26 Mar 1996 - Mazabuka, Zambia

Before leaving Zimbabwe, I stop to visit a man with more elephants. This man lives on his farm just outside of Chinhoyi. There are bales of hay all over his airstrip, so I land on an nearby farm. The grass is long because of all the rain, and it stops me in a very short distance; I am not quite sure how I will take off again.

In the early morning, Rory and Lindie take me out to a cabled paddock where four young elephants are playfully milling about with four Africans and a younger more mischievous baby elephant named Dande. I have seen a lot of elephants by now, and this is not such an incredible sight for me. I watch one of the young elephants stick its trunk inside the mouth of another. “That is the Jackobson’s Gland,” says Lindie, “They will reach inside the mouth of another with their trunk to sense emotion.” Now, this is something that I haven’t heard before. I watch for nearly an hour, and whether they are sensing emotion or not, they are reaching inside each other’s mouths and doing something. Lindie sticks her hand inside the mouth of one of the twelve year old elephants and says, “look, you can feel it right here, up on the center of the roof of the mouth.” I also now have my hand inside the mouth of the elephant and find a curious bump with two holes up on the roof of the mouth.

The Africans take the four elephants to the far end of the paddock and secure one of their feet with a single chain, just out of reach from one another. This is their classroom, and it is time for them to practice their lessons. “It’s no different from training a horse or a dog,” Rory says. “My mother used to say that you can’t train a horse to do anything, until it understands what you want it to do.” Rory explains the process that he went through to try to teach the elephants to lie down on command. It seems a combination of waiting for them to do something naturally, then rewarding them for it with a little bit of food and repeating the name of the thing that they have just done. Sometimes you even do it yourself, and they watch you until they understand. There is a fair amount of playful resistance from the part of the elephant though. When Rory was trying to teach one elephant to lie down, he was trying everything - including lying down himself next to the elephant. He was getting nowhere; as he left the stall to try with another elephant, the first one instantly dropped and lay down. “They love attention; they are like little children. If they can keep you there longer by pretending to not understand you, then they will. But make no mistake, they understand very well.”

The secret to teaching the elephants seems to be in stabling them apart. They are very gregarious creatures, and their strength is in numbers. If you take that away, you make them reliant on you. After breakfast, Rory shows me some video footage of his children playing in the river on the backs of the elephants. It is almost like watching a dream. These gigantic beasts become boats and drift across the muddy river. The children on their backs are splashing, standing, diving off, and climbing all over these animals like tremendous play toys. The elephants, low in the water, are unable to see the children on their backs, and they keep reaching back with their trunks to feel them and make sure they are still there. As soon as a child splashes off, like gentle nannies, the elephant stops in the water and waits for him to climb back on. One of the elephants has a broken tail, and the real test comes when one of the children grabs the tail to climb back on; the elephant just turns his head and waits for the child to let go.

The other thing that I noticed is that once an elephant realizes that you know them, they will warm to you. Almost like a horse, if you show fear, they will also be uncomfortable. But if you move between them as you might a pack of friendly dogs, they will see this clearly and be very relaxed around you. When they do something that you don’t approve of, you smack them on the side of the trunk up near their head. Their head will go down, and they will be ashamed and be almost asking for you to forgive them. It is a very curious process to watch.

After Breakfast, We begin rounding up the cattle for the dip. Tick-born diseases are a concern in Africa, so once a week the cattle are herded and driven through a trough of liquid chemical to remove and discourage ticks. The elephants are very much a part of this operation. The cattle graze in bush with thorn trees and grass. There are no lovely green paddocks as one might imagine in Europe or America. These cattle graze amidst indigenous bush using the trees for shade from the harsh sun. I am sitting behind an African named Joshua Dube. Joshua is thirty years old; his father had three wives and fifty-two children, and he is proud to be an elephant trainer. Together the four elephants form a wall and drive the herd of cattle through the bush and down a path to the dip. There is a spare African on a horse who guards the flank and collects the odd cattle that slip through. Behind, in his truck, Rory watches the procession move slowly forward.

At the dip, almost surgically, the elephants circle around through and towering above the cattle and scoop out a group that they then turn and, like a plunger in a syringe, force through the gate and into the dip. Then they do it again. Rory watches with one of those faces that is very proud, but doesn’t really want to show it. This is work; it is not supposed to be fun. The Africans sit on the top of the elephants like bulldozer operators, looking at each other and tapping the controls, so that they work in unison. Rory walks next to the elephants as they clear the last of the cattle through the gates. He pauses by a trunk and kisses it then looks up into a dark and peaceful eye. As the sun rises higher, the veins in the ears of the elephants swell. Their ears are their air-conditioning, as they flap, and it is now becoming too hot for them to work. Occasionally, if it is very hot, an elephant will regurgitate water from its stomach and spray it with its trunk upon its back. Rory discovered this when he was working with them and one of them paused and looked at him, gurgled up some water, then sprayed it at Rory’s face. “It was out of a genuine concern that I might be too hot,” Rory says.

I would have liked to have spent a few more days with Rory, but I recall the words that an American actress told to a Zimbabwean sculptor: “Sonny, always leave them wanting a little bit more.” The grass is cut, and I leave for Kariba. The customs and immigration don’t feel like coming out to the airport that day, but they can come out tomorrow. Patience is very important in Africa. I also discover that my visa has expired. Usually, pilots don’t need visas, because they are just crew - or a part of the airplane. For some reason, Zimbabwe likes pilots to have visas too. I think about explaining the oversight to the immigration guy, but I remember how tolerant they were in Victoria Falls, so I just change the date and forget about it.

