The Elephant in the Room

During my years teaching in Kenya, one of my greatest joys was driving down the few kilometres to the elephant orphanage on a Sunday morning to watch the keepers feeding the baby elephants and giving them a mud bath. The orphanage was run by an amazing woman called Daphne Sheldrick, and these babies had been orphaned by ivory-hunting poachers. Having been rescued from the wild, they were each assigned their own keeper “mom” to take care of them 24 hours a day for 2 years, at which point they would be reintroduced to a wild herd. Watching them interact with each other and their keepers was pure pleasure. There were no fences or walls, there was no need.

An even greater joy was going on weekend safaris around the country and being privileged to see whole herds of elephants in their natural habitat, always keeping their young ones close. 

There was only one occasion when I felt threatened by these majestic creatures. A small group of us were walking through the bush on an early-morning “game walk”, deep in the mountains. Quite suddenly our guide stopped dead in his tracks and raised his rifle in the air as a warning. Everyone froze. It seemed we had inadvertently stumbled into a herd of elephants, but the forest was so dense, and they were so QUIET, we hadn’t realised they were there. He warned us that he would shoot his rifle into the air to scare them away, but that he couldn’t guarantee which direction they would run. Ummm….Don’t panic, Julie. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Don’t. He recommended we try to run uphill (out of the valley) as we were less likely to be trampled up there. My knee injury was instantly forgotten and, as soon as the shot was fired, I took off like a rocket. Well, more like a moose than a gazelle, but never mind. Our group all made it to the top of the escarpment and looked down into the valley below. There were maybe 20 elephants rampaging through the bush, scared by the noise. I hated that we had disturbed them, but I definitely would have hated being trampled even more.

It feels very apt that my journey has brought me here, to this time and place. For as long as I can remember, elephants have been my favourite creatures, and now I find myself following a new path, intent on naming the “elephant” in the room. The elephant in this particular story has a name. He is a huge, old, bull elephant, and his name is Death. When we get up close to him, his sheer size and power fill us with awe and fear. He is unpredictable and must surely be dangerous. However, if we approach him gently, and honour him with the dignity and respect he deserves, there is no need to be afraid.

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