The Elephant Ballet
31 May 2003
It’s a Saturday afternoon.
All is calm at the Arcaro Rest Camp; the house is cleaned and put back in
order after two weeks of vacations and visitors. I made cinnamon rolls for a late breakfast, we’ve been
reading a new supply of New Yorker and Smithsonian magazines from Zac’s
grandparents, and thanks to a digital thermometer received from Zac’s mom, I
now know that the temperature is 81.3 degrees F outside (ah…winter in
Namibia). We’re living a life of
luxury—surrounded by our books, stockpiles of food, and nifty gadgets. Yet a sense of dread hangs over our house, some impending
doom lurks in the numbers on the calendar…
Yes folks, it’s time for school to start again.
Somehow our whole month of vacation has dwindled away to nothing.
In an attempt to procrastinate on my lesson planning, to clutch at past
joys fading away, I’m going to tell you about our last week of vacation, a
time of elephant ballets and encounters between traditional and modern life.
Namibia is a country of luck. As we learned on our trip to Brandberg Mountain, where all
planning and preparation is futile, luck takes over and things have a magical
way of working out. So it was lucky
that one of Zac’s roommates from college, Craig, and his friend, Ari, met our
fellow volunteer Jacque at the same backpacker hostel in Swakopmund (the coastal
“resort” of Namibia). Craig and
Ari had been doing botanical field research for Craig’s uncle in South Africa
for three months and had rented a car and were now traveling through Namibia,
planning to spend three days at Etosha after Swakop.
Jacque gave them our cell phone number, Craig called us, plans were made
and Tuesday evening we welcomed Craig and Ari as the first visitors from home to
the Arcaro Rest Camp.
Early Wednesday morning found us cruising down the
unmarked, dirt road to the northern Etosha gate in a white corolla, expertly
driven by Ari. We saw all of the usual grazing animals in the large veldt
preceding the forested area of the park and it was looking to be a typical visit
to Etosha. However, on the Stinkwater loop that diverges from the main road, we came around a small bend
and into view of an enormous butt. At
first I thought it was an elephant butt, but elephants butts are quite saggy and
wrinkly, whereas this one was relatively firm.
By this simple process of elimination, we quickly determined that we were
gazing at a rhino butt. Now, rhinos
are one of the big five, and you’re quite lucky if you see one, especially
this close. However, rhinos have
their hazards, as they are known to be quite territorial and fond of charging.
Furthermore, the rhino was bigger than the corolla.
Nevertheless, we kept slowly creeping up on the rhino, who was sauntering
down the middle of the road, with the contingency plan of “throwing the car in
reverse and flooring it” should the rhino decide to charge.
Eventually the rhino moved off the road to eat some grasses, still
seemingly unaware of us, and we followed beside it for quite some time.
But when it started to look at us in an annoyed-rhino sort of way, we
decided to keep going rather than be mauled.
A little before lunchtime, we stopped at a water hole
close to the Namutoni rest camp. There
were about 8 different vehicles there, all with the engine cut and white people
inside looking intently at a completely deserted water hole, some with
binoculars. My first instinct was
that there were lions nearby, but after perusing the area with our binoculars
and seeing absolutely nothing, I decided that all these people were simply
insane. We were just preparing to
leave, when there was some commotion to the left—and out of the bush came a
long line of elephants, jogging eagerly to the water hole.
All 18 of them lined up on one side, facing all the cars, and
enthusiastically partook of the refreshing water. I felt like we were watching some sort of performance—I
kept waiting for a voiceover to start explaining the social structure of the
herd or something.
After a relaxing, greaseful lunch at the Namutoni
restaurant, we headed back out, with the plans of camping at Halali (the middle
of the three rest camps) that night. It
was an uneventful stretch of road, but we did see many birds that we hadn’t
seen before during Solomo’s 100km/h death-drive through the park.
We also saw a spotted hyena guiltily lurking around a large exposed
rib-cage. The car evidently
frightened it, because it took a large bone in its mouth and walked off into the
We reached our destination of Halali around 5pm,
chose a camping spot, pitched our tents, then walked out to the camp’s own
waterhole. The waterhole was
located below a dolomite outcrop that supported benches for the tourists to sit
on, and I had the feeling of being in an outdoor amphitheater.
We arrived at the waterhole at dusk; the cloudless sky was just turning a
deep blue while the horizon seeped glowing orange.
All the visitors sat silently, with a reverential hush that reminded me
of the part in the church service right after communion but before the
collection. Like earlier that morning, everyone was intensely looking at
a completely lifeless waterhole. Once
again, I felt that the joke was on us—that all the animals were hiding in the
bushes looking at us through their binoculars.
But then the show began.
(Scene 1): As it grew darker, a flock of birds descended on
the water hole with chirps like the opening symphony.
