of bantu peoples and Europeans. Khoisan peoples are small in stature, yellowish in skin tone and have high cheek bone structures and slanted eyes and appear almost oriental in origin to the uninitiated. Known to the world at large as Bushmen and Hottentots (thought to be a name given by European missionaries as a name derivation of the klicking and tonal sound of their languages), they have more significant Namibian names such as the Damarra and the San Bushmen.
Tsumeb then is thought to mean “The place of the moss” An interesting title given the dryness of the place and the unlikelihood of finding any moss within several hundred miles radius. There is an explanation, however, linked to the mining activity of the town. A hundred years ago, Tsumeb is said to have been overshadowed by a hill composed of composite minerals of lead, copper, germanium and arsenic.
In the same way that a brass statue turns to green if it is not regularly cleaned, so the hill showed itself as a green inselberg raising out of the Namibian plain.
In the 1970s, you could travel eastwards from Tsumeb to Grootfontein, but not northwards. Northwards was towards Owomboland and the Kunene river and the boarder with Angola.
This was a protectorate and here the South African Defense force held sway in the ongoing insurgency war between the South African Government and those who were seeking to liberate Namibia.
In fact the magnificent tarred road to the Owomboland boarder avoided Tsumeb altogether and reflected its primary use for the movement of military traffic. My short visit to the capital of Owanboland, Ondangua, came about when my father was tuning pianos in the local schools and churches and my mother and I were invited to lunch with the Governor of the protectorate.
On a bright autumn morning in March, with temperatures in the low 30’s, we were picked up in a pink Cadillac by the wife of the Governor and we were driven on the military road the 70 miles to the Capital. The land here is flat savannah grassland with Makolani palm trees and wild fig trees dotted haphazardly across the landscape along with the occasional baobab.
The Mopani bush gives rise to an Wambo delicacy called the Mopani worm. In recent years I have seen many unconvincing attempts to present this worm as a tasty delicacy presented round a bed of rice like so many Mozambique prawns.
While the Mozambique prawn is an endangered species because of its culinary attributes, its insect equivalent is unlikely to be so endangered for the same reason.
Wambos, however, swear by the mopani. Once the green gut juices are pinched out the beast is dried in the sun, pounded to a fine flour and made into a gelatinous porridge. Don’t knock it. Insects are a major source of protein in Africa. One of the busiest market places I have ever encountered was the insect market in Blantyre, the old capital of Malawi. Rather like an Indian spice market where you would expect mounds of brightly coloured and textured spices, here were mounds of every insect imaginable being sold by the kilo.
As we drove along the road to Ondangua,
it became apparent that the telegraph poles
along the road were defying the neat and
orderly lines that we associate with these
things in modern society. My mother asked
the Governor’s wife why the telegraph poles
were rarely upright, leaning to the left and
to the right at rakish angles ?
“Elephants”, she replied in her broken English.
"They like to scratch their sides on anything that stands upright and we have great problems with telegraph poles!”
“You can see that there have been Elephants here not so long ago… by the fresh elephant’s poep!”
To make the point, our host was weaving the car round heaps of steaming dung.
“Very dangerous, elephant’s poep!” the lady mused while negotiating another excremental chicane.
“Dangerous”, my mother exclaimed. “ Is this because you might skid on it?”
The thought of our host being so inept a driver that she might skid on elephant’s poep, clearly did not amuse her and she retorted,
“no man,(man is expressed for either man or woman) sometimes you find bombindapoep!”
A short silence ensued while my mother and I searched our retained memory for an Afrikaans term that would cover “bombindapoep”. Or maybe this was a Wambo expression. There are marvellous Zulu words for names of places that we had encountered such as Kwambonambi, Babanango , Kwadhlangezwa and in Namibia itself there are the aptly named Kamanjab, Outjo, Tsumque…. But never a reference to “bombindapoep”.
Sensing that these “Rooinecke”(Rednecks) were not comprehending what she was saying, the 1st Lady of Ondangua lifted her hands from the wheel of the car in a lotus flower gesture. Like a ballet dancer her hands and arms went through 180 degrees and she accompanied this with the outcry:
Sometimes the brain, when it is concentrating so hard to decipher the world around it, fails to spot even the most obvious meaning in words, More words in fact, simply compound the lack of understanding.
