Dividing Up the World Between Us
In the savannas of western Uganda, a family of elephants plods through the dust and the grass and the thorn trees. They seem almost to lollygag, the way they amble, stopping for a bite of this and that. Their trunks curl around branches, pull down twigs and leaves, which they poke into receptive mouths. Adult elephants can eat over three hundred pounds of vegetation a day, and the largest can eat twice that amount.
In the afternoon, the elephants pitch dirt over their shoulders. This second skin protects them from sun and insects. They gather around the plate of bare earth in a congenial circle. They throw dirt and nuzzle and converse. They are noisy conversationalists. A mother shouts at her unruly calf, teenagers squabble, and adults gossip in low rumbles. The older males prefer to live away from all this racket.
The morality of violence has many hues. It is a job. It is survival…. It is because you have no money, no power, no food. It is because you can no longer remember what it was like not to kill. It is because you don’t have a choice.
As the elephants flap their ears, the breeze cools the blood flowing across the cartridge and then out into the rest of their bodies. Elephant air conditioner. The back and forth movement also shoos away insects. In Uganda, a quotient of energy has to be relinquished each day to the tiniest of lives, the tsetse flies and the mosquitoes, the gnats and the termites. Bugs thrive no matter who is in charge.
African elephants are the largest land animals and have no enemies beyond man. If they spot a crocodile traveling between bodies of water, they will saunter over and trample it. Elephants are the giants of the Ugandan grasslands. They leave a trail of leaves and broken branches; they leave large prints in the dust. In the morning mist, they move across the horizon like ghosts.
More and more often, soldiers enter the savanna. They come with their machine guns and their Land Rovers. These men, these ghost makers — hardly more than boys — search for elephants. A few years earlier, many tended cattle, the tending a serious endeavor. Cows are a family’s bank account, and the Ankole cattle of Uganda possess horns longer than the children who watch them. The boys walked barefoot in the plains, their feet toughening against pebbles and stickers and heat. They carried sticks, which they used to move cows. Sometimes they hit a cow, but mostly, they ran beside the herd waving the stick and shouting, or they rested it against a flank: go this way. Sometimes, when the cattle were grazing, the boys pretended to hunt lions. They stalked through the grassland, imagining a pair of tawny eyes in the brush.
The soldiers shout “tembo, tembo,” when they see the herd of elephants. The noise from so many vehicles has already unsettled the group, which is moving away from the rev of engines. The Land Rovers follow, bouncing over rocks and small bushes. The wheels kicked up a river of dirt, which streams red behind the caravan. The men shout to each other and use their arms and their hands as a second means of conversing: go this way.
It must have been a relief to ride through the grasslands of Uganda, to be driving under the sky, pure and blue, the world opened up like two halves of a shell. It must have been a relief to be killing only animals. The morality of violence has many hues. It is a job. It is survival. It is to avoid being killed. It is adrenaline. It is revenge. Your people killed my people. It is colonialism. It is oil and water being forced to share the same plot of land. It is for money and power. It is because you have no money, no power, no food. It is because you can no longer remember what it was like not to kill. It is because you don’t have a choice. It is because you are here, and now what?
The elephants trample the ground before them, calves trotting at their mothers’ heels, tails sticking straight out. They lift their trunks like hands raised in surrender, and they call and call. The grasslands reverberate with elephant terror. The machinegun fire comes in staccato bursts and then a pause and then more fire. The men cheer as one by one the elephants crumple into piles of ivory. The meat is eaten or left, the tusks are sold to anyone who will buy them.
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