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.

Before Idi Amin’s coup in 1971, Rwenzori National Park has 4,000 elephants. Nine years later, only 150 will remain. The buffalo population drops from 18,000 to 8,000. Lions, leopards, hartebeest, giraffes are decimated. Animals that survive the soldiers flee into Zaire. It will be nearly two decades before they return, but the park will not be the same. There will never be as many elephants or hippopotamuses or lions.

My family moved to Uganda in the mid-seventies, when even the animals were leaving. My father was an idealistic Seventh-day Adventist missionary. My mother, the daughter of an Adventist pastor, was more pragmatic, less certain about Uganda. My older sister Sonja and I were fluid children who learned to climb trees and eat sour grass and hunt for chameleons. Our family lived on the edge of a college campus, and at first, much of the violence seemed to swirl beyond us. Our house was on the top of a hill, and we thrilled at the animals, so bright and exotic. Monkeys sat on tree branches and picked fleas off each others’ coats. Birds dipped into the clearing, their wings flashing iridescent purples and greens, their plumes as fancy as a lady’s hat. My father was particularly taken with Uganda’s national bird. Crested cranes live right on campus and we see them often, he wrote his mother. The mating dance is very interesting, but I never have a camera ready.

Sonja and Sari sitting on an elephant skull
at Queen Elizabeth National Park, 1977.
© Gary Fordham

My parents were anxious to go on safari and see Africa’s famed wildlife. They were united in this desire. The relative nearness of lions and wildebeest left them dizzy with anticipation. When my father went to Kenya to buy oil, flour, margarine, oats, toilet paper, and dish soap, he also purchased a slender paperback titled Animals of East Africa. It was written and illustrated by C.T. Astley Maberly. The book had no photographs inside, and in the introductory note, the author warned: “In order to be able to devote adequate space to the more popularly interesting animals, it has been necessary to omit mention of the numerous smaller rodents, bats, etc., which swarm in abundance throughout the areas concerned, and which are equally interesting to the keen naturalists.”

My parents were apparently not keen naturalists. My mother especially had seen enough of the rodents and bats. The etc, she suspected, were snakes. They certainly swarmed in abundance. She did not mind their omission. She flipped through the book backwards, looking at the drawings: baboons, hyenas, lions, warthogs, hippopotamuses, giraffes, gerenuks, oryxes, zebras, mongoose. They were improbable animals. Who could dream up something with that coat or those eyes? “God,” my mother liked to say, “has a sense of humor.”

My mother read Animals of East Africa as if it were a novel. She sneaked passages while the beans were boiling, and when she smelled something burning, she set the book facedown on the couch. She grew fond of Maberly and his arch prose and couldn’t quite decide whether or not he was trying to be humorous. She chose to believe that he was not and imagined him in the field, wearing khakis and a pith helmet, sitting on the dry grass, his head bent over a pad of paper as he drew his subjects.

When my father came home from teaching, my mother was ready. He always returned with a story waiting in his throat: You’ll never guess what my students said when I told them about the test coming up. Or Guess who’s finally coming to Bugema? You’ll never guess. He would begin his stories at the door, while he was taking off his shoes. My mother was eager to hear something of life beyond the hill, but she was also annoyed at her isolation, at having nothing of her own to contribute, beyond the domestic: Sonja said this. Sari did that. My father even carried up the mail. Each day, she gazed hungrily at his hands. My mother had begun to measure her happiness by the number of letters we received each week. The slips of paper were evidence that there was a world beyond beans and rice, beyond Idi Amin’s voice on the radio, beyond mosquitoes and malaria, beyond chloroquine. “We sure have a lot of cockroaches,” my mother dryly informed my father when he got home one night. She had been so stricken with malaria that she had spent the afternoon crawling with the bugs.

All day, my mother had been aching to share what she was reading. Trivia, like good news, improves when spoken aloud. She waited now, first devouring the letters that my father brought: one from his mother, one from her sister. And then she waited further, first for supper, then worship, then until Sonja and I were settled into bed. Only when the last story was read, the last glass of water drunk, the mosquito net tucked in, the lights turned out, did my mother pick up Animals of East Africa.

