Francine van den Berg

© Copyright 2020 by Francine van den Berg

Photo of an elephant.
 Nanghala is never far from my mind. After all, I owe her my life. If the old girl is still alive, I hope she will owe me hers one day.

I met Nanghala in the Eastern Cape. She was a star in an amusement park. She put up a show for visitors three times a day, and in between her stage commitments she would take visitors around the premises.

Now these shows charmed the socks off the public because she was good. I mean really good. She brought the house down. She could play basketball and football, throw darts, ride around on a tricycle, and—the uppercut—paint trees.

The travel agent had assured me I had booked a visit to a botanical garden. Turned out it wasn’t of course, the money-hungry bastards, and I ended up in a tourist trap. I’d wanted to shoot some of the local medicinal plants at sunset, which, next to sunrise, is called the golden hour of photographers. At the time I was new to the Cape region, and mostly shutterbugging with a sharp lens. The low, slanted light of the Cape had my fingers crawling to my shutter the whole time. I was insatiable, kept clicking away back then. Machinegunning, it’s called.

What I am now, at the age of 63, a London-based wildlife photographer-turned-writer with old age spreading through my beard, is still the Jack of all trades I’ve always been. Before I was a photographer, I was a life drawing artist. Before that still, an assistant-zoologist. And throughout my working life I’ve been on long, lonesome stints abroad, trying to find myself, as the saying goes, or perhaps readying myself for my next professional incarnation, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of my past. I’m a Hermes-on-the-go, too restless to grow roots anywhere for long, too much of a chameleon to stick to one style. I mean one day I’m a scruffy hippie taking the piss, and the next I’m all dandy-like and talk as eloquently as a singing bird at dawn. Drives my editor crazy– she never knows which one of my styles to stick to. But I’ve found my peace with it. I’m a boho bastard with the winds of change up his arse, and don’t I know it. That, in itself, is the only smudge of wisdom I hoard.

When I met Nanghala, now fourteen years ago, those small brown eyes of hers were like the flatline of an ECG. She, and most of her sisters and young were rocking back and forth, distant and shackled in a rickety pen, petted and photographed by tourists. This was just before the late-afternoon show was due, in which they would perform– their third show of the day. No doubt they’d already had a long day of carrying bucket-list tourists on their backs in between the shows.

Up to then, I’d only ever seen elephants in the wild (been damn near killed by one as a bonus, but more about that later) and shot them in their natural habitat, the Serengeti mostly. Incredible as it may sound, I’ve never been to a circus or zoo, and my parents never took me either. So you can imagine how my brain kept flicking through all the spools of film my eyes had fed my cerebral dark room over the years, and compared it with this mish-mash of brainwashed elephants, begging tourists and stuffing their gobs with bananas.

Man, I cannot begin to tell you what a sorry lot they were.

I’m not really one for sentimentalities. Years of observing wildlife does that to you. Death in the savannah is never clean or merciful, but at least it comes swiftly most of the time. Death doesn’t like to linger. A lioness clamps her jaws around her prey’s throat and suffocates it. A crocodile drags its prey into a death roll. They know how to kill fast in order to eat fast. That knowledge came with their package at birth. Their reptilian brain is their lord and master, so it’s no use anthropomorphising the animal kingdom when it comes to death. But captivity is a different kettle of fish.

I went over to an elephant that was standing a little apart from the rest. She was one big mama, almost as tall as a bull, and there was a sense of aloof dignity around her, something that could have easily been mistaken for animosity. Perhaps this is why the other tourists mostly left her alone, and she missed out on her share of bananas.

Ndiyaxolisa mhlobo wam, I said to her in Xhosa. I’m sorry, my friend.

I reached out and put my hand on her pineal gland, between her physical eyes but slightly above it. This place is connected to telepathy and intuition. Some animals, like lizards and bearded dragons, still have a third eye. Mammals used to have a visible third eye once—between the eyebrows—but with evolution washing over our genetic make-up, it has atrophied, sunk into the pineal gland, and so gradually retreated into myths.

But not entirely. Some humans still have the capacity to communicate from the third eye at will. You can train it back into existence, as it were, make it more sensitive through meditation and denial of the senses. Then there are the naturally gifted. They are called clairvoyants, or mystics, wise ones, or yogi’s and whatnot.

I’m none of these things. I’m too worldly, too attached to sugar and free-thinking, all of which obscure intuition. Also, I lack the discipline to root out my desires and emotions. My perhaps lazy thinking behind this is that we came into the world with them, so why try to turn ourselves into meditating pillars of silence and a sexless existence, listening to the voice of the Almighty, or Mohammed, or Buddha, who tells us to abstain from everything that makes us feel alive? You have to understand the logic behind it, feel the call.

