Life and Death among the Desert Elephants of Namibia
In March-April of this year as part of a residency at the Environment Institute at University College London, novelist Jean McNeil travelled to Namibia to work on a unique conservation project dedicated to Namibia’s endangered population of desert elephants. Elephant-Human Relations Aid (EHRA) works to resolve conflicts between humans and elephant in the arid and semi-arid north-west of Namibia, Africa’s most sparsely populated country. Here, elephant and people alike eke out a living in a landscape of startling beauty but limited resources, particularly water.
People carry too many dramas with them, too much baggage. Johannes, who set up the project we are working on, recounted how he had taken a group of teenagers into the desert a few weeks before. He led them on a five kilometres-long walk in the sun with their heavy packs, then ordered them to put them down. They flopped about, grateful for their sudden unburdening. ‘Walk lightly through life, people!’ he said. ‘Why are you carrying all this stuff around?’
It’s just before Easter, early autumn in the southern hemisphere. Before I came to Namibia I’d read about the cold brilliance of the desert night sky. Cradled in the branches of my bed in the Ana tree I see rivers of stars curdling into galaxies. Shooting stars streak across the sky, spewing bolts of greenish light. Snagged on the horizon, Pleiades is punched out of blackness – the Seven Sisters, one of the most distinctive of constellations in the southern hemisphere, it comes with a particularly dolorous story, even by the standards of Greek myth. There were seven sisters who all committed suicide for sorrow at the death of their father, Atlas. The seventh star is named for Merope, who shines dully because in life she shamed herself by having an affair with a mortal.
I am woken at 4.30am. Water streams down my face. It’s raining in the desert. I sit up and on the opposite platform Trek (middle name: Thunder), a performance artist from Venice Beach, California, sits upright, legs crossed and fully clothed, staring into the wall of dark rock on the other side of the riverbed, like a guru. I wonder if his namesake the thunder will visit us tonight, and think about Johannes’ question to his group of charges. Why travel so heavy, indeed. But who can tell us where to put our burdens down?
This journey, in search of elusive desert elephants, will be wild and strange but its power will come less than we imagine from the jackals we encounter, the puff adder, the springbok who pronk so delicately through the savannah, or indeed our quarry – elephants. Rather it will be more about us, heavy humans shouldering baggage we didn’t know we had, or are wilfully trying to shrug off, or merely forget about the entire concept of belongings, if only for awhile.