Chasing Elephants in Mole by Pede Hollist
Not often do we come across a beautiful essay that combines personal memoir with travel and the creative language of poetry. Pede’s story, “Chasing Elephants in Mole” first published in World View magazine: The University of Tampa Office of International Programs, No.6, 2012, sails across physical landscapes with imaginative expressions to reveal such craft and grace. Enjoy.
Pede Hollist, a native of Sierra Leone, is an associate professor of English at The University of Tampa, Florida. His interests cover the literature of the African imagination—literary expressions in the African continent as well as in the African diaspora. So the Path Does not Die (Langaa Press, 2012, Cameroon) is his first novel. His recent short stories include “BackHomeAbroad,” anthologized in The Price and Other Stories from Sierra Leone (Sierra Leone Writers Series) and “Resettlement” (Matatu 41-12). His short story, “Foreign Aid” was on the shortlist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African writing.
The short-term education abroad experience has a lot in common with one of literature’s most important motifs: the quest. Both require questers to undertake a long journey filled with challenges to an unknown destination. Sometimes the questers achieve their goals; at other times they do not, but often the experiences of the quest mark them in unexpected and not necessarily conscious ways. Such may have been the outcome for two groups of students from the University of Tampa during their visits to Mole (pronounced Moe-lay) National Park, a 4,840 square mile Guinea savannah woodland area in northwest Gonja region of Ghana, about 420 miles (670km) northwest of capital city, Accra.
It is the second fastest animal on land, our rifle-toting ranger announced as Maggie, a self-described army brat from Patch Barracks near Stuggart, Germany, clicked her Minolta Maxxum 7000 camera and edged nearer to the massive African bull elephant. Thirteen thousand pounds of force capable of being propelled at up to 22 miles per hour were, apparently, only a couple of seconds away from us, a group of six students and two faculty members (with a combined weight estimated at a generous 2000 pounds). We had been gazing at this male elephant in an open field in Mole. It was a May 2009 mid-morning. The sun had just enthroned itself on the day.
Earlier that morning, around 7 a.m., as we waited on grounds of the visitor center to be taken on Mole’s guided nature walk (a more or less scripted tour of a small sliver of the park), four elephants had materialized out of nowhere and tramped right up to us. We oohed, aahed, clicked our cameras—giddy that our presence had summoned the elephants—and, of course, we followed them as they sauntered through the adjacent bungalow-styled accommodations of Mole’s workers. Every so often, they paused to graze on shrubs, grass, and leaves. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the elephants disappeared, as if the forest had absorbed them or opened up the equivalent of a wormhole and whisked them deeper into another dimension of the Savannah woodland. Naturally, we gave chase—grabbing and steadying ourselves on boulders and branches, slipping and sliding as we followed the elephants into a valley, wondering how such large animals could so deftly descend the somewhat sheer slope without tumbling.
From one of the viewing towers on the nature trail, we perched ourselves and watched the elephants in a muddy-brown watering hole flap their ears, spray water on their backs, and, in what looked to be the height of elephant excitement, spray muddy water on each other. After feasting our eyes for thirty-plus minutes on this grand non-activity, we were returning to the visitor center when we ran into a massive bull elephant, probably from the same group that had “welcomed” us earlier. It was either the alpha male of the group, keeping tabs on us humans as we chased after its family, or it was the outcast, performing sentry duties by default.
I recall this encounter as intense because our proximity to the bull had prompted the ranger to divulge this little known fact about the speed of elephants, though, if his goal had been to deter us from getting too close to the animal, disclosing this piece of information when he was giving us his list of dos and don’ts at the start of our nature walk would have been more effective. At that precise moment, and after spending most of the morning in close proximity to them, the revelation did little to curb our excitement. Like paparazzi after spotting a reclusive celebrity, we waylaid the grazing animal, each of us determined to take the picture that would serve as indisputable evidence of our bravery, our encounter with earth’s largest animal on this Hemingway-esque African safari. Everyone clicked away, especially 5’8’, ninety-five pound Maggie, her telescopic lens zooming back and forth like a wartime periscope in a World War II naval battle movie. “Get back,” the ranger growled. We moved back. But our excitement then and for months after was palpable. Mole had turned out to be more than we expected.