“Listen to this,” she said, flipping through the pages. “Hippos graze like cows.”

“Sure. A cow that’ll bite you in two,” my father said.

“Would you just listen?” my mother said. “So normally they leave the water only at night. But,” and here she paused, “in Queen Elizabeth Park — or what is it now? Rwenzori National Park? — anyway, the hippos graze all day. We could see hippos strolling around. Now wouldn’t that be something?”

“That would be something,” my father said.

“You have to read this. It’s hilarious.” To my mother, funny was a bad smell or a suspicious activity. When something made her laugh, she called it heelarious. It was one of the few words where I could hear her Finnish accent. “Listen to this guy. I love him,” she said. “Generally speaking, the hippo is an inoffensive beast, provided he is left alone. But here’s the best part.” She looked up and down the page, trying to find what she had laughed at earlier. “Oh here it is. To get between a hippo on land and the water is a most dangerous proceeding.” She looked up then. “But he doesn’t tell you what to do.”

“Run,” my father said, “fast.”

It didn’t seem that we would get off the hill anytime soon. Petrol was too precious, and my father was occupied with Bugema College. He taught beginning and intermediate Greek, New Testament Epistles, Physiology, and Life and Teachings of Jesus. He taught one class before breakfast, another after. His mornings were spent biking up and down the hill. In the afternoons, he attended committee meetings, and at night, he attended the school’s worship service. “You’re always rushing off,” my mother complained.

My mother was adjusting to what life meant in Uganda. Each evening, she boiled water and left it to cool. The next day, she would tip the pot against a Tupperware container and pour. Her mornings began with water. She would then make breakfast, my father, in the background, dashing through the house, looking for his pens, his students’ papers, his book from yesterday. If my mother had traded soap for passion fruit, she would rinse them in the sink, two by two. They were the size and shape of eggs and looked the way rotten eggs ought to: wrinkled, purplish-brown, soft. She would slice each one in half and set them on our plates. Cracked open, they became cups of orange pulp, which we ate with magnificent slurps.

After breakfast, my mother would wash the dishes, have worship with us girls, wash laundry, hang it to dry, think about lunch. She could leave the hill if she wished, but it usually seemed too much of a hassle. In the afternoon, when Sonja and I were napping, a ritual so fiercely enforced that it was nearly religious, she would reread Animals of East Africa, perusing it for instruction. She underlined snatches that struck her as important: Impalas both browse and graze. She underlined and starred facts that seemed of particular significance. The steenbok has no lateral, or “false” hooves. When she needed to (if she needed to), she would know the difference between a steenbok and a duiker — two miniature antelope so delicate they looked as if they belonged in a dollhouse.

We had been in Uganda many months when a medical technician needed a ride to Ishaka Adventist Hospital. My father was fast to volunteer. The town of Ishaka rested in the western dip of Uganda, a hundred kilometers away from Rwanda, Congo, and Burundi. It was a dusty strip of a town: a few restaurants, a few empty stores, a few bars, a few inns. The main attraction was the eighty-bed hospital. To my parents, Ishaka meant safari. The road through town led also to Rwenzori National Park.

The game reserve was part of Idi Amin’s Africanization campaign. Colonialism had left Uganda with artificial borders and crisp British names. On December 17, 1972, Idi Amin announced that the Ugandan government would takeover British tea plantations, media companies, and country clubs, and that meaningless, imperialistic names would be changed to good Ugandan ones. Murchinson Falls became Kabalega Falls; Lake Edward became Lake Idi Amin Dada; and Queen Elizabeth National Park became Rwenzori National Park. These names would not last. It would not be so easy to shake off colonialism, even the names of colonialism. In 1991, Rwenzori National Park — the longest hold out — once again became Queen Elizabeth National Park.

To drive through Uganda was to be charmed. The road west was a patchy stretch of tarmac, with frayed edges and a center lavished with potholes. The ground, it seemed, was trying to reclaim its own. “These roads,” my father announced every few hours, “are horrendous.” It was a congenial complaint. The roads might be worn down, but the terrain was starkly beautiful. There is no land as lovely as Uganda. If you drive long enough, you will begin to hear its music, the song of earth and leaves, of jacarandas and the reeds of Lake Victoria, of sunbirds and cassias. The song is also of banana plants, the leaves an emerald green. They color the hills and small yards. Their leaves, like bolts of silk, rustle in the breeze.