I have felt the call more than once but failed to capture the logic. With me, it always turned out to be curiosity rather than a true calling. I toyed with various ways of leading an eremitic existence, tried to live up to the principles on several occasions, but when I got bored it didn’t take me long to pack up my gear and head off to pastures new. I’ve always been a butterfly, hungry for knowledge but unable to commit to whatever path was open to me. Boredom is my killer.

So, in spite of what some spiritual people would call my desensitised existence, there must have been a weak spot somewhere in my intuition, or Nanghala wouldn’t have been able to reach me. What I’m trying to say is that we do not need to be wise ones trying to chisel out our saintly nature, nor natural-born mystics.

What I’m saying is that it—telepathy—touched me on that day. Sometimes the veils between the worlds are thin, and anybody can be lucky, or unlucky, enough to step between them.

The thing is, talking to her seemed the most natural thing in the world to do. I had no Eureka-moment at all. The epiphany came later. She told me about her past in images, and my mind translated them into words. When laying my hand between her eyes, I remember a pressure building behind my own pineal gland, and that’s the place where I spoke from to her. Don’t ask me how, it just happened like that.

Nanghala, my sisters called me.

I listened to the earth when she spoke. I let our footsteps follow the drum of her soil, the deep rhythm pulsating up through my feet, and then I knew she wanted me to tell my family that we were safe, because we were held from deep below. We were all her daughters. She will never leave us. None of this is her fault.

Our biggest threat did not come from the golden beasts who would run and hunt together, nor the long-beaked water thief. It came from your kind– the upright apes. I had seen them pale, with flaming manes like the sun and eyes the colour of water holes, or dark-skinned and dark-eyed like the wet earth herself. The pale ape was new to our lands, like a new-born baby that needed to be scorched and accepted by our sun-mother first. But the dark ape should have been our brother, because he comes from the same lands as us. But neither kind could be trusted. Some were friendly and left us alone. Some of them turned against us. In the end, I didn’t know who to trust.

Sometimes they came on growling beasts with spinning eyes, and extra eyes that shone when the sun-mother slept, when she left but a pale eye to watch over us. These beasts were very fast, faster than the golden beasts even, but they lived on nothing. I have never seen them drink, or eat, or hunt. They carried and served the apes who commanded them, and when they did not growl they purred, leaving a trail of clouds to fly and dance into the sky-mother.

I have faced these apes—pale and dark—a number of times. They have an extra arm they can use to bring forth thunderclaps and spit fire, but it doesn’t produce sky-water.

When I faced them and they me, I never knew how to reach the apes. I could feel energy behind their eyes. There was power pounding there. But I could not reach out to it. With them, it was buried.

I still act from the place-that-knows-all, which is in my blood. When I was young and our big sister took us to the ibhaso through the barren lands, where we had to dig deep into the dusty earth to get to plant roots, through the dangerous swamps with the long-beaked water thief who drags our young down and the lands of the long grasses that hid the golden beasts so well, what I saw started to flow in my blood, the place-that-knows-all, so that the same paths we followed year after year I knew come from there.

Then I became the big sister, and I had to guide my own sisters, daughters, cousins, and youngsters through danger. During our annual journeys, I kept asking the place-that-knows-all if I had been here before with big sister, if the smells were the same, if the sun-mother was in the same place as last year, if the water holes were there still; and I felt through the warm soil, heard it rumbling and beating below my feet, and if it wasn’t the same beat I knew then we were lost, and I had to find our way back to the right track.

Every year, we walked through these dangerous lands to get to the ibhaso, the prize, the faraway land with enough food to fatten us up and enough water to keep us cool and keep our milk flowing for our young; enough soft, thick mud to keep our thin skins from becoming cracked and hot and itchy; where the other big sisters brought their own families, and the lonely brothers visited us. They could smell which sister to mate with before they left us again.

Where you use your strange colour-eyes, we use our smell. Your kind uses its mouth; you shriek. We let our bellies rumble. This is to let each other know we are safe or not. Your kind uses hands, we can feel with our feet. We can feel if a family member has gone to the land of forever-ibhaso. The big sister taught me how to let my foot hover over a sister’s body to see if she had departed us.

Nanghala. So you were a matriarch’, I said to her. That little word were felt like a collective treason I had irrevocably become part of. The planet of the apes, indeed. I closed my eyes, and conjured up a land of milk and honey, and a herd of elephants.

Can you show me how you and your family were on your way to the ibhaso?’

She stopped rocking for a moment.