This May 2009 close encounter of the elephant kind established Mole as a feature stop on UT’s Ghana education abroad experience led by me, a native of Sierra Leone, and co-trip director, colleague, and Twi-speaking American Kevin Fridy. The stop occurs about halfway through the twenty-one day experience, after students have completed their week long service-learning projects in Nangodi, a small materially poor village twenty miles northeast of Bolgatanga, Ghana’s northernmost city. Since 2009, UT students have worked side by side with Nangodians to start a community library, set up a microfinance scheme for market women, build a basketball court, construct an art mural and install solar power lights for classrooms in a secondary (junior high) school, make reusable sanitary pads for pubescent girls, hold a law clinic, and study the bonding styles of kids at an orphanage.
By this halfway point, many students are tired, physically and psychologically. Prior to the week in Nangodi, they had toured the historical, political, and cultural sites of Accra on the Gulf Of Guinea coast; visited with salt-of-the-earth Ghanaian families in Ododiodio (pronounced O-do-dee-o-dee-o), an economically depressed section of Accra; shopped at the world renowned craft villages in and around Kumasi, the capital of the central Ashanti region; and traveled seven hundred plus miles (1127km) on less than ideal roads. A few have experienced two- to three-day spells of upset stomachs and/or diarrhea; some feel saturated by the rice-based meals, and all have been slam-dunked by the sun during the day or torrential rain at night. The return trip south from Nangodi to Accra, out of which we will fly back to the U.S., is about five hundred and thirty miles (852km) or a whole day’s drive, a demanding trip for our already weary cohort and a stressful one for our bus drivers who, since we arrived, had been at our beck and call. So, like all quests initiated by someone in pursuit of a goal, Kevin and I make Mole a pit stop out of consideration for our bus driver, to provide an opportunity to rest and relax, but mostly to give students an opportunity to encounter Mole’s elephants up close and personal. Such were our goals in May 2010 when our twenty-two person group (eighteen UT students, Kevin and I, and two Ghanaians, David the driver and Afum, his assistant) left Nangodi for Mole.
In addition to goals, quests involve long journeys with challenges. Ours was no different. The distance from Nangodi to Mole is about one hundred and ninety miles (305km), one hundred and thirty-five (or 217km) of which are on the paved Bolgatanga-Tamale-Kumasi national highway. We cover them in about two and half hours—a paltry distance and travel time by U.S. standards. But before you scoff, travelers to Mole must exit the paved highway at Fulfuso junction and undertake the remaining fifty-five miles (88km) westward on the unpaved, interregional Fulfuso-Salwa road. This is what we do.
It’s inconceivable that this unpaved, corrugated, red laterite (disintegrated rocks) road was constructed with the one- to two-inch high, wave-like rumble strips (or infant speed bumps) that run across its width, perpendicular to the direction the road is traveling. Yet these strips make up much of its surface, which, on both sides, falls off into uneven, water-created gullies, like the gutters on the side of a bowling lane. The stretches of the road without the rumble strips are covered with a loose layer of the red laterite. As the driver picks up speed on these stretches, the bus, a twenty-two seat Toyota Coaster, hydroplanes and could easily skid into the gullies.
The features of the road turn what should be a short, relaxing Sunday afternoon drive in the countryside into a leg of the treacherous Paris-to-Dakar car race. The ride feels like being dragged by the buttocks over fifty-five miles of speed bumps—and those are the best parts! On the stretches where the rumble strips are taller than two inches, the shuddering and shaking become so insistent that the bus feels as if it will fall apart from sheer exhaustion, and we would be left standing amid its parts like Fred and Wilma in The Flintstones.
At such times, the driver, in sympathy with his vehicle, descends into the smoother gullies. This eases our physical discomfort but only to usher in a new anxiety because, as we ride in the gullies, sometimes on the same side as oncoming traffic, the bus either banks precariously or its undercarriage grates against the road. Initially, foreboding fills the bus as it shakes and banks its way deeper into the overweening, incessant greenery, but, at some point, perhaps because students realize that there is no turning back from our westward push, the mood changes: a pioneer-quester spirit emerges.