(Scene 2): A herd of 10 elephants came lumbering out to the
water. The lead elephant ran around
the water, sending the birds noisily flying.
The elephants circled the waterhole and engaged in their water-drinking
charades. One baby elephant had a
very itchy trunk, and kept rubbing it up against one of the rocks.
Another elephant sauntered onto a small isthmus reaching into the center
of the pond and defiantly deposited several large plops of dung at the water’s
edge. A group of elephants were
drinking side-by-side when an elephant, walking backwards, stopped right behind
them. Then one of the drinking
elephants tried to back up, bumped into the elephant behind him, resulting in a
small skirmish in which all the elephants clumsily bumped into each other
(bumper elephants). Eventually, one by one they started to walk off, the same way
they came. One very thirsty
solitary elephant loitered much longer than the others, drinking, drinking.
(Intermission) We walked back to our campsite to cook
supper, amazed at our luck. Craig
described the elephants as performing an abstract ballet, and indeed, it was
just like that. I felt like we had
witnessed an extra, director’s cut scene from Fantasia (now available
only on DVD).
(Scene 1): It was now completely dark as we walked back to
the waterhole. I expected to find
only a small audience, but there was a large crowd, this time watching two
rhinos, which were exiting just as we arrived.
(Scene 2): They were soon
replaced by a hyena that nervously skulked around the waterhole, drinking
(Scene 3): Then the two
rhinos came back, and the hyena crept back into the bush. I felt like I was watching an
in-and-out-of-the-forest lovers’ intrigue scene in a Shakespeare play.
A lone elephant entered the stage, causing the two rhinos
to reluctantly leave. It was soon
followed by a line of 22 elephants trotting into the spotlights that illuminated
the waterhole, creating an image of football players entering the field for
their Friday night game, with the biggest one coming last, like the star
quarterback who bides his time in the spotlight.
This final scene, with so many dancers, had a much more complex plot than
the previous scenes. There were
four elephants contending for the best water—the place where the fresh water
poured into this man-made waterhole. They
would push each other with their trunks and legs in order to maneuver into the
best position for access to the water. Then
a young elephant decided to go into the water, to try its luck from that angle,
only to find itself blocked and unable to get out of the waterhole.
Fortunately, a compassionate larger elephant reached its trunk around the
body of the small one giving it support and enabling it to climb out of the
water. Off to the left, two elephants engaged in trunk twining and pushing,
while another elephant kept walking around the group, seeming to supervise.
Another elephant stood in the middle of the pond, thrashing its legs and trunk
about, evidently trying to wash off a few layers of dust. Then a small elephant
had a very itchy leg, and was undergoing all sorts of antics in order to relieve
the irritation. A few elephants seemed aware of the audience and would
promenade in front of our elevated position, proudly displaying their large
flappable ears and dexterous trunk. Gradually,
the elephants exited, stage left, in a slow progressive line, leading up the
path and back out into the bush. Finally,
only two elephants remained, and seemed quite reluctant to leave, but an
elephant call beckoned them from the forest.
I felt like there should be applause, after such a
beautiful performance, but the watchers, few remaining now, continued to observe
the deepening night in respectful silence.
Thursday morning at Etosha the sun rose to birds
instead of chickens. We were soon
on the road again, driving back towards Namutoni, on a stretch of road that ran
along the southern edge of the Etosha Pan (the salt pan that is Etosha’s
namesake). We were out of the park
before noon, and we headed south on the B1, towards Tsumeb.
Our intensions were to see the only two natural lakes in all of Namibia,
which are both located just north of Tsumeb.
By following signs down dusty roads, we eventually came to Lake Guinas—a
clear, deep (100m?) lake surrounded by high limestone walls situated in the
middle of nowhere. There were
several abandoned buildings and machines, which had been used to pump water out
of the lake for irrigation. The
whole area had a ghost-town feel, and I quite forgot where I was for a while.
Next, we headed to Lake Otjikoto, which was a similar lake but just off
the main road and was consequently turned into a tourist attraction.
It is purported to be about 55m deep and full of German weaponry and
ammunition dumped there when the army retreated in 1915.
When we were there, there were two separated groups of scuba divers, one
coming out and one going down, evidently attracted by a lake with cool stuff in
it and perhaps also the rare psychedelic fish that exist only in these two
On Friday we all drove up north to Ondangwa and Oshakati,
where Zac and I showed Craig and Ari such important landmarks as the Shoprite
where we by our groceries, the pink bank where we magically get money, the
Ondangwa Rest Camp where we meet with our friends on Saturdays, the Ongwediva
TRC where we use the computer lab, the really nice (and expensive) Spar grocery
store where we can buy such rarities as red meat and mozzarella cheese, and
Nando’s, where we went during our training in Omege to eat some good food.