Clarity was soon to come. “ You see there is a war on and the terrorist put bombs in the elephant poep.” Then when you drive over the elephant poep, bang you are dead, hey!”
At this point the ladies hands had not yet fully completed the artistic 180 degrees and the car lurched for an enormous pile of elephant dung.
Luckily the gesture terminated in time to restore the intended direction of the car before we collided with the pile of dung and we never did discover whether it was explosive or not. The idea of encountering TNT loaded elephant pooh in the wild was bound either to fill the observer’s mind with blind terror or reduce the disbelieving concept to a level of uncontrollable mirth.
Keen to be polite to my host, I reinforced her conviction by saying:
“You mean the terrorists place the explosive inside the fresh elephant dung just after the elephant has done it?”
“Ja,” came the reply, “ they follow the olifant and stick it in jus as they ‘kaak’.”
Immediately my mind went back to 24 hours previously and the encounter with a male Elephant at the water hole in the Etosha Pan.
I was wrestling with the image of a terrorist or freedom fighter, call him or her what you will, sneaking up gingerly behind a defecating elephant with bomb in hand, ready to do the deed. I glanced over my shoulder to the back seat to get reassurance from my mother.
My mother was of little help. She had pushed herself into the corner of the Cadillac seat against the door so as to be out of vision from the driver’s rear view mirror. There she was in some kind of paralysing stricture as she stuffed a handkerchief into her mouth to try to prevent the laughter from breaking out and tears were streaming down her face.
Author Mary Phillips and son, Michael somewhere near Outjo Namibia. Patch the cross Maltese poodle/ wirehaired terrier, in attendance. Circa 1972.
I later admired my self-control as I managed somehow to prevent myself from being reduced to a similar uncontrolled mass of laughter.
A period of silence ensued in which the lady on the back seat regained her composure. The kilometres slipped by through the flat monotony of the plain interspersed by mopani palms, thorn trees and occasional baobab trees. Now and then grass huts with high fences made of tree branches indicated a village and the presence of livestock. Our host and driver interjected:
"These Wambo villages like fish."
"Really" my mother instantly replied. "they must go far to find a river to fish in. The ice was now breaking and the lady behind the wheel was feeling confident that she was in control of the local 'knowledge'.
"Ja nee," came the instant reply, "they fish right here in front of their villages."
"But there is no water! It is as dry as a bone."
"You are right. There has been no rain here for over 8 months now. But when the rain comes there will be plenty fish."
This land of the Wambo had been difficult to comprehend from the start. First the explosive elephant droppings and now fish that miraculously appear when it rains. Perhaps, it occurred to me, the fish were sucked up by a waterspout somewhere and then rained down on the Wambo ready for the harvest.
As if she could read my mind, our driver/host replied to my train of thought.
"You see, when the rain comes it is very heavy and the ground is hard. The rain softens the sand and then the fish come out of the land and live in the lakes. When the lakes dry up after the rain, the fish go back into the mud and the mud hardens. The fish don't die. They go to sleep until the rain comes again.
Many years later, I would share digs with an African from Niger who was studying to be a doctor at the University of Angers in France. My friend Shedu had somehow acquired a licence and a car in France and spent his time yelling at French drivers who did not meet his approval.
"la Vache!" was his expression of choice and French drivers wisely gave Shedu wide birth.
It was my Nigerien friend who raised the question of 'fish' to a theological level when the 'biere brune' had got the better of us at the bistro on the corner of our road.
"Why do we need miracles to justify the existence of God? Shedu was brought up in a Catholic mission in Niger and was surprisingly un accepting of the idea that deities could perform miracles.
"What is a miracle but a piece of science we have not yet understood?" Uttered Shedu in his ebullient hand gesture full manner. He had taken to heart the French lecturer's advice that:
"You can't speak French with your hands in your pocket."
"Do you know..." Shedu leant towards me as if to accentuate the bombshell he was about to release...
"Do you know that if Jesus had needed to feed 5000 in parts of Africa, he would not have needed a miracle....at least for the fish part.”
It was at that point that I did know! Instantly I was taken back to my journey to Ondangua, so many years before and revelation that our driver/host had revealed to us:
If Jesus had wanted to feed the 5000 in Owamboland, all he needed to do was dig a hole and fill it with water ...eh voila!" I sat back triumphantly in my chair.
"la Vache!", exclaimed Shedu giving me a look while taking a sideways glance at the now empty bottle of biere brune as if to indicate that my brain was now operating under the control of the golden nectar.