Lions at Queen Elizabeth National Park[1], 1977.
© Gary Fordham

Women walked beside the road. They wore dresses — bright and voluminous. The patterns were a geometry of colors: turquoise flowers, tangerine paisley, magenta circles. On their heads, the women balanced jugs and pots and jerry cans. This was the way things moved across the land. The journey might be miles of aching necks and cracked feet. The anomaly of a private vehicle was as ostentatious as a yacht, and we its privileged inhabitants traveled west.

We left the medical technician at Ishaka Adventist Hospital. My father shook his hand, and my mother invited him to visit. He was welcome anytime. The hospital was a cement building, with a cement floor. The cots were thin and the wards smelled of illness and urine. In less than two years, the hospital would be commandeered by Idi Amin’s soldiers. For a time, the clinic would be a barracks. My parents did not hear again from the technician. They did not hear him spoken of either — and by this they knew he had found a safe way out of Uganda. When an expatriate was harmed, everyone heard of it.

Rwenzori National Park was exactly how my parents imagined Africa. The grassland stretched out yellow and disheveled and brimming with possibility. You just knew there were buffaloes here and giraffes and baboons and all manner of antelope. The park was bordered by two large lakes — Edward and George — and the Kazinga Channel ran between them and was famous for the hippos slumped along its shores. This was it, as my mother liked to say. The crater lakes attracted an abundance of birds. On a fortuitous day, one could glimpse the whale-headed stork, a bird that might look ridiculous if it were not so authoritative.

We drove through the reserve, searching for wildlife. A guide sat in the front seat beside my father and laughed at my parents’ enthusiasm, at my mother’s frequent referencing of Animals of East Africa. The guide was as knowledgeable as he was kind, and he taught my parents tricks not found in books. We would become champion spotters, all of us. We looked for shapes and motion — two triangles, dipping and rising above the grass, might be a silver-backed jackal, a grey tassel dashing through the brush, a warthog. And always, always, we looked out at the sky for vultures. A carcass was the surest way to find lions. The second was to know where they liked to congregate. The guide directed my father south. We bumped through the savannah, our eyes searching. If there were fewer animals to be seen, and there certainly were, my parents didn’t notice. The zebras in the distance made them nearly swoon. The heat rose in vertical waves, and against these stripes of fever, the zebras seemed to vanish.

The guide was determined to show us tree lions. No more dilly-dallying over Thompson’s gazelles or baboons, we would stop only for important game. Elephants? Of course. Giraffes? For a short while. When he indicated my father should stop for antelope, my parents were surprised. “Ugandan Kob,” he told them. This antelope was on the coat of arms, he said with regional pride. The kob stepped restlessly in the grass, looking at the vehicle, tails twitching. They were a beautiful antelope, reddish-brown with dark ears, and sturdier than the impala. The males had swooping horns like Grant’s Gazelles, of whom my mother could read plenty. Maberly, however, had written nothing of the kob. He had titled his book Animals of East Africa, but focused exclusively Kenya. “And why is that?” my mother asked. But who could answer, except Maberly?

Maberly also did not write about lions in trees, a skill set limited to those in this region. Still my mother clasped her book. There was a picture of a lion on the back cover, and under the heading The Carnivora (Large), lions were the first entry. Descriptive Notes. — the segment began —General appearance well-known. My mother skipped ahead. Although seemingly phlegmatic, Lions are very nervous and highly-strung, and their mood can change with astonishing rapidity. “No getting out of the car for photos, brother Fordham!” My mother said, pointed. The guide readily agreed.

We were driving to Ishasha Plains and the guide seemed confident that if we only stopped stopping, we would see tree lions, emphasis on tree. We had never seen a lion outside of a zoo, and while the trees were an interesting accoutrement, our emphasis was most firmly on lion. The guide told my father to turn off the road and my father did. We lurched even more than we had on the crumbling tarmac, and we felt that we might see something and even that hope did not prepare us for actually seeing that something. Lions!