To get to the ibhaso, I did not allow my family more than two hours of sleep, because I always felt the apes nearby, and with each passing ixesha; each time the sky-water started coming down yet again, their numbers had grown. So I let us walk instead under the big pale eye that shone through the branches of our old tree-sisters, under the twinkling golden inkwenkwezi above our heads, we left our footsteps to the red soil as we cut through the night.

We were walking in a silent line, my cousin, the kind-hearted Obioma behind me, then came Anana ‘the fourth born’ my sister, then my daughter Uzuri and her own young, Noxolo. All the beasts of the barren lands slept, and I could hear our feet trampling on the dust, the snap of a twig, the flapping of our ears, our steady breath. Other than that, nothing.

What’s your life here like, Nanghala?’

I opened my eyes to look at her, my hand still on her pineal gland. She was rocking back and forth again; a sign of distress or trauma. Not a spark of life behind that eerie flatline of her physical eyes. The old girl was tired, to be sure, and there was tiredness but also a shimmer of poetry in her answer:

Now the dark shadows they call mahouts have sat on my back for almost as long I can recall. Legs behind my ears. They all smell like the dangerous swamps where the long-beaked thief lives. If I move out of line, they poke behind my ears with the hook-arm they can also lay aside. It hurts. It hurts.

Then there are the chattering shadows who do not stay long-

Those who come every day with the little boxes that blaze like the twinkling inkwenkwezi like in the barren lands, at night. They sit in the chair on my back, bare their teeth and make the sounds of hyena packs, and let the boxes flash. Yet they will not attack. Instead, they touch the ears, the tusk I cannot not claim my own anymore. But I have grown as used to it–

As used as to a sister’s tail in front, to standing on the small round stone in the sand on all fours, then on two, the boxes’ grins: the inkwenkwezi shoot by, so much closer by than at night. Then I raise my trunk in salute to these inkwenkwezi at times, trusting-

Trusting they come to take me. Then I feel light.

At this point I was brushed aside by one of the park workers. Nanghala’s mahout? Judging from the air of authoritarian nonchalance with which he approached her, it must have been.

‘Sorry sir, the elephants have to perform now.’ There was a flash of strong, white teeth and a heavy whiff of transpiration, which smelled like acetone. I could see he was carrying a bull hook on the belt of his ranger uniform. ‘You come to the show, yes?’

‘Yebo’, I said. Man, did I feel rotten then. But I had to see what was on the cards for her and her sisters, who were being ushered out by other mahouts, next.

Yiza, he said to Nanghala, taking off her shackles. Uguqe. She kneeled. The mahout climbed on her back. Phakama. She got up.

I watched as the matriarch was led out to perform.

You dumb bastard. You dirty bugger.

That’s what I said to myself throughout the show. I’ve already told you what the elephants had to do when performing, and I don’t want to describe it in full as I may lose my cookies. So let me tell you something else for now.

I was in Vic Falls at the time. When an elephant nearly made me bite the dust, I mean. A local tribe, the Komolo I think, called the Falls: Mosi-oa-Tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders.’ I was mesmerised by that ferocious curtain of water the Zambezi turned into there. It kept crossing my mind that Vic Falls was what the first sea explorers, the flat-Earth believers, thought they were up against if they reached the end of the world.

I was on one my eremitic stints back then, shooting the Falls in the golden hour of dawn, kayaking the Upper Zambezi in the afternoons to shoot hippos and crocs, and cooking my grub on a campfire in the evening. What possessed me, then, to crawl into my kayak without a rifle, manoeuvring around the hippo pods and open-mouthed crocs on the riverbank with my heartbeat as cool as a cucumber, I cannot say. But addiction nurtures madness. I was crazy enough to gamble away my life to get that photographer’s dream shot, a candid where you catch frozen time. A hippo opening its beak and water streaming off it, a croc’s eyes skimming the water surface in close-up, diving hornbills or kingfishers, those things.

I was camping near a bush trail. I woke up one early morning and thought I’d go for a walk to catch the golden hour and shoot some. The trail guards, who looked distinctly nervous, strongly advised I do not walk the trail because of a wild elephant feeding nearby. It was a lone ranger, they said, likely a bull elephant. Qaphela! they said, watch out! But this only fired me up– I’ve always taken a perverse pleasure in disobeying prudence. And I was still itching to get my dream shot. Ndiyaphila, I replied, I will be all right.

So I followed the trail, and sure enough, soon I heard a rustling of trees. When I looked up, I could see swaying branches. And when I came a little closer there he was, putting away his breakfast bar in the form of half a Msasa-tree. I knew it was a Msasa-tree because it had a distinctive amber and wine-red colour of spring, when the young leaves sprout.