"Where is this Owamboland?"
The geographic lesson over, Shedu's scientific explanation of miracles had a new explanation to add to the original which saw fish raining down from the heavens after having been sucked up.
"That does not explain the loaves of bread", I added in a vein attempt to win the argument.
"That is because we think of bread in terms of the bread we eat today. It could have been like manna from heaven."
"Sucked up by the celestial vacuum cleaner!I think I prefer the miracle approach."
There were many such discussions in those days especially at the Cluniac monastery of Saint Florent de Saumur, where a free lunch attracted many of us students and where such discussions flourished, fanned by monks who were not averse to throwing in crazy theories of their own.....like it could just have been a miracle ..an unexplainable event! I have a soft spot for Benedictine monks to this day.
I have digressed from the story of our journey in Awamboland, Back in time to our car journey....... it was revealing the strangeness of this flat land with nature's way of ensuring that the fruits of the Earth could be preserved despite the harsh and unforgiving conditions in which all creatures lived.
The 500 pound gorilla in the room was definitely water as this is what sustained life. It was clear then as it is now, that water was and is the new "oil". The stuff over which future generations will fight as it becomes a dwindling resource.
The Okavango Swamp, the Kunene River and it's tributaries are jealously coveted by neighbouring states such as Angola, Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. A similar scenario to the states saddling the Blue and White Nile as it wends its way to the Mediterranean Sea. It also began to dawn on my mind that any eco system that could sustain the life of fish in a state of slumber until the rains came, was by its very nature fragile and there was little man could do to maintain this delicate balance once nature itself began to suffer from the effects of new and devastating global trends.
In fact the contrast was to be seen as the Cadillac cruised into the outskirts of Ondangua, the capital of the then Wamboland. Here the landscape changed to modern houses with tended gardens flourishing in such a way and scope that water seemed not to be an issue.
"Where does the water come from to water these gardens?", asked my mother from the back of the car.
Our host grew visibly in stature as she was reassured by ground in which she was well rehearsed.
"The South African government has invested millions of rand to bring water to the people." she added.
"But how do you get it here? Does it come from the Kunene?" my mother questioned.
"Ja, it comes from near the Ruakana Falls. We bring it by Camel!" came the emphatic reply.
"By Camel?",my mother blurted out.
Ja,” the lady replied with the conviction of one who has come to the realisation that her guests were collectively a sandwich short of a picnic. “ By CAMEL”.
The task of matching an investment of millions of rand with a train of camels carrying barrels of water is not easy to instantly fathom without measure of doubt. Camels were present in large numbers in Namibia having been introduced by the Germans when the territory was carved out as being part of the then new German Empire by the Treaty of Berlin in 1886.
I hesitated to exclaim the word Camel as I had earlier exclaimed "elephant poep" but my mother in the back got there before I could, exclaiming:
"Camels as in the case of animals in the desert?"
Our host was clearly not amused. She had a look on her face that clearly reflected the view of a person dealing with idiots.
"No man," she exclaimed, "A Camel not c a m e l s!"
The idiots were now confronted with a technological gap they were incapable of understanding. A camel train was improbable. A single camel was pure science fiction! We dared not ask if said “ship of the desert” had one or two humps. Given the luxurious state of the gardens around each of the houses we passed, this was definitely an efficient way of transporting water!
Soon, however, the reality was revealed as the cadillac crossed a metal bridge across the straight ribbon of water, stretching far into the distance across the African plain.
“A Canal!” My mother blurted before being reduced to another heap of suppressed laughter in the back of the car.”
The surreal and illogical nature of this conversation reverberated off the African Bush and puzzled me for years until Diana Princess of Wales many decades later, brought to the world’s attention the plight of generations of Africans who live in the shadow of conflicts that played out in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. She was drawing the world’s attention to the danger of concealed and forgotten land mines. The commentator describing the princess' journey through an Angolan mine field, mentioned amongst the endless ways that combatants concealed their deadly charge, the use of elephant dung especially due to the fact that local people use the material as a resource in building their homes and fertilising their crops. The killing of innocent people goes on long after the conflicts are but a text in the history books.
Our visit over, our host delivered us to the military border control between Wamboland and the rest of Namibia(Then called South West Africa). My father was waiting there with the Volkswagen camper and we travelled off into the sunset past Tsumeb, moving East towards our campsite situated on the stretch of common land in the middle of the town of Grootfontein.