“Yencoh, Yencoh,” faster, faster, one such spirit, but perhaps also slightly demented student, encourages the driver to speed up.
“Wow, exciting!” another student agrees. The pioneer-quester, slightly demented spirit had caught on!
“Please don’t encourage the driver to speed,” I warn in full-throated professorial authority and wonder if Joseph Conrad of Heart of Darkness fame (or, for some, infamy) had had a point—that the forest makes the uninitiated mind irrational. I decide not to pursue this train of thought. The bus, however, rattles westward on the washboard until, three and a half hours (or 15 miles per hour) later we arrive, shaken and stirred into full-fledged questers, at Mole Park, a verdant expanse of antediluvian silence, misleadingly labeled wild, and home to 93 mammals, 344 species of birds, and 740 different plant species. She sits there like an octogenarian, aloof and enigmatic—qualities we soon find out imbue every aspect of the park. Questers encounter and must overcome obstacles.
Built on West Africa’s ubiquitous red laterite, Mole Hotel sits atop a hill overlooking a muddy-brown watering hole, and for almost 180 degrees from anywhere on its verandahs, one sees in the distance the haze-covered, haughty savannah woodland. Questers therefore find themselves in the domain of animals and insects, a situation akin to visiting a rival team’s ballpark wearing your team’s colors. They feel exposed and vulnerable. Warthogs, baby-toting baboons, and antelopes roam around the hotel with entitlement; they forage on the hotel grounds, in the trash cans near the reception and dining areas, and casually walk along the paved walkways as if they, too, had rooms in the hotel. Beetles, wasps, and moths settle on tables, clothes, and exposed parts of the body, causing buff Tampa native Kyle to freak out and smear himself with DEET, the Kevlar vest for insects. Flies, seemingly suffering from ADD, buzz around and then dive into uncovered food, bottles, and glasses, causing the germ-o-phobic Tian and Sal, two questers from Jamaica, to wave and swat in apoplectic fits, douse their hands with sanitizer and abandon their food in disgust. Millipedes, centipedes, spiders, geckos, crickets, and lizards sometimes slink through cracks and other fissures into the guest rooms and bond with the adaptable questers while they keep those afraid of insects awake. But mosquitoes are Mole’s equal opportunity hosts.
“I got bit by mosquitoes last night,” Sam reports to me. She is a Government and World Affairs major from De Kalb Jct., northern New York, who plans to one day live in Africa. She shows me the raised bumps on her arms at breakfast.
“Yeah, saw a couple of them leaving your room, high-fiving each other, delirious at the nutritious blood of Americans,” I crack back.
Like an appropriate verse of scripture that buoys a backsliding born-again Christian, Sam musters a wry smile, swats at a fly about to land on her jam-laden toast, and then crunches into it. By our arrival in Mole, everyone has come to realize that the heat and the demands on our unschooled, sheltered bodies affect our dispositions—the first sign of which is impatience with, if not indifference to, complainers.
But without a doubt, adjusting to Mole’s rhythm and pace poses the severest challenge to questers. Accustomed to apprehending time as deadlines of days, hours, and minutes—points in a continuum by which activities should be started and completed—students initially find Mole’s pace and cultural milieu deadening. Especially if one arrives mid or late afternoon, Mole feels like walking into a cemetery on a midweek afternoon. Mole explodes arbitrary markers of time and operates, instead, in events and cycles—of climatic states (dry and wet; cool and hot; dawn and dusk; day and night); of activities (playing, hunting, feeding, resting, sleeping, planting, harvesting, procreating and dying); and of encounters (between insider and outsider; predator and prey; human and animal; and human and climate). And no part of the Mole environment teaches this lesson as quickly, completely, and experientially as Mole’s dining … er … feeding services: what I call the trough.