Half-hidden behind some bushes, and about thirty feet away from the bull, I slowly pulled out my camera and zoomed in on him, praying he would keep still. I can still remember how I had him captured in my lens, how damned strong and beautiful he looked in close-up, saw his trunk reaching up to curl it around low-hanging branches. From so close by, I saw something else through my lens: a little face in the tree bark with an open, aghast mouth, like Edvart Munch’s ‘The Scream’. Whether it was natural or carved-in I could not say, but it was there, and it had me mesmerised.

I was still looking at it through my lens as I saw the bull turn his head. I lowered my camera, and the world rushed back at me. The bull looked at me peevishly– elephants do not have very good eyesight. We looked each other in the eye for three seconds or so, during which I froze on the spot. Then he trumpeted indignantly in my direction and spread its ears. A clear warning, and in that brief moment I swear I could hear, in my inner ear: ‘Hey, you there!

The proverbial thing happened: time slowed down. I could see his huge body turning in my direction—ever so slow and threatening because of its hight and bulk—preparing to come after me. In that instant I realised my predicament. My brain immediately released a shower of fear-hormones in my bloodstream, but instead of activating the fight-or-flight reaction, the cortisol numbed me, especially my legs. I was so afraid that I did not want to see what would happen next to me, so I followed my instinct– I turned my back to the elephant. But because my legs were heavy with fear, the only thing I could do was walk away slowly.

However, after that initial warning, the bull did not come after me. He let me off the hook. That’s no mean feat if you are a lone, unpredictable bull elephant and someone within a range of thirty feet is trespassing on your territory.

In hindsight, perhaps the numbing effect of the cortisol was what saved my beef, as it made me appear calm to the bull. Then again, perhaps it had been sheer luck that the bull decided to let me go. Perhaps he didn’t feel like chasing a pale-skinned morsel like me and preferred to finish his breakfast in peace and quiet.

I reasoned, afterwards, that he must have caught my scent on the wind. A part of me wants to believe that the bull was not put off by my scent, that he didn’t feel threatened by me. I want to believe that he thought my smell a pleasant one, with top notes of banana or tree bark. But I will never know.

Bottom line is, I owe my life to that elephant. On that day I swore a vow to always leave them alone in their territory. So you can imagine how I felt in that audience, cooped up between oddballs clutching their mobile phones and cameras and elbowing each other away for the best angle. It actually came to blows between some. I sat frozen throughout the show, with my toes crooked in my shoes and my arse hole pulled in. For shame. For them, for Nanghala and her sisters, for myself.

We were nearing the end of the show. Nanghala and her sisters were individually painting trees on canvases now, with perfunctory, slow brush strokes of their trunks.

And then she spoke to me again. This time she didn’t speak in images, but straight into Xhosa.

Mzungu sokwe, angalia, I heard in my inner ear. White ape, look.

I was up on my feet in a second. I shouldered my way through the heaving, wriggling mass of the audience, most of them standing to take pictures, until I reached the border of the arena which was fenced off by a safety railing. The audience started to jeer and hoot behind me—probably I was photobombing them—and some park attendant came running over, whose bulky frame, I did not fail to notice, betrayed competent violence.

Get back, sir’, he bellowed from afar. I ignored him and leaned over the railing to look at her painting. Before he pulled me back, I saw that she’d painted a wine-coloured Msasa-tree with an open, aghast mouth.

I cannot remember how I got back to my seat.

As a photographer, I’ve never shed more than a few quick tears when witnessing the plights of wildlife. I always picked myself up and dusted myself off again, and fast. Not because I didn’t care, but because a clinical approach is the only way to stay compos mentis.

At the end of the painting session, Nanghala and her sisters lined up in the arena like a beaten platoon and bowed to the public. That gesture was like the crown of thorns on their humiliation.

It was then that I started to bawl my eyes out.

Perhaps Nanghala was hoping for a counter-favour from me, if such a notion exists in the world of elephants. It may well be. After all, elephants are known to help each other in distress. But if they expect this from humans, or the upright apes, as Nanghala would say, too? What I do know for certain is this; that elephants have excellent long-term memory.

The only power I have is in my pen, because my pen is my catharsis. So I’ve written about her, and now you know about Nanghala, too.

I know it all sounds fantastical. It’s up to you whether you want to accept it as truth. Truth is always a choice.

My name is Francine van den Berg; I have been living and working in London since 2006 - this period has, however, also been marked by intermittent worldwide travelling -  and I am currently studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, focusing on short story/novels, although I have written poetry for a number of years.

This story is about a wild elephant I encountered many years ago. The story is autobiographical, although I am not a photographer like the protagonist.

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