There is a seaplane pilot in Kariba who flies from the lake with tourists. I stay with him in a mansion on the top of a mountain overlooking this vast and beautiful lake. The lawn and swimming pool are on top of this mansion, so you go upstairs to sit on your lawn or to go for a swim. The owner of this strange house has fishing boats that go out on the lake at night and fish for kapenta - a small fish attracted by light that is then dried and eaten everywhere. The lake is covered with tiny lights at night; it is like looking at a reflection of the stars in the sky. There is also a character who has built a hovercraft by himself. The huge aluminum box sits on the bank of a little harbor. “This is the first hovercraft ever built in Zimbabwe,” he tells me. I don’t doubt him for a second. “It can hold 21 passengers and can go 85 kilometers an hour. As soon as this lake ever gets clogged up with weeds, then I will be in business.” It is wonderful how you find strange but determined characters in the oddest places.

I have made it a habit to give out my bright expedition stickers to those who help me and to those who might think about not helping me. The customs and immigration officers are very amused by these; they want to stick them on their house and their customs car. It is seems to be in Africa, that if you give a gift, one will return a gift or a favor or at least a smile. There are plenty of smiles as my passport is stamped, and more importantly, not scrutinized; I am wished well on my way. I am too tired and too hot to feel guilty about this, but I do notice a very thin man in the office. Some people are teasing him, and he is not happy. He says, “it is my body, and there is nothing that I can do about it. I eat as much food as I can, but it is just my body.” Their words may have been in jest, but for some reason the tone is very real. This is the first time I have heard this term “slow-puncture.” This is his nickname, and it is the local word for AIDS.

I am now in Mazabuka in southern Zambia. All the phone lines have been stolen, so I am not sure when I will be able to send this. The largest currency denomination is the 500 Kwacha note which is less than 50 US Cents; people walk around with fistfuls of money. In the bank, the interest rate is 56% - last year it was 360%, I am told. There are more fistfuls of money. The bank has special counting machines to count the canvas bags of money that come in. One man is caught stealing chaff from wheat. He is brought in by a farmer and electrocuted with a cattle prod. I am becoming aware that this is a place is going through some hard times. I have long since learned not to judge. This is a different place, and there are different rules.

I want to learn more about this “slow puncture,” so I go and visit the Mazabuka morgue. Sometimes, the electricity goes off and they have to quickly bury all the bodies in the morgue. There is a body being covered with a greasy cream. “It is our custom to do this,” I am told. The body is dressed and placed in a casket made of cardboard, then driven away in the back of a land rover. In the hospital, Mr. Mapulanga is head of the home based care team. Last year, they tested the eighty-five women that were admitted to the hospital; ten of them did not have AIDS. They also tested the one hundred and thirty-five men who were admitted; ten of them did not have AIDS. “But these are just the ones who were admitted,” I am told. “Our estimates are that only 40% of sexually active Zambians have AIDS.”

I have come to Mazabuka to find a sugar cane farmer that I met in the Serengeti some years ago while working on a film. I find an airstrip with two bright yellow biplanes and am greeted by a friendly New Zealander who flies one of the yellow planes. It is sometimes strange how warm and welcoming people in remote places can be. But it has not always been like this here. I am told that if I had come here in the 1980’s I would have been sent swiftly on my way. Those were the days of spies, and the government was very suspicious of anyone who might be entertaining spies.

There is a yellow airplane wreck in the hangar. One of the pilots hit a wire crop-spraying. The same pilot just landed another plane with the wheels up. The Zambians have taken away his license pending further investigation. The New Zealander tells me that in Malawi he was issued with a “License to pilot an aircraft without a license.” Some of the stories seem bizarre, but I somehow know that they are true.

“Two years ago, I was in serious debt,” Lionel tells me, “but this 117 hectares of sugar cane will turn over about half a million US Dollars this year; I should be all right.” There are three hundred Africans in a field picking cotton. Each one is paid about 700 Kwacha a day - a little over 50 US Cents. You could employ less people and pay more, but is that fair. There are just so many people who need work. This is at least enough to live on, I am told.

In the back corner of the farm, Lionel shows me several pits for fermenting silage to feed the cattle and the horses. On the inside of one of the pits buried along the wall is a human skeleton. “There are thousands of them here,” Lionel says, “I don’t tell anyone, because then some anthropologist will come and dig them all up. You see those trees over there; these entire three hectares are full of thousands of bodies. It is not a burial ground; something else happened here. We keep finding pottery and ash. I just don’t tell anyone.”

The malaria is very bad in this part of the world. I remember the man who had been on vacation with his wife along the Zambezi River. It seems to take seven to ten days for the symptoms to first appear. It is just like the flu; there is a fever and shivering; you are hot and cold, sometimes your stomach hurts. This man’s wife felt sick that morning. She didn’t like to take the pills. She went to see the doctor, and she took the curative dose of pills - chloraquine phosphate, four plus two. That evening - less than twelve hours after she first felt sick - she died on the floor of the bathroom. “It was the capillaries in the brain,” the man said. “There was too much malaria.”

I have had malaria five times since I have been in Africa, only twice in the hospital. I have liked to think that I have collected an assortment of theories and drugs for the treatment of malaria, but this story left me feeling very cold. I had no sense how short the time could be.

I am now off to Lusaka; perhaps the phones will work there.

Tom Claytor