To be sure, the trough has a menu that offers Ghanaian staples—banku, (fermented corn & cassava dough); rice served with groundnut (peanut butter) stew or palava sauce (spinach & palm oil); Kenkey (fermented corn dough) with fish or Guinea fowl and gravy; fufu (fermented yam) with palm nut soup and goat meat—and a limited selection of dishes that would appeal to American and European tastes—chicken and chips (French fries), fried rice, pasta and grilled fish. But the menu is a formality because the cycles of farming and forest life govern the availability of food. So if Guinea fowl, goat, or cow meat is not available, then the animals have gone foraging far afield and are therefore not available to be slaughtered; or, perhaps, a disease has decimated the livestock and meat is in short supply; mangoes, avocadoes and other fruits are not available because they are not in season. Even a presumably packaged food like pasta is governed by event cycles. If the vehicle transporting such packaged foods breaks down on the Fulfuso-Salwa washboard, then diners do without. “We don’t have it,” the staff inform as a matter of fact. Students either eat what’s available or go hungry.
In fact, few foods on the menu are frozen or prepackaged, so most ingredients are prepared from scratch on the premises. In these circumstances, cooking becomes an event and is not the time-driven, high-wire act of kitchens in American restaurants. In Mole, one’s food is ready when it is done. Questers quickly learn this, so breakfast becomes a gathering at which they find out what’s available for that day and put in their orders for lunch and dinner. They arrive for both meals only when they are hungry, notify the staff, and then wait… and… wait until the food is prepared and cooked, from scratch! If they arrive late for dinner, they are told that the kitchen is about to close or has closed; if the staff is indulgent, students may be served, hours later—after all, in the dark, staff will be hard pressed to find the goat that is to become the meat for the goat curry stew.
Overall, however, questers adjust, nay, rise to Mole’s challenges, perhaps because it doesn’t leave them much choice and perhaps because they expect that, for their forbearance, it will avail them of close encounters with elephants. This certainly was the expectation when, the next morning at dawn, our 2010 group set off from the visitor center, led by our gun-toting ranger.
Three hours later, we walk back into the visitor center, dirty, sweaty, thirsty, hungry, and tired. Though we had seen baboons, warthogs, kobs, bushbucks, waterbucks, crocodiles, fierce sci-fi-looking tsetse flies, and even the deadly green mamba (whose antivenin, the park ranger had allayed our concerns, was in a town fifty miles away on the Fulfuso-Salwa washboard!), we had not so much as glimpsed an elephant. Disappointed, we begin our walk back to the hotel rooms whose taps are turned off daily between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Oh, yes, quests sometimes involve journeys-within-journeys and challenges-within-challenges.
“One dey for north sector,” one of the drivers of the safari vehicles parked in grounds of the visitor center announces; he points to an expanse of forest opposite from where we had taken our nature walk. The news of the elephant sighting enlivens us. We are not clear how the driver got his information, but he wears the glee of a military scout delivering urgent news that the enemy’s camp has been discovered and in it they are all drunkenly asleep. To see the elephant, all we have to do is rent two vehicles to drive us to its location. The drivers drool in anticipation.
“How much?” I ask.
“Forty Ghana cedis for one hour.”
At twenty-five dollars an hour, Kevin and I know that the driver is charging too much, washing our face from the chin up as they say in West Africa. But he literally has the upper hand. We want to see elephants, the elephant, an elephant, a calf darn it! Time spent bargaining to save a few cedis is opportunity lost.
“Let’s go.” We offer our faces to be washed from the chin up, the questers in all of us now in full throttle. Along with Kevin, half of the students file like a pack of circus animals into a pickup with a cage built around its bed. The other half, under my supervision, climb onto the open bed of a pickup and sit on the benches arranged around the perimeter. I sit in the cab with the driver. Several minutes into the drive, I look through the cab’s back windshield: A class-action lawsuit stares back at me, for the students are swaying to the rocking motion of the truck on the narrow, uneven, crunchy-gravel road. A sudden pitch of the vehicle, a sting by a wasp or fly-by of a bat disoriented by daylight could startle and easily send one or more of the questers overboard. It occurs to me to order the driver to turn around and return to the visitor center. But I do not. The allure of seeing elephants in their natural habitat, of enabling these questers to, perhaps, live out private fantasies as reincarnations of explorers and adventurers like David Livingstone, Mary Kingsley, Christopher Columbus, Amelia Earhart or Steve Irwin, builds with every pitch of the vehicle. The 2010 chase, actually a slow ride, is on.