The camper was a Volkswagen Westphalia, imported from Germany, with an elevating roof and a large awning that could be detached from the vehicle and function as a stand alone tent. My father tuned pianos across a large swathe of Southern Africa and my mother wrote books, articles and radio plays and for at least 5 years this arrangement served as home. Home was wherever the awning tent was set up and in very isolated communities my father was greeted with open arms as not only could he restore dried out pianos to working order but he was a fine musician as well and people anticipated that on his arrival they would not only be stimulated by his skills as a craftsman but they could expect to be entertained as well. As far as I know, he never disappointed.
A third member of this traveller's set up was a crossbreed Maltese and wirehaired terrier called Patch. Apart from being a much loved animal and companion, she was an expert at spotting wild animals long before the human eye could make them out. The road from Tsumeb to Grootfontein was not dissimilar to most roads in Northern Namibia. Fairly straight and following the contours of the hills down into dry riverbeds through African shrub, thorn trees and acacia forests. As the sun set the hills were bathed in pink and orange hues, deepening to blood red, then purple and finally as darkness quickly fell, differentiating between objects of stone, wood and animal flesh, became very difficult. Darkness here means total darkness. There is no light pollution. If the moon is not present then the reliance on headlamps, is the norm. The eyes of an antelope reflect back over quite a distance and it is quite rare for vehicles to be in head on collision with large animals.
The biggest danger to vehicles is demonstrated
by the behavior of the Kudu. The kudu, an ancestor
of the goat, sees a car approaching as two beams
of light. It anticipates the the end of the obstruction
is where the headlamp beam begins. As a result,
kudu tend to leap as the beam passes and as a
consequence they tend to land on top of the
vehicle where the combination of the weight
of the animal and the velocity of the vehicle result
in serious consequences for both kudu and
passengers of the car. Behind the front passenger
seat of the camper was situated a fridge with a work
top on top of it. The dog's favourite spot was this work top when the car was in motion. Even in complete darkness the animal would sense the presence of wild life and begin to bark. Knowing the effectiveness of the dog's warning, my father would slow to about 5 miles per hour and apply the horn. Soon eyes would appear and dart off into the bush at the side of the road.
On one occasion my father had stopped to speak to a farmer on a remote farm near Kamanjab. He had locked Patch in the car for fear of the farmer's dogs which tended to be "Ridgebacks". As he chatted with the farmer one of the dogs brushed up against his leg and be stroked its head and ears while continuing to talk.
The cross Maltese terrier locked in the car went ballistic causing my father to pause the conversation and look down. To his surprise he was not stroking a dog but rather a fully grown cheetah. It was soon joined by a second. These were the farmer's dogs!
Reared from cubs, the two animals had become semi domesticated and aided the farmer in managing his substantial herd of cattle.
So the road from Tsumeb to Grootfontein was not a new experience in the dusk of what had been a long day. The occupants of the camper were looking forward to reaching the large swathe of patchy dried grass and vegetation in the centre of town that doubled as the recreation ground on the one hand and the municipal camp site on the other.
The prospect of a bed and the chance to reflect on elephants, camels, mopani worms, dung and miraculous fish all in the relative safety of the campsite beckoned like a magnet. It was one of those journeys where the traveller, having completed every mile in automaton style due to his or her weariness, was unable to recall anything from the journey.
Not that remembering the journey mattered to three adults and the dog who fell into bed and were soon in a deep sleep.
A sleep that would have continued until the dawn were it not for the sudden jarring sound of a dog barking in an excited state. The woken adults struggled with their dazed and somnolent condition sufficiently to shout at the dog to shut up and go to her bed.
The dog, however, was not about to obey its masters and while annoyance was about to convert to anger and action, the African night air was torn by the unmistakable sound of an elephant trumpeting.
The campers were now no longer half asleep! The trumpeting was not distant but fast approaching the proximity of the camper itself and memories of the charging elephant bull, filled the 3 adults with genuine and well founded fear.
This time the occupant of the canvass bed in the tilted roof of the camper, unzipped the canvas window to peer out into the night and witness the charge of an African bull elephant. A trunk gently brushed the fly net of the window and the unmistakable head and eyes of an Indian elephant looked up into his eyes. Boswell and Wilkie Circus had come to town!