A few in the branches, most lounging in the grass. They were like peaches: tawny soft and lazy. Their liquid eyes twitched and blinked against the flies. They gazed at us with wary resignation. You, again! We sat and watched, and they sank into acceptance. With the engine turned off, we imagined we could hear them purr.

Kaarina, Sonja, and Sari
sitting on an elephant skull
at Queen Elizabeth National Park, 1977
© Gary Fordham

It was a revelation that first day, everything new and hopeful. My mother began to believe she could live in Uganda, and my father, pleased that she was pleased, felt any ambivalence slip away. Surely, God had brought us to this country. Idi Amin might rumble and shout, but it was God who set up rulers and debased them. Besides, Paul exhorts us to pray for those in authority, my father wrote to his mother. His optimism would not persist. He would soon hear stories of the disappeared and the Bureau of State Research. He would be invited to a public execution and he would decline, only to hear later how men were tied to poles and shot at with machine guns, the guns pointed first at their feet and slowly moving up. We would not come back to Rwenzori National Park. We would lose our naivety.

But for now, my parents were still innocent about how bad things had gotten, and like the ignorant often are, they were rewarded with dumb luck. We were the only tourists at the game lodge, and for once in our time in Africa, we could afford to stay in one. In pictures, the three girls, as my father called us, sat on an elephant’s skull, the lodge’s mascot of sorts. How long it had been there, we did not know, but it still would be there twenty years later. We took turns on the seat, a macabre prop, and we were not aghast. In one photo, I am sitting alone, feet swinging, a smile nearly swallowing my face.

The last day, we drove to the Kazinga Channel to see a wealth of hippos. My mother had learned from Maberly that hippopotamus is Greek for “River Horse.” My father was quick to point out that he taught Greek and could have told her as much and he expanded on Maberly to break down the word: Potamus, river, hippos, horse. It later seemed a strange word — River Horse — a misnomer. Hippos looked more like pigs or warthogs or even Cape buffaloes. They were not elegant like horses, not svelte. Yet they stood as tall as horses, and they were said to gallop thirty miles an hour. If a horse lived in a river, why not in this voluptuous body?

We were on the river during the watery moments between day and night, the magic hour. We stood, together, and watched.

Hippos became my favorite safari animal, a decision into which I poured considerable thought. Sonja and I divided up the world between us: she liked red, I liked orange; she liked spaghetti, I liked baked potatoes; she liked leopards, I liked hippos. She selected first, and there could be no sharing. Those were the rules of ownership.

At the channel, hippopotamuses slid through the water, and from the side, we could see a half hippo — an eye, an ear, a nostril, a pinkish-grey jowl. On the shore, more lounged companionably, one upon another. While hippos are cranky animals, given to flashes of anger and while they carry with them the scars of their quarrels, they looked as if they were smiling. It was a closed mouth smile, and it gave them a beauteous glow.

It is a rare thing to see a hippo standing. While they have no natural predators, it is just too hot to graze under the sun, carrying all that bulk. They leave the water at dusk and make up for a day of lounging. A hippo can eat nearly ninety pounds of grass in a night.

We were on the river during the watery moments between day and night, the magic hour. We stood, together, and watched. My father hoisted my sister onto his shoulders, so she could better see and he could better take photos. She balanced herself by holding onto his hair and tucking her feet behind his back. “Ouch, ouch,” my father shouted, even hopping in his jest, and on his shoulders, Sonja giggled and clung tighter, causing my father to hop more and shout more, one hand now gripping her feet. “You two,” my mother said. She held me against her hip, an arm free for pointing.

Hippos at the Kazinga Channel, 1977.
© Gary Fordham

“Look, look,” our parents told us, and we looked, amazed.

The water stirred with hippos. They moved from the middle of the river to the edge, and while it looked as if they were swimming, they were not. Adult hippos cannot swim. They walk along the river’s floor, occasionally propelling themselves to the surface. In the water, hippos rose and dropped like ballerinas. The hippos, already on the bank, seemed to hitch their trousers and haul themselves up. In the distance, there was snorting and flashing of teeth. The river boiled around two or three angry hippos, it was hard to know, and then the water and the vegetation settled as their resolved their differences. The hippopotamuses moved up the bank, a hippopotamus migration, and they stood majestic on the shore.