After about ten minutes, the driver stops the pickup, jumps out, signals us to follow, and heads toward a gallery of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation. Questers scramble behind him through weeds and tall grass, around small trees, over ant mounds, and on soggy clumps of soil for one hundred yards until he holds up his hand, like a captain signaling his troops to stop on the outskirts of the sleeping enemy’s camp. “Dere.” He points to a particularly tangled section of the gallery from which comes what sounds like the rustling of leaves and the snapping and breaking of twigs and branches. Yet, no elephant appears. Suddenly, a three-person party plus its rifle-toting ranger emerges from around the bush. Yes! They had seen an elephant and, as confirmation of sorts, they show us undated pictures of one on their cameras. But we have not traveled 7,000 miles to be satisfied with digital images. We want the real McCoy, the bulky, in-the-flesh, antediluvian pachyderm! So we watch and wait, wait and watch.
“E dey dere,” our driver reassures us after he and the driver of the other vehicle have made half-hearted attempts to hack away some of the vegetation for, supposedly, a clearer view. However, neither his reassurance nor the sound of twigs and branches carries the conviction of an imminent elephant appearance. We peer and crane our necks as if by such manipulations we could conjure the beast into appearing. We continue to watch and wait, wait and watch, the sun spitting hot needles into our skins. No elephant emerges, and we cannot, dare not, venture any closer. If the elephant charged, nothing except twenty paces and twelve-inch tall clumps of caked mud lay between it and a trampled fate for one or more of us. Of course, as a former sprinter who nostalgically believes he ran the hundred meters under ten seconds at the 1979 West African University Games in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, I bristle at the thought that I could not outrun and outmaneuver this ponderous animal. But luckily for all of us, the saner part of me prevailed, and we do not creep closer or enter the bush—or was it that a saner elephant decided against confronting his puny chasers. Eventually, to avoid a fast approaching second hour and twenty-five more dollars, we jump back into our vehicles and take the slow ride to the visitor center. It was our second disappointment of the day.
Despite our forbearance, nature walk, vehicle chase, and wait in front of the bush, we depart from Mole without seeing even a ghost of an elephant. Then, to add to the disappointment of not achieving our goal, the bus’s gas tank springs a leak on the return trek on the Fulfuso-Salwa washboard. It is late morning, and the sun has already begun incinerating the world; we do not know where to find a mechanic or repair shop. The situation has all the ingredients necessary to evolve into a crisis. But it is a sign of how Mole has marked questers that they respond to our predicament with little agitation, urgency, or fear. Almost as if they recognize that machines exist in a cycle of smooth operation, wear and tear, breakdown and repair, questers file out of the bus quietly and fan out, seeking shade under trees and the thatched eaves of nearby buildings. Some plug into the chirps and tones of their electronic devices; others sleep; and still others break bread. The tank will be repaired when it is repaired, all in good Mole time and rhythm.
Few of the 2010 questers returned home from that Mole trip gushing with excitement to tell of their elephant encounters in an African “jungle.” But all of them returned home wiser, in the unspoken but knowing way of an ancient mariner amid a group of garrulous youngsters just returned from a theme-park boat ride. These days questers smile and say nothing when a family member, friend, work or roommate fusses that a food order is taking too long, moans about road and traffic conditions, or goes frantic in efforts to meet a deadline or when they encounter the unexpected. Questers have seen worse, but, more importantly, they know that events begin and cycle out in their own good time and that, sometimes, riding out the cycle is the best and only response.
© A. Onipede Hollist, “Chasing Elephants in Mole” in World View magazine: The University of Tampa Office of International Programs, No.6, 2012. Story and photos posted with permission from the author.