We met a bunch of our friends at the Ongwediva teacher’s college, then
headed to Nando’s for lunch. After
lunch, we all went to Jacque’s homestead so that Craig and Ari could see the
inside of a traditional house and also sample the Owambo staple food: oshithema!
We arrived at Jacque’s in the afternoon and
although there are a total of 16 people living at the homestead, only 5 or 6
were around when we got there. Three
young girls (Anna, Katrina, Beata), who go to a private school in Ondangwa and
consequently speak English very well, were our primary companions for the first
few hours. There were a few older
boys around the place as well, and they showed us the garden and fruit trees.
Then the girls demonstrated how they pound mahangu (the staple grain)
into flour. There is a special
pounding hut with holes lined with wood in the floor and piles of mahangu on the
floor (which explains why there is a decent amount of sand in the oshithema).
It was really beautiful to see and listen to the girls pounding.
They take great pride in their ability to pound three at a time in one
hole—a feat of rhythm, strength, and coordination that Jacque and I proved to
be quite incapable of.
After the pounding demonstration, Beata, the 10 year
old girl wearing a small, faded black skirt and no shirt, began to cook
oshithema for us. She first kindled
a fire between three large rocks in the cooking hut (a hut with a thatched roof
and no walls). Then she took the
big pot out of the sand and scraped out the leftovers of the last pot of
oshithema. Then she added water and
placed it on the rocks, above the fire to boil.
When it was hot, she added first some maize meal, then later the mahangu
flour. She stirred the pot with a
large cooking stick that was stored in the roof of the hut.
When the porridge (as they translate it to English) was the consistency
of thick wallpaper paste, she put it on a plate and covered it to keep the flies
off. The girls insisted that we
could not eat plain oshithema, so Ari got a can of tomato and onion mix from the
car, and heated that up over the remnants of the fire.
Once it was warm, he poured it into a traditional clay bowl that one of
the girls had produced. Then we
ate. Because the girls wouldn’t eat with us, Laura, who is the
model Volunteer of the group, demonstrated how to take a small blob
of oshithema and roll it into a ball between your fingers, then dip it into the
tomatoes, pop it into your mouth, move it around in the mouth a bit (don’t
chew!) and then swallow. We all
followed suit, and we all agreed that this was the best oshithema we’d ever
tasted. It didn’t taste good, but
it had a neutral taste, and so it wasn’t bad.
For Zac and I, it was only our third time to eat oshithema, while Laura
ate it every day with her family. Craig
and Ari did remarkably well with the local fare and between the ten of us, we
managed to eat half a plateful of oshithema. Yum yum.
While Beata was cooking, Craig went and got his video
camera. He let Anna look through it
while he controlled the zoom. When
he zoomed in, Anna would thrust both hands in front of her as if what she saw
through the camera was in fact right in front of her. She did this again and again, while I nearly died laughing.
Soon it got dark, and we all headed over to the other
side of the house where there was a light.
They produced chairs from somewhere and we all sat around, some playing
euchre. They moved the TV outside
(this is one of the wealthier families), a kid brought out a table with dominoes
on it, Jacque was requested to make a chocolate cake, someone passed around a
bowl of grapes, and more and more family members came home, each greeting each
one of us as they arrived. Later
they produced the oshithema cake, which is basically oshithema baked with a
little salt and sugar. Not long
after that, Jacque produced her cake, which was all chocolaty goodness and no
Soon it was late and dark and cold and we decided it
was high time to head back to the Arcaro Rest Camp. Several family members paraded us out to the car, and we
promised to come back again. Two
guys ran in front of the car to show us the way to the dirt road, then we were
on our way home.
Once in the car, I began to reflect on our
experiences of the evening. I
thought back to when I first came to Namibia and I experienced severe culture
shock—horrified that a whole country was living in huts and walking around
like it was normal. But after
acclimating for seven months, I am now able to fully appreciate the richness of
their lifestyle, their traditions and culture.
I am still far away from my overly-romanticized view of developing
nations that I held after my 10 day trip to Honduras when I was 15, but I could
now look at their existence in a realistic context.
I remembered a conversation I had with our host-sister during training.
She was asking me about universities in the U.S., saying she was hoping
to be able to study abroad some day. At
that time I was very much in my anti-hut phase, so I arrogantly joked with her
saying if she left Namibia and went to America, she would not want to come back.
“Oh no,” she responded, “I would come back. I love Namibia.” It
was the first time since my arrival that it occurred to me that people could
actually like their lives here in Namibia and not naturally want to move to the
“land of opportunity and riches.” Since
then, I have gradually come to greatly appreciate and enjoy Namibia—both the
land itself and the people who inhabit it.
Craig and Ari left early Saturday morning to begin
their drive back to South Africa, and soon thereafter to fly back to the U.S.
I didn’t envy them. I
mean, I will come back. I love America. But
for now I’m enjoying life here in sunny Namibia.
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