This is how you remember: you take a picture. You will have something concrete to hold onto. That hippo will be yours. You can make as many copies as you like, and you can show people. See, this really happened. You will have tangible proof. And you will own something magnificent.

In a black and white photograph, my father captured three hippos as they surged out of the water. On the bank, a fourth was already grazing.

This is one story about hippos.

Here is another.

A few weeks after we left, the soldiers returned to Rwenzori National Park. They arrived at the Kazinga Channel with machine guns and stood on the banks and on boats, and they killed hippos. They cruised the length of the channel and slaughtered hundreds. The animals were easy targets. They floundered in water slick with blood. Hippopotamus meat is high in fat and is valued for its ability to fill a stomach. Yet even an army could not eat so many hippopotamuses. Most of the bodies were stripped of teeth and left to rot. The water turned putrid.

Even after the devastation of colonialism, even after the harrowing echoes, even as Idi Amin was putting nails in the heads of his enemies and a single roll of toilet paper cost $1.50, Ugandans treated my family with generosity.

In Kampala, my father walked from the market to the post office. It was a warm day and growing hot, the kind of afternoon made for sitting under a tree, and indeed, in the shade of a courtyard, some men were sitting. When they saw my father, they called out a greeting. He walked over. Even after the devastation of colonialism, even after the harrowing echoes, even as Idi Amin was putting nails in the heads of his enemies and a single roll of toilet paper cost $1.50, Ugandans treated my family with generosity. In a letter home, my father wrote: I’ve been enjoying Africa immensely. It’s a joy to work with Ugandans.

The men in the courtyard pumped my father’s hand up and down.

“Hello,” they said again.

Jambo,” my father said.

They were strangers and had no reason to stand in a courtyard on a Friday afternoon and talk, but one did not need a reason. Talk was the reason. Good humor and fellowship were the reasons. My father enjoyed this about Uganda, this talking without an agenda. They spoke of the coming rains, the United States, Uganda, my father’s job, the men’s jobs, and as they spoke, my father learned he was in the courtyard of a government building. The talk though was mild, and my father would not have thought much of it, except his eyes kept catching on large cardboard boxes filled with ivory.

“Hippo,” the youngest man said, following my father’s glance. “You’ve seen him?” He reached into a box, pulled out a tooth, and handed it to my father who marveled at the plaque. The tooth was so yellow it was nearly brown. In a hippo’s mouth, that same tooth would have appeared white. Everything is relative.

My father ran his hands over the curve. When he had heard of the slaughter at Kazinga Channel, he had let out his breath and shaken his head. Terrible. Terrible. Terrible.

“Do you want it? You can buy it.”

“It is legal,” another man offered, seeing my father’s expression. “The government can sell ivory.”

Confronted with a tooth, my father discovered that he wanted it. He wanted to own something so unique and magnificent. He ran his hand over the curve and was already imagining how he would use it as a prop at church. Certainly he would someday tell a hippo story and to have this tooth to show would be a wonderful thing. And so, for a pittance, my father bought two teeth (if you buy one, why not two?) and was given a certificate that stated that the ivory was legal. One was scrubbed clean, the other was dark with plaque.

Later, I would ask my father — a man who voted for the green party, who donated money to conservation efforts, who got up at night to feed a puppy with a cleft palate — “How could you? How could you buy them?”

“Don’t be such an idealist, Sari,” my father said. “They were already dead. All of them. There were no more hippos to kill in Uganda.”

We would stay in Uganda four more years. My mother would grow more alarmed. My father would grow more certain that he was obligated to stay with his students. My sister and I would continue to divide the things between us. My mother would keep reading Animals of East Africa. My parents would keep listening to the radio. They would stay together. Idi Ami would be overthrown, and the country would be engulfed in more violence. My mother would write to her father Here it is still the same and everything is a mess. And the fighting would continue.

And we would learn this about war: even those who are not involved in the killing somehow become accomplices.

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  1. At the time these photos were taken, the park had been renamed Rwenzori National Park as part of Idi Amin’s Africanization campaign. When Rwenzori Mountain National Park was created in 1991, the park was once again called Queen Elizabeth National Park.

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